The curse of Jim Brown

The wait for a championship began the moment Brown said goodbye

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In our last Browns installment, I promised to write about Jim Brown this week. First, though, there are a couple of housekeeping items to take care of after Cleveland’s teeth-gnashing 17-13 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

1. I don’t think I can take having Johnny Manziel nee Football as the Browns’ quarterback any longer. This has nothing to do with his latest drunken video production, though it is annoying that the guy can’t just stay out of viral camera range for like a day. Poor Mike Pettine shouldn’t have to deal with more Manziel inanity in his last week as Browns coach.

No, this is purely a football thought. I never wanted the Browns to draft Manziel. I never believed that he can be a successful NFL quarterback. But as this awful season has progressed, there was nothing else to hope about, so I hoped Manziel would emerge somehow. Hey, the guy has some talents. He can run around for a while without getting tackled. He has a curious knack for making plays when defenses break down. He can be pretty fun to watch when all hell breaks loose.

But Sunday reminded me of something: He can also be as unwatchable as “The Phantom Menace.” In fact, MOST OF THE TIME he’s unwatchable as “The Phantom Menace.” I think I’m going to start calling him the Phantom Menace.

And here’s why: Most of the time, all hell doesn’t break loose. And in those situations, Manziel is awful. All day Sunday, he missed open receivers. He couldn’t throw on time. He was baited into one wretched interception, and he tried to throw another one. On one play, in a panic, he flung a pass to an offensive lineman*, thus drawing the rare double penalty of “intentional grounding” AND “illegal touching” on the same play.

*To be fair, though, offensive lineman Mitchell Schwartz made a nice catch.

True, he’s young and learning the game, and it’s not like the Browns have many weapons. That’s why I’ve tried to cling to Manziel hope. But Sunday’s awfulness just confirmed what I already knew to be true: Manziel is too small, his arm is too weak, his inaccuracy is appalling, his footwork atrocious, and he does not seem to have a grasp for the complexities of NFL football. With him at quarterback, the Browns felt compelled to run some 1970s Alabama Crimson Tide offense (with option plays), and I can’t watch it. I just can’t. There no future with Manziel at quarterback.

And yes, I do realize that people will be clipping this out and sending it to me years from now after Manziel leads the Dallas Cowboys to their fourth Super Bowl victory. I don’t care. I’m done.

2. With 2:45 left in the game, and the Chiefs facing third-and-5, the Cleveland Browns used their last timeout. This is one of my all-time pet peeves. You never, ever waste your last timeout with 2:45 left. Why? It’s simple.

— If you call that timeout, the other team will have to run just one play before the two-minute warning.

— If you DON’T call that timeout, the other team will have to run just one play before the two-minute warning.

You see that? Those choices seem to have the same outcome. This is because they DO have the same outcome, exactly the same, except that in one of them, you lose your last timeout. So, of course, the Browns blew that timeout and then, at the end of the game, they got the ball to the Kansas City 32-yard line but ran out of time before they could run another play.

That timeout might have come in handy there.

Now, I should say that several people on Twitter made arguments that the timeout was not as bad as I made it out to be. Most of those arguments seemed silly to me, but one of those people, Gil Korpi, made what could be a viable defense of the timeout. His point was if you call the timeout, there’s 2:45 left, and the Chiefs will not want to risk stopping the clock with an incomplete pass. So they will run the ball or try a very safe pass (which is what they did).

But if they let the clock run all the way down to 2:05, now they might risk throwing the ball downfield because the clock will likely run down to the two-minute warning anyway.

I think that’s a viable argument … but I strongly disagree. First of all, the Chiefs play VERY conservative football and there’s no way they would have risked throwing the ball down the field. Second, with the Browns needing to score a touchdown to win, that timeout was crucial, worth way more than the vague and probably phantom risk of the Chiefs throwing the ball downfield. It was a phenomenally dumb timeout and just the latest log to throw on the car fire that is this Cleveland season.

* * *

I grew up on the legend of Jim Brown. My father came to Cleveland in 1965, and one of the first things he did was go to a Browns game and see Jim Brown run. That was Brown’s last year in the NFL. He rushed for 1,544 yards in 14 games, scored 21 touchdowns and averaged 5.34 yards per carry. He was 29 years old and at the very height of his NFL powers.

There were two things dad noticed about Jim Brown, two things he would often tell me. One, he noticed that after the play, Brown would always stay down on the ground a little bit longer than everyone else. He would look to be hurt, and even when he got up he would seem to walk haltingly back to the huddle. Then, next play, Brown would get the ball, and he would be at full power, he would flash his great speed, and he would smash into defenders with a singular fury, and he would drag a pile of people for three or four extra yards. Then, he would stay on the ground longer, limp back to the huddle, and it all began again.

