Cleveland Browns: Former running back Ron Johnson passes away

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 11: A Cleveland Browns helmet rests on the field prior to the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 11, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles defeated the Browns 29-10. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 11: A Cleveland Browns helmet rests on the field prior to the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 11, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles defeated the Browns 29-10. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

Ron Johnson, who began his career with the Cleveland Browns before going on to greater success with the New York Giants, passed away at age 71 on November 10.

Former Cleveland Browns running back Ron Johnson passed away on Nov. 10 at age 71. That seems much too soon. The New York Times reports that he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and was living in an Assisted Living facility in New Jersey.

Johnson is best remembered for being the first player in Giants history to gain 1,000 yards rushing in a single season, but he began his career with the Browns in 1969 after being drafted in the first round. He was later involved in one of the most spectacularly bungled trades in Cleveland history, thanks to the efforts of Art Modell, who acted as his own GM in those days.

Johnson had a sensational career at the University of Michigan, where he became the first African American captain of the football team, and also set a team record with 347 rushing yards in a single game, versus Wisconsin.

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After being drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Browns, as a rookie, Johnson was the backup for Hall of Famer Leroy Kelly. He didn’t get to do much, running for 472 yards and a 3.4 yards per carry average. Still, 472 yards for a part-time player was not bad for that era.

At that time, Art Modell wanted to fire his quarterback, Bill Nelson. Nelson was a smart player and a tough competitor, but after several knee operations, it was not clear how long he would be able to continue playing. Then too, although he was accurate and had good judgment, Nelson did not have the arm strength of some of the young stars.

The NFL and AFL were in the process of merging that year, and there was a legitimate fear that the Browns and Nelson might be left behind by teams with young star quarterbacks like Broadway Joe Namath in New York, Daryle “The Mad Bomber” Lamonica in Oakland or young Greg Cook in Cincinnati. Cook’s career was essentially ended due to a shoulder injury that year, but Art Modell and the rest of the football world could not have known this at the time.

Modell was deathly afraid of his ex-coach Paul Brown and could not stand the thought that the Browns might be eclipsed by Paul Brown’s new Bengals and their gunslinger quarterback. However, because the Browns had gone 10-3-1 under Blanton Collier, their draft position was far too late to be able to draft a star quarterback.

Two quarterbacks were especially well thought of that year. One was the strong-armed but brash Terry Bradshaw of Louisiana Tech and the other was the more cerebral Mike Phipps of Purdue. Hence Modell, fancying himself as one of the greatest football intellects of all time, masterminded two huge trades. First, he gave Pro Bowl (and future Hall of Famer) Paul Warfield to the Miami Dolphins for the third overall pick in the draft, who turned out to be Phipps.

Now, how could the Browns replace an All-Pro wide receiver like Warfield? That was simple. Modell traded starting defensive tackle Jim Kanicki, linebacker Wayne Meylan and halfback Ron Johnson for the inimitable Homer Jones, who himself had been to two Pro Bowls. Jones, however, was used to having Fran “The Scram” Tarkenton as his quarterback, and many of his receptions came after Tarkenton scrambles in which Jones was essentially freelancing.

Those plays did not translate to a pocket passer like Bill Nelson or his potential replacement in Phipps. Homer Jones was able to manage only ten receptions all year for the Browns. He really seemed to have trouble running a pattern, in contrast to the sensational Warfield. Although Meylan never made it with the Giants (he played two NFL games with Minnesota to close out his career), Kanicki was a valued starter for two years before retiring after the 1971 season.

As for Johnson, he made the Pro Bowl as well as the NFL All-Pro team in 1970. Despite a serious injury in 1971, he would come back and make the Pro Bowl again in 1972. As for Phipps, he found himself in the playoffs in 1972 versus Warfield and the Dolphins, who had gone undefeated that year.

The Browns defense was sensational that game and shut down the Dolphins passing game. The score was 20-15 and the Browns were driving late in the fourth quarter….until Mike Phipps ended it with his fifth interception of the game. Fifth interception? Yes, that’s correct, Mike Phipps had FIVE interceptions in that game, and the last one finished the Browns off for good. Warfield and the Dolphins went on to make NFL history by going 17-0 that year, but by all rights, the Browns should have knocked them out of the playoffs.

The loss of Kanicki, Warfield, and Johnson was probably all that separated the Browns from going to the Super Bowl in those years. It was too much of a talent gap to overcome. Even the stubborn Modell was able to realize that he had totally botched this move, l

Because of injuries, Johnson’s career was not very long. Still, in seven years, he gained 4,208 yards and scored 40 touchdowns. During his career, he made two Pro Bowls and onAll-Proro team.

Johnson is also part of the answer to a ridiculous trivia question. Can you name four sets of brothers, one of whom played for the Browns, and the other played for the Indians?

dark. Next. Studs and duds from victory over Atlanta

Browns running back Leroy Kelly, Indians outfielder Pat Kelly. Browns running back Ron Johnson, Indians outfielder Alex Johnson. Browns quarterback Mike Pagel, Indians first baseman Karl Pagel. Browns running back Terry Kirby, Indians outfielder Wayne Kirby.

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