Both Super Bowl LVI teams originated in Cleveland

Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown (32) turns the corner as Green Bay Packers chase after him in this Jan 2, 1966 photo in Green Bay, Wis.Jim Brown
Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown (32) turns the corner as Green Bay Packers chase after him in this Jan 2, 1966 photo in Green Bay, Wis.Jim Brown /
3 of 5
Super Bowl LVI
Sep 22, 2019; Cleveland, OH, USA; Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley (left) and Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb pose after exchanging jerseys at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Rams defeated the Browns 20-13. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

The Cleveland Rams won the 1945 NFL Championship

Gee, did Cleveland win an NFL Championship in the 1940s? Yes, they did, but it was the Rams, not the Browns. The Rams got their start in Cleveland in 1936 in a rival league known as the American Football League (not to be confused with the league by the same name that eventually evolved into the AFC, which is now part of the NFL).

The Rams moved to the NFL in 1937, and were not very good, compiling losing seasons for most of their existence. They did not play in Cleveland Municipal Stadium, but rather, League Park, which was the smaller, cozy ballpark where the baseball Indians used to play most of their games.

However, with the return of servicemen from World War II, and the arrival of future Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield (who was married to Hollywood star Jane Russell), the Rams suddenly had a good team in 1945. Waterfield connected with wide receiver Jim Benton for 300 yards against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day, 1945.

For the season, Waterfield completed 50.3 percent of his passes, which was very good for 1940s vintage football. Opponents managed only 39.1 percent versus Cleveland. The Rams were truly dominant on defense, holding opponents to only 2.9 yards per carry and only 1,026 yards for the 10 game season. For the season, the Rams went 9-1 and defeated Washington 15-14 in the Championship game, a typical Cleveland defensive slugfest.

However, along came the All-America Football Conference in 1946. Their plan was to take over professional football by outspending the NFL and signing the most talented college players. Their basic business plan was to tell the general public, “Look, we are signing the best players, so quit watching the NFL and come over and watch our new league.”

This writer is not a graduate of Wharton Business school, but if your business plan mainly involves having higher expenses than your competition, that’s not necessarily a formula for success.

NFL owners at that time tended to be football enthusiasts without a huge amount of money, whereas the AAFC owners were generally significantly more wealthy. If you are old enough to remember the USFL that managed to spend itself to death in the 1980s, that gives you a fair idea of what the AAFC owners were like also.

In Cleveland, the new Browns obtained a lease on giant Cleveland Municipal Stadium and then hired superstar Ohio State coach Paul Brown to coach the new team. That sent shock waves through the community, so much so that the Rams decided to move to Los Angeles. In Cleveland’s case, it actually worked, because the city fell in love with the new team from the start and filled the stadium every week. Not every team was so fortunate, however. Some teams would get tired of losing to the Browns every year.

In 1946, both the NFL Los Angeles Rams and the AAFC Cleveland Browns decided that they would break the NFL’s unofficial Jim Crow policy. The Rams hired Jackie Robinson’s former UCLA teammates Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, while the Browns signed future Hall of Famers Marion Motley and Bill Willis.

Those four permanently removed the de facto racial restriction in professional football, at least to the point where African Americans are allowed to play professionally, although more work remains in coaching and in the front office, as the NFL is painfully finding out.