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Browns Browns Archive NFL Network's "Cleveland '95" Tries to Rewrite History
Written by Jonathan Knight

Jonathan Knight

cleveland 95Retcon (n.) - Short for “retroactive continuity”: A situation, in a soap opera or similar serial fiction, in which a new storyline explains or changes a previous event or attaches a new significance to it.

There’s little you can do to make the Browns moving to Baltimore any more tragic or heartbreaking than it actually was. But the NFL Network decided to give it a try.

The latest edition of its “A Football Life” series, titled “Cleveland ’95”, looks back at what happened that fateful autumn and - adopting a brand of “retcon” generally only seen in the off-the-wall cosmos of comic books - paints a picture of what might have been by overemphasizing what never was.

The overall premise is that had Art Modell not moved the team when he did, the Browns would have gone on to unparalleled greatness, akin to what later would happen with then-coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.

While it’s refreshing to see Modell painted as a villain - albeit subtly - after weeks of saccharine praise following his death, this concept is woefully misguided.

Early in the film, Ozzie Newsome - holding the title of Director of Pro Personnel for the Browns in 1995 - throws his hands up in the air and declares that there’s no doubt the Browns, had they been permitted to follow the course they were on in the fall of 1995, would have won a Super Bowl.

Of course they would have, the film explains. They had a young Belichick as head coach, the Vince Lombardi of the 21st century. And look at all the budding football geniuses in the organization who would go on to become head coaches and general managers: Eric Mangini. George Kokinis. Phil Savage. Kirk Ferentz. Scott Pioli. Jim Schwartz.

Cleveland didn’t just lose a football team, the film states unequivocally. It lost a football team on the brink of becoming a dynasty.

It’s a good story. But, like many good stories, it’s completely fictional.

Not unusual for a documentary trying desperately to plant a flag in uncharted territory, “Cleveland ’95” skims over several critical details that, when examined, unscrew the thesis of the film and toss it into oblivion like the rows of seats ripped up by fans in the final game at Cleveland Stadium.

It’s worth noting that despite its faulty premise, the film is well put together. It contains insightful interviews with key characters and outstanding archival material. (The segment when Earnest Byner chokes up talking about the last game at Cleveland Stadium, for example, will melt the heart of the most cynical Browns fan.)

Most importantly, it captures the mania and near anarchy of the final two months of the Browns’ ’95 season after the decision to move became public.

But it’s also here where the wheels come off the film’s wagon.

It makes it sound as if the 1995 Browns were cruising toward a championship, only to see it all come to a screeching halt when the move was announced. The reality of the fall of 1995 - and the impact of the gaggle of gridiron savants running the team at that time - was far different.

Yes, as the film points out several times, the Browns were tied for first place at the time the move was announced. They were 4-4 in a miserable division that included expansion Jacksonville and woebegone Houston and Cincinnati.

But on the weekend the move was announced, the Browns’ record did not accurately indicate the disarray - both short-term and long-term - the team was in. 

They’d lost three of their last four games, including a home loss to the afore-mentioned expansion Jaguars. Belichick had benched Vinny Testaverde as his starting quarterback and replaced him with rookie Eric Zeier for no apparent reason other than complete desperation. 

The running game lacked a clear No. 1 back and was completely undependable. Andre Rison, the much-ballyhooed free-agent receiver who was supposed to be the missing piece to the Browns’ puzzle, was not a part of Belichick’s low-risk offense and was already a cancer in the locker room.

Consequently, the offense, as it had been throughout Belichick’s first four years, was a rat’s nest of problems. But the real issue - and the real indicator that this franchise was going nowhere - was Belichick’s bread and butter: the defense.

It had been the strength of the team throughout Belichick’s reign, and the 1994 unit was indeed one of the best in team history. But in 1995, it was terrible. It allowed more than 400 yards in three of the first six games, something that happened only once the previous season. In October, Barry Sanders lit up the ’95 Browns like Rudolph’s nose, averaging nearly 10 yards per carry in a pathetically easy Detroit victory.

(It’s difficult to pass off as coincidence that Nick Saban - one of Belichick’s young budding geniuses - had just departed to become the head coach at Michigan State after four years as the Browns’ defensive coordinator. If anything, you could argue that Saban was at the heart of the Browns’ defensive improvement in the early 1990s, not Belichick or anyone who stayed behind.)

Put simply, at the moment news of the move became public, the Browns were going nowhere - either in 1995 or the future. Had the move never happened, the team would have wobbled to, at best, an 8-8 or 9-7 finish in ’95, possibly good enough for a wild-card berth and a quick exit from the playoffs.

