I fell in love with Brandon Weeden late last season when I saw him against Baylor and later in the bowl game against Stanford. I wasn’t overly enamored with Stanford’s Andrew Luck. Everyone in the world was raving about Luck, but I preferred Baylor’s Robert Griffin III and Weeden, the old minor league baseball player from Oklahoma State. The Browns should make every effort to get one of them in the draft, I said to myself.
I must apologize for reiterating old news to readers of this blog in order to establish my point.
Historically, every time the Browns have set out to get a quarterback in the draft it has backfired. I mean it. Every time except once. The Browns got most of their starting quarterbacks through trades or blind luck.
The exception was Bernie Kosar in 1985, but in that case the Browns didn’t mastermind the coup that acquired Kosar. Bernie’s father did. Browns general manager Bill Davis and Bernie’s father were guests at a wedding reception in Boardman in late winter of that year. They talked and Mr. Kosar walked Davis through the procedure for acquiring Bernie in a special supplemental draft. Mr. Kosar had done his homework. Bernie would graduate in June from the University of Miami after only three years, but not in time to qualify for the 1985 draft. At that time undergraduates were not eligible for the draft.
Mr. Kosar pointed out, however, that when Bernie graduated in June he could apply for a special supplemental draft — Bernie’s personal draft — which he did. Buffalo, however, owned the first pick in any such supplemental draft and the Bills extracted a high price for that pick. Based purely on the expectation that Bernie would be available by summer, the Browns traded their first round picks in the 1985 and ’86 regular drafts along with two lower picks to the Bills. The “Bernie Draft” was held in June, 1985, and he signed with the Browns on July 2. Three months later he was the Browns’ starting quarterback.
As I said, that was the exception. Left to their own devices, the Browns usually screwed up when drafting quarterbacks.
In 1954 the Browns had the very first pick in the draft. That in itself requires an explanation. For twelve years in the 1940s and ’50s the NFL held an annual lottery for the first pick in the draft. It was a bonus pick at the top of the draft. Every team had a turn, regardless of their rank in the regular draft. In 1954 it was the Browns’ turn. Looking for Otto Graham’s replacement at quarterback, Brown selected Stanford all-American Bobby Garrett. Scouting was not as thorough as it is today. When Garrett arrived at training camp at Hiram College, it was discovered that Garrett had a speech impediment so severe he could not talk in the huddle. That was no problem at Stanford, but it was not acceptable to Brown. Garrett was soon released. He never played a down for the Browns. The first pick in the entire draft was wasted.
Two years later Brown was still looking for Graham’s replacement and he was out of time. Graham retired after the 1956 season and Brown had two quarterbacks in mind — Lenny Dawson from Purdue and Paul Hornung, the Heisman Trophy winner from Notre Dame. The draft was held in December that year because of competition from the Canadian Football League. The season was not over and the Browns were tied in the standings with Pittsburgh and Green Bay for the first draft choice. To break the tie a coin flip was held at NFL headquarters in Philadelphia. Brown sent equipment man Morrie Kono to Philadelphia for the coin flip. Kono lost two straight coin flips and the Browns finished third. Paul Brown was not happy. Pittsburgh chose Dawson, whom they later cut, and Green Bay chose Hornung, whom they converted to halfback. Stuck with the sixth pick in the draft, the Browns chose Syracuse running back Jim Brown.
In the second round of that draft, the Browns chose Penn State quarterback Milt Plum, who was ordinary but he started for four years until he was traded to Detroit for Jim Ninowski in 1962. The Browns actually traded for two quarterbacks in 1962. Besides Ninowski, the Browns acquired Frank Ryan from the Los Angeles Rams. Ninowski started the first half of the 1962 season when Ryan took over and the Browns won the 1964 championship with Ryan at quarterback.
Ryan hurt his shoulder in the 1967 Pro Bowl which shortened his career. Bill Nelsen took over after the third game of the 1968 season and took the Browns to NFC championship games in 1968 and ’69. Was Nelsen the product of draft day brilliance? He was not. Nelsen came to Cleveland from Pittsburgh in a trade of backup quarterbacks. The Browns sent second string quarterback Dick Shiner to the Steelers. Was it a stroke of brilliance? It was not. It was blind luck.
By 1970 the Browns were desperate for a quarterback once again and Art Modell targeted Purdue Mike Phipps. Terry Bradshaw from Louisiana Tech was headed for Pittsbursgh. The Steelers owned the first pick in the draft. The Browns needed the second pick in order to get Phipps, which led to the worst trade in their history. The Browns traded Hall of Fame wide receiver Paul Warfield to Miami for the pick which they used to get Phipps.
“I was against the trade,” Blanton Collier told me. “I was the only one who stood up in a meeting and said we shouldn’t do it.”
Collier was entering his final year as head coach. He visited Purdue and talked to the Boilermakers’ coaches about Phipps. Collier did not like what he heard.
Furthermore, Modell’s front office advisers did not realize Warfield’s importance to the running game. The famous “Browns Sweep” came to a halt. Later Collier told me the absence of Warfield was the reason. Warfield had a crucial block on the cornerback and he never missed his block. The Miami Dolphins won two Super Bowls with Warfield.
Phipps never was satisfactory and he eventually lost his job in 1977 to Brian Sipe, who became one of Cleveland’s all time favorites. It must have been the organization’s latent draft day genius that resulted in Brian Sipe, right? Wrong again.
Sipe was a 13th round draft pick out of San Diego State in 1972. It was a throw-away choice. He was on the taxi squad for two years and then he was the backup to Phipps for two years. Chuck Heaton, who covered the Browns for The Plain Dealer at that time, would tell me about this kid on the taxi squad who was the best quarterback in camp. Sipe got to play only because Phipps was injured in 1976 and he opened a few eyes. Once again, they discovered Sipe by accident. The Browns’ ace in the hole always was blind luck.
Paul McDonald, a fourth-round pick from Southern Cal, was handed the quarterback job for one year in 1984, bridging the gap between the Sipe and Kosar regimes.
After the turmoil of Vinnie Testaverde and Mark Rypien at the end of the Bill Belichick era, the expansion Browns resumed where the old Browns left off. In 1999 Tim Couch was the first pick in the entire draft. You know that sad story. In 2008 Brady Quinn was the Browns first round pick. You can finish that story. Throw in Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Colt McCoy and the endless absurdity of the expansion years.
We now have another anointed leader, Brandon Weeden. Why not? We’ve never had a quarterback from Oklahoma State before. Let me be the first to say, “Welcome to the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Dan Coughlin has covered the Cleveland sports scene for 45 years, as a sportswriter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer (1964-1982) and on WJW-TV 8 (since 1983). He was twice named Ohio sportswriter of the year and was honored with a television Emmy. Dan has written two books: Crazy, With the Papers to Prove It and Pass the Nuts. He blogs at Coughlin Forever.