Who was the best player to wear number 43 for the Cleveland Browns?
The countdown to the 2020 NFL season is upon us. With 43 days remaining until the Browns season opener, we continue the countdown by celebrating the best Cleveland Browns player to ever wear number 43: Mike Pruitt.
Pruitt was selected by the Cleveland Browns with the seventh overall pick in the 1976 NFL Draft. Pruitt, while playing running back at the University of Purdue, demonstrated elite power running back traits. Pruitt’s north and south running style and his athletic profile made him an ideal selection for the Browns.
Pruitt was brought into Cleveland to play fullback alongside the dynamic halfback Greg Pruitt (no relation), but the younger Pruitt was not able to crack the starting lineup right away. The majority of his first two seasons as a member of the Browns were spent watching the action from the sidelines. In 1976, Pruitt only started two games and carried the ball 52 times for a meager 138 yards and zero touchdowns.
Pruitt’s second year in the league saw a decrease in usage from his unremarkable rookie season. Even though he did manage to score his first rushing touchdown, he only had 47 carries on the season. Due to Pruitt’s inability to earn playing time, the feeling that the Browns missed on the high first-round pick was becoming more widespread.
However, in 1978 the Browns named Sam Rutigliano the new head coach and Pruitt’s role began to flesh itself out. Rutigliano gave Pruitt nine starts and the fullback responded by gaining 538 yards and scored five rushing touchdowns. The former first-round pick was beginning to regain confidence in his abilities, and it was translating to his play on the field.
In 1979, Pruitt began to come into his own. The powerful straight-line runner rattled off 1,294 rushing yards and scored nine touchdowns on the ground. Pruitt also adjusted his game to fit the Browns new high-octane passing game, and he caught 41 balls for 372 yards and two receiving touchdowns. Pruitt was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time, and the pedigree that got him drafted high in the first round was consistently seen on the field.
The 1980 regular season was a truly magical one in Cleveland. The Browns developed into a pass-first offense, throwing the ball almost 75% of the time. Even with Brian Sipe playing at an elite level and throwing the ball all over the field, Pruitt was still able to gain 1,034 rushing yards. As the offense transitioned to an air-attack, Pruitt transitioned as well, catching 63 passes out of the backfield for 471 yards. For the second straight season, Pruitt was awarded for his stellar play with a trip to Honolulu to play in the Pro Bowl.
Pruitt was able to keep his momentum going in the 1981 season by eclipsing 1,000 rushing yards for the third straight season. However, the team success the Browns enjoyed the previous year dissipated and the team limped to a losing record. Hoping to rebound the following season, the Browns along with the rest of the league went through a labor dispute that caused a strike-shortened season. Pruitt was never able to get going in the condensed 1982 season and for the first time since his rookie season, his per-carry average dipped below four yards.
Pruitt bounced back in 1983 and once again rushed for over 1,000 yards and registered a career-high 10 rushing touchdowns. However, after an injury-plagued 1984 season along with the influx of the young talent the Browns acquired at the running back position the team decided to move on from Pruitt at the end of the 1985 training camp. Pruitt signed with Buffalo and after a few games found his way to Kansas City to play just over a season and a half before retiring.
When it was all said and done, Pruitt was able to climb his way up to third in team history in both rushing yards with 6,540 and rushing touchdowns with 47. In 2003, Pruitt was inducted into the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame and one year later he was inducted into the Browns Legends Program.
Mike Pruitt was a powerful north and south runner with exceptional speed in the open field, and he is the best player to ever wear number 43 for the Cleveland Browns.