While yes, compared to today, that sounds appealing, for a franchise that was picked by both Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News to go to the Super Bowl in 1995 - another fact cherry-picked and inserted into the film - it would have been a colossal disappointment. And Bill Belichick, who received a respite after a solid 1994 season (padded by a notably weak schedule), would have been back on the hot seat as the trollish coach who wasn’t living up to expectations.

Believers in the tale the film is telling would argue that 1995 aside, the Browns simply had too much brainpower and potential within the organization to be denied in the future. There were just too many guys who, like Belichick himself, were destined for future success.

But also like Belichick, they’d shown very little of it in Cleveland, which they used as their training ground, their place to make mistakes.

The film states, correctly, that the team had improved each year Belichick had been head coach. And certainly, the team was in better shape in 1995 than it was following the 3-13 debacle in 1990 when Belichick arrived. He brought discipline and organization to a completely whacked-out franchise that had gone off the rails after Marty Schottenheimer walked out the door in 1988. The result was basic, unexciting competence - not the seeds of a burgeoning football empire.

According to the film, this gradual improvement came about due to the foresight of Belichick and his young proteges, who rebuilt the franchise essentially from scratch, primarily by drafting well.

Again, compared to today’s scattershot front-office decisions, such a statement could almost slide by unchallenged. But in Belichick’s tenure, nothing the Browns did on draft day is worthy of true praise.

In five years, they did not draft a serviceable running back or quarterback. They drafted one decent receiver and one decent offensive lineman. They drafted one genuine All-Pro on defense and maybe three other acceptable defensive players.

And let’s not forget the Kyle Brady incident, when the Browns completely panicked after the Penn State tight end was taken unexpectedly one pick before they intended to draft him. They frantically traded down in the first round to take Ohio State linebacker Craig Powell, who wound up playing a total of 14 games in the NFL.

Clearly, this is not a team on the brink of a dynasty led by a bunch of cunning evaluators of talent.

Mostly, Belichick and his minions built their roster by scanning the waiver wire for anyone who had played with the New York Giants while Belichick served as defensive coordinator. Or, perhaps one of their NFC rivals. They’d promptly sign these players - each of whom was well past his prime - and quickly insert them into the lineup.

Pepper Johnson, Carl Banks, and Mark Carrier were nice additions, but far more often the Browns wound up with dead weight like Joe Morris, Everson Walls, Mark Rypien, Vince Newsome, Mark Bavaro, James Brooks, and Pete Holohan.

Belichick and his staff didn’t draft well or even approach free agency with the right mentality. They filled roster holes the way an amateur fantasy football player loads his lineup with players from his favorite team. By 1995, the Browns were made up of aging band-aids, a roster of short-term solutions. It had no core, no personality, and no fire. It was not on the cusp of anything except a series of 7-9 seasons.

Before the move, the 1995 team proved that the Browns had already gone as far as they were going to go under Belichick. They were no longer on the rise, but plummeting back down into the bottom half of the league, in need of another reboot.

Rather than winning the Super Bowl, had the Browns not moved, Belichick’s job would have been in jeopardy going into 1996. And there was no reason to expect 1996 to be any different than 1995. Saban was in East Lansing, all those NFC retreads were at the end of their careers, and there were no bona fide young players ready to take their place. Even worse, their quarterback would either be Vinny Testaverde or Eric Zeier (unless Belichick could have lured Phil Simms out of retirement).

In all likelihood, Belichick would have been fired after another sub-.500 record in ’96. He would have eventually wound up with the Patriots and begun his legacy building in Foxboro.

Clearly, “Cleveland ’95” struggles with the same notion most Browns fans have wrestled with for nearly 20 years: how could the heartless tyrant who ruined everything he touched in Cleveland have turned into a football deity in New England less than 10 years later? What was different? What did he learn or how did he change in the interim?

“Cleveland ’95” tries to explain that there’s no mystery. Belichick was always a genius, it states, he just had the rug pulled out from under him in Cleveland before his magic could kick in.

Don’t buy it. Belichick may have become a genius one day, but in Cleveland, he was the very definition of awful. He lost more games than he won, often due to the lethal combination of his hubris and stubbornness. This was reflected best in 1993 when he intentionally derailed a season in which the Browns were in first place in November by cutting Bernie Kosar just to prove a point.

Put simply, “Cleveland ’95” tries to retcon this brink-of-a-dynasty storyline into the tragic death of the original Browns. It may - and probably will - fly for the casual football fan. But it doesn’t work for anybody who was paying attention during those dry, empty years in the early 1990s when the Browns - just as today - slowly trudged along down the road to nowhere.

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