Monday, January 19, 2009

Baltimore's Playoff Run Revived Echoes of What Might Have Been for Cleveland

Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome spent his entire 13 year NFL career with the Cleveland Browns. After he retired, then-Browns Coach Bill Belichick hired him to be a scout. Newsome steadily worked his way up in the organization and by the time Owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore prior to the 1996 season Newsome was the team's director of player personnel, meaning that he was in charge of deciding who the Ravens would draft. Newsome's first two choices--Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden--became perennial Pro Bowlers and the cornerstones of the 2000 Super Bowl champions. Newsome became Baltimore's General Manager in 2002.

I have often told anyone who would listen that Bill Belichick was in the process of turning the Browns into a Super Bowl team when Modell ruined everything by announcing in the middle of the 1995 season that he planned to move the team, turning the final half of that campaign into a nightmare scenario for Belichick and his players. Modell "rewarded" Belichick's hard work and loyalty by unceremoniously firing him right after that season. Belichick had taken over a team that went 3-13 in 1990 and by 1994 the Browns were an 11-5 squad that won a playoff game (sadly, the Browns have not won a playoff game since then). No coach could have had a successful season under the circumstances that Belichick and his players had to endure in 1995 but I always believed that the next time Belichick got a head coaching job he would lead that team to a Super Bowl win. Obviously, Belichick has done that and more since arriving in New England.

With Belichick winning three Super Bowls as a head coach and his former scout Newsome winning a Super Bowl as an executive, it is only natural to wonder how many Super Bowls Belichick and Newsome would have won in Cleveland. Someone asked Newsome that very question prior to Baltimore's 23-14 loss to Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game and Newsome replied, "Would we have had the opportunity to get to a Super Bowl once, maybe twice? I'd say yes, we would have." The most bizarre thing about Modell's tenure as Browns owner is that he managed to not only drive his team to the brink of financial ruin but he also was on the verge of personal bankruptcy by the time he accepted the huge windfall offered by Baltimore--and despite all of that largesse he was in such dire financial straits just a few years later that he was forced to sell the team to Steve Bisciotti. Ironically, Modell had claimed that one of the reasons he left Cleveland was that he had wanted to keep ownership of the team in his family but despite the king's ransom he received to turn his back on loyal Browns' fans the team ultimately did not stay in the hands of the Modell family.

There have been plenty of bad NFL owners who put losing products on the field year after year but it is almost impossible to own an NFL team and lose money because the league is almost socialistic in the way that it divides up its various revenue streams (something that Dallas owner Jerry Jones has always resented, because he feels like his marquee franchise is generating more revenue than other teams and thus should get a bigger piece of the pie). Maybe someday someone will track down the real story of what Modell did with all of his money to go broke as an NFL owner not once, but twice; you can make fun of the Bengals, Lions or whoever else all you want but the owners of those and other sad sack NFL teams are laughing all the way to the bank with big profits: the only other modern NFL owner I can think of who went broke was Leonard Tose and he was a compulsive gambler.

Although some people say that the infusion of cash from Bisciotti enabled Baltimore to win the Super Bowl, Newsome disagrees with that assessment: "Those (cash) problems we endured in Baltimore, we were able to overcome those (before Bisciotti's infusion). We built this team in the first three years. We were operating off the same budget when we drafted Jonathan (Ogden), Ray (Lewis), Peter Boulware, Chris (McAlister)...The ownership didn't change until 2000." Therefore, Newsome insists that if Modell had not moved the team and had kept Belichick around then the Browns would have become a Super Bowl contender: "I'm saying we would have remained a good football team because it would have started with Belichick. And all of us were there together. You can't write the story without adding Belichick to it." The "all of us" who Newsome referred to is the top notch coaching and scouting staff that Belichick assembled in Cleveland, including not only Newsome but also Nick Saban, Phil Savage, and Scott Pioli--guys who have been involved in building championship programs in the NFL and/or college.

Since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, they have been a soft outfit on both sides of the ball, unable to control the line of scrimmage. That is exactly the opposite of the blueprint required to be successful in the AFC North, let alone to win a Super Bowl, as Newsome explains: "One thing you have to understand is the ability to control the line of scrimmage late in the season in this division, and I mean on both sides of the ball. Because the weather becomes a big factor. If you can't control the line of scrimmage, then you're going to have trouble winning."

Belichick and Newsome are long gone from Cleveland. They have made their bones elsewhere and are not coming back. Browns fans can only hope that new Coach Eric Mangini--who was on Belichick's Cleveland staff in the early 1990s--will be able to build the kind of team that Belichick put together a decade and a half ago before Modell broke Cleveland's heart by ripping away the team that is the city's pride and joy.

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