See, there was no show in Jim Brown. He wasn’t interested in how things looked. He was interested only in results. He rested a couple of extra seconds after every play so that he could put more into his run. He slowly walked back to the huddle to conserve energy and because there was no need for him to go any faster. There was no show in Jim Brown. When he scored touchdowns, he did not celebrate. I love touchdown celebrations and, as discussed in an episode of “The PosCast” with Michael Schur, I would have no problem with making them even more elaborate.

But there’s also a part of me that is drawn to the power of Jim Brown plowing into the end zone, flipping the ball to the referee, and walking back to the sideline with the look of someone who just did his job, like someone who just painted a house or fixed a sink or got a car running again.

The second thing about Jim Brown my dad noticed that day was how, as the game progressed, defenders became less and less enthusiastic about tackling him. When the game began, sure, linebackers and defensive linemen just rushed at Jim Brown, they wanted to ring his bell, they wanted to leave their mark on the great man. But, again and again, Jim Brown would get up, and the next time he would run just as hard … and just as hard … and just as hard.

And even to a football novice like my father — he’d only been in America for a couple of years — it was apparent that the defenders started to back away a bit. They started trying to wrestle him to the ground rather than popping him with a good hit. In the fourth quarter, you could almost see the defenders wince BEFORE they went in for the tackle.

In the end, I think there were two lessons I was supposed to take from Jim Brown. One, do your job. Two, don’t stop.

* * *

Saturday will mark the 50th anniversary of Jim Brown’s last game. That was the NFL Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. The Browns were defending NFL champions. The Packers had won the championship in 1961 and 1962. I always loved this bit: The Green Bay Press-Gazette took out a full-page ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer a day before the game. It read:

The Cleveland Browns are cordially invited to play the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field Sunday, Jan. 2, 1966, and return the world title to that All-America City.

Sincerely,

Green Bay, Wisconsin, Titletown, U.S.A.

The weather was abominable that day. After the Packers had beaten Baltimore a week earlier, 40 tons of hay had been dumped on the field. It was removed at 3 a.m. the morning before the game and replaced by a tarp. Then snow fell hard on the tarp — they had to bring a helicopter flown in to help blow off that snow. Then 3½ more inches of snow fell on the field, and that had to be removed by 50 people with shovels. What was left was an icy and muddy mess. The wind chill was 16 degrees.

The Packers had the perfect sort of team to play in those conditions. Early in the game, Browns kicker Lou Groza missed an extra point, and players on both teams agreed that was the turning point. That missed extra point allowed the Packers to control the game with their powerful running tandem of Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. In all, the Packers ran 69 plays. The Browns only ran 39 plays.

“The one-point play made us play catch-up football,” Jim Brown said. “The field was not in the best of condition for a running game. Sure it’s the same for everybody, but the team which is ahead has an advantage on that kind of field. … Green Bay controlled the ball better that we did.”

In his last game, Jim Brown rushed just 12 times for 50 yards, and he made three catches for 44 more. He was gracious in defeat, giving a lot of praise to the Packers defense and particularly Green Bay’s tough middle linebacker, Ray Nitschke. “He seems to know where I’m going before I do,” Brown said.

Of course, at that moment, nobody — including Jim Brown himself — thought it would be his last game. He was not turning 30 for another month, he was in peak condition, he was coming off one of his best years. He had indicated to people that he was not going to play much longer — he already said that 1966 would be his last year — but he seemed to have every intention of returning for the 1966 season.

Then, there was conflict. Brown had flown to England to film “The Dirty Dozen” and because of weather issues, there were some delays in the shooting. The delays meant that he would be forced to miss Browns training camp and perhaps the first game or two. The Browns’ owner, Art Modell*, would have none of it.

*Looking back at Modell’s time as owner in Cleveland, it is quite amazing what he managed to accomplish. He fired Paul Brown, the founder of the team and the most influential football coach in the history of the NFL. He managed to own the Browns for 35 years without getting them to the Super Bowl, and then he moved the team to Baltimore, tearing out Cleveland’s heart. He also drove Jim Brown into early retirement. Quite a legacy.

Brown seemed perfectly willing to come back and play one more year for the Browns after he filmed his movie, but not before. Modell decided the best thing to do was challenge Jim Brown. He threatened to fine Brown $1,500 for every week he didn’t show up. Repeat: He threatened to fine the greatest football player who ever lived $1,500 for every week he did not show up.

It is not entirely clear how Art Modell thought this ploy would work. I suppose he might have thought Jim Brown was bluffing. But my dad could have told him: Jim Brown don’t bluff. Brown announced from London that he was retiring from football, effective immediately. “This decision is final,” Brown said. “I’m no longer preparing mentally for football. I’m committing myself to other things. I’m not going to play again.”

The Cleveland championship dry spell officially goes back to the 1965 championship game, but I think you can start the official countdown on July 14, 1966, the day Jim Brown retired from football. We keep waiting, in vain, for another one.