Any time a team lets a player leave and they turn out to be a Pro Bowler, that’s not a great feeling. Even worse is when a franchise allows a Hall of Fame player to slip through their grasps. That happened to the Browns back in the 1960s as they released quarterback Len Dawson after just two years — only to watch him become a legend of the game with the Kansas City Chiefs.
If there’s any solace to take in them giving up too soon on Dawson, it would be the fact that they weren’t alone in the failed judgment. Dawson was originally drafted fifth overall in the 1957 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He didn’t impress the coaching staff as a rookie and that led to them trading for Bobby Layne from the Detroit Lions.
With Layne entrenched as the starter, Dawson was traded to the Browns in December of 1959. Cleveland gave him a couple of seasons but during those two years, they rode with Milt Plum as the starter while Dawson rode the bench. To their credit, Plum was a two-time Pro Bowler at the same time Dawson was there. However, it wasn’t Plum they stuck with once they decided to release Dawson. Instead, it was Frank Ryan.
Ryan did have a stretch of success that included three Pro Bowls and an NFL Championship in 1964. But he didn’t have the kind of career Dawson went on to have with the Chiefs (who were the Dallas Texans in 1961 when the quarterback signed with them).
Dawson played 14 seasons for Kansas City and boasted a record of 93-56-8 as a starter. He threw for 28,507 yards and 237 touchdown passes for them, both of which were records for the franchise — as they would have been for Cleveland had they kept him.