Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Best Show in Football

The Cleveland Browns were founded in 1946, and over the next ten years they dominated professional football. As charter members of the All-American Football Conference, the Browns won four straight league championships with a record of 47 wins, 4, losses, and 3 ties. They joined the National Football League in 1950, continuing their dominance by advancing to the NFL Championship game in six straight seasons, winning three times.

That record by itself is enough to make a strong case for this Browns team as the greatest dynasty in football history. In a new book called The Best Show in Football, author Andy Piascik bolsters that case by examining not just their accomplishments, but the methods that made them stand head and shoulders above their competition.

Much of that success stemmed from the innovations of head coach Paul Brown. He pioneered the use of game film to study opponents. He was the first to have a full-time staff of assistant coaches. He studied play-calling tendencies and adopted the practice of scripting plays at the beginning of the game. He introduced the use of messenger guards to relay plays from the sidelines. A list of Brown’s innovations could go on and on. Most of the things that professional coaches do today derive from practices that he pioneered.

Piascik argues that all of those innovations pale in comparison to an innovation that seems obvious in retrospect, but at the time was incredibly difficult: the addition of African American players. A year before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Paul Brown signed two African Americans to his 1946 squad, fullback Marion Motley and guard Bill Willis. While Dodgers' general manager Branch Rickey made great headlines in 1947 by breaking baseball's color line, Paul Brown's move came with little fanfare. Piascik writes:
Although Brown was probably as certain of his rightness in all things as Branch Rickey or anyone else who ever lived, he was also different from Rickey in important ways. He never considered himself a crusader on the race issue, nor did he do anything to call attention to his role in breaking the color barrier in sports. As Jim Brown put it, Brown "integrated football the right way -- and no one was going to stop him.

"Paul Brown integrated pro football without uttering a single word about integration," Jim Brown said. "He just went out, signed a bunch of great black athletes, and started kicking butt. That's how you do it. You don't talk about it." Paul never said one word about race."
In the two years that I've been researching my new book, I've read more than a hundred books on football history. "The Best Show in Football" may be the most important one I've come across. Piascik tells some fascinating stories about the great players in Cleveland, but more significantly, he tells the story of how collectively, they reached heights that no other team before or since has attained. They didn't just play well, they changed the way everybody else played the game.