The Cleveland Browns left their mark in several ways on the annual Playoff Bowl in the 1960s.
During the 1960s the NFL staged an annual Playoff Bowl to determine the true third-place team in the league.
Why they did that remains a bit of a mystery, but the Cleveland Browns had their place in the contest, which was played for a decade at the Orange Bowl in Miami. From 1960 to 1966 the game featured the second-place team from the league’s two conferences. The NFL divided the conferences into two divisions each for the 1967 season, so the team’s that lost their respective conference title games were matched up in the Playoff Bowl.
The Browns participated three times in the game and lost all three, falling to the Detroit Lions, 17-16, after the 1960 season; to the Green Bay Packers, 40-23, after the 1963 season; and to the Los Angeles Rams, 30-6, after the 1967 season.
The game was created, at least in theory, as a way to generate revenue for a retired players fund. But as the only three-time losers of the game, it did not hold much appeal for the Browns, as quarterback Frank Ryan, who played in two of the games, told The New York Times in a 2011 article:
"“It was sort of a fluff game. That ridiculous game shows how ridiculous the league was in those days.”"
Despite the strange idea of asking teams to play a meaningless game after falling short of a league title, some good came out of the games, especially when it came to the Browns.
According to a story from Tim Rohan at Monday Morning Quarterback, the 1964 game planted the seeds of what would eventually turn into a 1967 summit in support of heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali:
"When the Browns played the Packers, in 1964, several African-American players gathered at the Sir John’s club, a famous hotspot in the Overtown district of Miami. At the time, the city was segregated. The African-American players on the Browns wouldn’t have been able stay at the same hotel as their teammates, had the team had not stood firm and pressured the hotel into relenting. The Sir John’s club was their sanctuary. Every day after practice, Jim Brown, the Browns’ star running back, and black players from both teams would mingle there. And, every day, who else would invariably show up? Cassius Clay and his entourage. Clay was in Miami training to fight Sonny Liston for their 1964 heavyweight title bout, the first of their two meetings."
"These happenstance meetings turned out to have some historical importance. About three years later—after Clay beat Liston for the heavyweight title, after he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and after he became a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War—Ali traveled to Cleveland to meet with Jim Brown and several other socially conscious athletes to discuss his stance on the war. The meeting is remembered as The Ali Summit."
The Browns also had some fun, like the time the players and their wives caught a Diana Ross and the Supremes concert, and spending a week in Miami in the middle of winter could not have been all that bad.
The article also highlights a time in the NFL that was far more violent than the current game. Center Fred Hoaglin shared a story about blocking Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Roger Brown that illustrates what life was like as an offensive lineman in the 1960s, according to MMQB:
"At the time, Brown was famous for using a move called the Head Slap, which is exactly as violent as it sounds. As the ball was snapped, he would slap the offensive lineman in the head, leave him stunned, and run around him before he regained his bearings. Fortunately for Hoaglin, Brown spent much of that game lined up across from the left guard, John Wooten."
"At one point during the game, Hoaglin looked at Wooten in the huddle and noticed that he was bleeding from his left ear. Wooten explained that he had been trying to block Roger Brown’s Head Slap by putting up his hand to protect himself—and Brown had just been slapping Wooten’s hand into his own head. “I think I broke my thumb!” Wooten said."
Yeah, that would not go over very well, rightfully so, in today’s NFL.
The NFL discontinued the Playoff Bowl following the 1970 game, and while it was all a bit absurd, it is still fun to look back at a unique time in NFL history.