Browns Flashback Friday: When Art Modell traded 3 future All Pros

Cleveland fans got a bargain, paying only $400 million for a new stadium and getting rid of Art Modell.  Good riddance.
Cleveland fans got a bargain, paying only $400 million for a new stadium and getting rid of Art Modell. Good riddance. / KIMBERLY BARTH/GettyImages

For a while, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, fancying himself a football genius like Al Davis, acted as his own general manager and traded away three future Pro Bowl talents between 1968 and 1970. This came after Modell chased away future Hall of Famer Jim Brown, who was tardy coming to training camp because of his second career as a movie star.

Filming of The Dirty Dozen had been delayed in France in 1967, and millions of dollars were at stake. It was a very awkward situation. Well, Modell chose to put the hammer down and show Brown who's boss. However, Brown was making more money as a Hollywood star. Rather than suffer Modell's humiliation, he elected to retire. Good job, Art.

Fans have no idea how incredible the Browns organization was in the 1960s. The Browns had two Pro Bowl wide receivers in Gary Collins (1965 and 1966) plus Paul Warfield, who had made it as a rookie in 1964. So, when Modell was offered a second-round draft pick in the 1969 draft from San Francisco for backup wide receiver Clifton McNeil after the 1967 season, and he decided to take the trade.

That seemed like a no-brainer! A second-round pick, even a year in the future, seems like an incredibly high pick for a four-year backup, but remember that they played six exhibition games per season back then, so the 49ers probably knew him pretty well.

Anyway, all that McNeil did for San Francisco was to make the Pro Bowl and All-Pro team in 1968, with 994 yards and an NFL-leading 71 receptions. He was slowed by injuries the following year but continued to have success in 1970 with 774 yards.

So, what about this draft choice?

Well, that got packaged with quarterback Dick Shiner and was sent to Pittsburgh for Bill Nelsen. Browns starting quarterback Frank Ryan was no longer viable due to a shoulder injury, and the team felt another option was necessary.

Nelsen was a terrible quarterback for Pittsburgh but was very good for Cleveland. However, Nelsen's knee problems made the Browns front office nervous and he was not considered a long-term solution.

After the 1969 season, Modell decided he had to make another move. Let's cut out the heart of the team. So he first traded wideout Paul Warfield, for the No. 3 pick in the NFL draft, which was used on quarterback Mike Phipps. Phipps would throw 40 TDS in his Browns career versus 81 INTs.

But that is not the end. To replace Warfield, crafty Modell traded 1969 first-round draft pick running back Ron Johnson to the New York Giants, along with starting defensive tackle Jim Kanicki, for superstar wide receiver Homer Jones.

The only problem was that Warfield continued to make Pro Bowls and eventually made All-Pro in 1971, while Homer Jones only caught 10 passes for his Browns career. That's right, 10.

Jones had made a living catching balls from Fran Tarkenton, who was famous for scrambling and ad-libbing, with Jones getting open like a teammate in a pickup basketball game. He wasn't good at actually running disciplined patterns like Warfield.

Kanicki would be voted as one of the Top 100 Browns of all time. Johnson went to the Pro Bowl and made All-Pro for the Giants in 1970, with 1,027 yards and an NFL-leading 263 rushing attempts. He also led the NFL in total yards from scrimmage with 1,511. Knee injuries cut his career short, but he gained 1182 yards on the ground in 1972 and made another Pro Bowl.

So, after all this, did they actually upgrade the quarterback position? Certainly, Bill Nelsen put up much better numbers in Cleveland than Mike Phipps. Dick Shiner had a higher TD percentage and lower INT percentage for his career than Phipps, even though Shiner played on much less talented teams.

Was Nelsen an upgrade over Shiner? Shiner never played for Cleveland so we cannot say for certain how good he would have been.

However, both Nelsen and Shiner played for the Steelers. Comparing their performances is sort of like comparing AAA stats in baseball, but it's all we have to go on. The Steelers, prior to Chuck Noll, were perpetually in last place, and Shiner's 3-16-1 was kind of what the Steelers did back then.

Nelsen went 6-15-2. TD and INT percentages were about the same (Shiner: 4.9% vs 5.3%; Nelsen: 4.6% vs 5.1%). Same for the completion percentage in Pittsburgh (Shiner: 47.8%; Nelsen: 46.4%). So, Shiner and Nelsen were about the same in Pittsburgh: meh. By contrast, Mike Phipps, with a 3.0% TD percentage versus a whopping 6.2% INT percentage for his Browns career, was statistically the weakest of the three quarterbacks. Modell's trades were terrible.

Shiner wasn't a great quarterback, but he would have been just fine on a team with Leroy Kelly (six Pro Bowls, three times All-Pro), Paul Warfield (Hall of Fame, seven Pro Bowls, two-time All-Pro), Gary Collins (two Pro Bowls, All-Pro), Ron Johnson (two Pro Bowls, All-Pro), Milt Morin (two Pro-Bowls) and Clifton McNeil (one Pro Bowl, All-Pro)? As it was, the Dolphins and Warfield made NFL history, going 17-0 in 1972, but historians tend to forget that they almost lost to the Browns in the playoffs.

Cleveland's defense shut them down all game long, and the Browns were in it until the last minute, but could not overcome Phipps' fifth INT (that's right, they could have won it with four INTs, but the fifth killed their final drive). It was as bad as Red Right 88, but historians forget all about it because of the widespread belief that Miami was the "team of destiny" that season.

However, if Warfield had played for Cleveland in that game, Miami would have been sucking air like fish out of water. With another quarterback and three All-Pro skill position players, the Browns would have surely won that game. By the way, the Browns had this kid named Brian Sipe on the cab squad that year, but the team was committed to Modell's up-and-coming star.

Next. 3 players Browns could trade for on Draft Day. dark