In 2007, ESPN ranked the 10 greatest teams in NFL history. They were:
1. 1985 Chicago Bears – bludgeoned the Patriots in the Super Bowl after a 15-1 regular season behind QB Jim McMahon, RB Walter Payton and an awesome defense.
2. 1972 Miami Dolphins – in our view, overrated. Sure they were undefeated, but they played awful teams in the regular season and had real troubles in the playoffs.
3. 1962 Green Bay Packers – Lombardi and Bart Starr; not much more needs to be said.
4. 1991 Washington Redskins – very potent offense with QB Mark Rypien and receivers Art Monk and Gary Clark.
5. 1999 St. Louis Rams – passing phenoms, but certainly not our cup of tea.
6. 1989 San Francisco 49ers – Montana, Rice and Taylor were a formidable trio while Roger Craig was one of the very best RBs of his era.
7. 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers – we agree this was the greatest of the 1970s Pittsburgh Super Bowl winning teams because it was this team that had the best balance in terms of offense and defense.
8. 1994 San Francisco 49ers – Steve Young and Jerry Rice were very good but not as great as the 49ers were 5 years earlier.
9. 1996 Green Bay Packers – the best offense and the best defense in the NFL, and Brett Favre before he turned into a Circus act.
10. 1971 Dallas Cowboys – definitely greater than the 1990s Super Bowl winning Cowboys teams, behind Roger Staubach.
The criteria used for these rankings are unclear, although ESPN at the time made a point of emphasizing that the win-loss record was not the determining factor.
“Greatness” means a lot more than the record. That is why we cannot understand why the 1955 Cleveland Browns did not make the top-10 list. They should have, even more so than the 1954 or 1964 Browns.
The 1955 Browns were great in part because they overcame adversity to win the Championship. Quarterback Otto Graham had retired the year before but was persuaded by head coach Paul Brown to return for one more season. The Team lost its opening game at home against Washington 27-17. They also got beat soundly by Philadelphia in week 8 by a score of 33-17. They tied the Giants in week 10, 35-35. Notwithstanding those setbacks, the Browns won the title by blasting Los Angeles 38-14 and, in the process, propelled Otto Graham into recognition as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. That recognition is still reserved to a relatively small circle of football commentators, although we were thrilled to see that NFL Network in 2009 ranked Otto as the very best quarterback ever, ahead of the likes of Unitas and Starr.
Otto’s return to the Browns at the last minute during training camp in 1955 provided real drama in Cleveland. After winning the Championship that year, Graham retired for good, and the Browns’ record fell to 5-7 the following year. Cleveland enjoyed another glory era under the best running back in football history, Jim Brown, but it is worth noting that the Browns’ greatest dominance in the Team’s history was under Otto Graham.
Graham played 10 seasons with the Browns; he made it to the Championship game every single year; he won seven titles; and he won 58 games to just 13 losses and 1 tie – a higher than 80% career winning percentage!
Think about the way that the game has changed since Otto played, yet Graham’s passing rating of 78.2 was not only higher than the league average of his day but it was higher than the average passing rating in the NFL in the early 21st Century. That is truly remarkable. In 1955, Graham’s QB rating was 94. His back-up (yes, back-up), George Ratterman, had a pass completion rate of nearly 70% and a QB rating of 116.5.
In 1955, the Browns scored 349 points while allowing just 218. And unlike the 1972 Dolphins whose opponents had a combined winning percentage well below .400, the Browns’ opponents in 1955 had a winning percentage of nearly .500. The 1955 Browns outscored and had a winning record against their opponents who had winning records; that is the measure of a great team.
The 1955 Browns’ roster reads like a who’s who of football greatness. Paul Brown as head coach – Hall of Famer and certainly one of the greatest coaches in professional football history. If the timing was different, it would be the Paul Brown trophy rather than Lombardi. Graham at QB – Hall of Famer. Dante Lavelli as one of the receivers – Hall of Famer. Lou Groza as kicker – Hall of Famer. Chuck Noll on defense – Hall of Famer after becoming one of the most winning coaches in NFL history and claiming a record 4 Super Bowls with the Steelers.
It is very difficult to rank the greatest teams in NFL history because different eras are tough to compare. But it was a huge oversight by ESPN not to include the 1955 Cleveland Browns on the top-10 list. We are sure that the 1985 Bears would rather find company with our ’55 Browns than the likes of the 1999 Rams.
54 years later, here is a salute to the Browns of 1955 and a wish that 2009 will be a building block towards the return of some glory to Cleveland in the years to come. Go Browns!