Just a little more than three years ago, we were flooded with lists. The
close of the 20th century sparked an uncontrollable urge in every man, woman,
child and beast to categorize, rank and rate every imaginable thing.
Recovered yet? Good, because he comes the mother of all Browns lists: Doc
Gonzo’s Top 100 All Time Cleveland Browns.
The list is mine. It’s completely subjective. You’ll find in the coming days
themes that are unintentional but unavoidable. Because I didn’t witness more
than 30 years of games, I’m forced to rely upon record books and the verbal
accounts of others. Also, I’m simply not a huge fan of defense. Offense is where
the action is for television viewers, so most of my memories come from that side
of the ball. That’s not to denigrate the wonderful players who played defense
for Cleveland … they just don’t rate as high in my book.
When you read the rankings, keep in mind that after the first 20 or 30
players, it’s pretty much a toss up. In the scheme of things, was Don Paul a
better defensive back in his time than Felix Wright was in his? No one can say
for sure. I know I can’t. Some players ended up in their slots based on the
ratings of others, i.e. I didn’t have a super strong feeling for a certain
player, but two other players were better and worse, so the first player gets
stuck in the middle.
Certainly, I’ve left some players out. Some of you will shake your head and
wonder what I was smoking when ranking the players. Perhaps the biggest slight –
and Art Bietz has already castigated me for this – is the absence of kickers,
including Lou Groza. Yes, I know he played tackle very, very well. But we
remember him as a kicker. I’ve lumped the kickers together by themselves. Some,
like Groza, would be in the top 10 or 20 players, and deservedly so, but they’re
kickers and they’re getting their own list. You’ll find it at the bottom of this
Don’t sweat it so much. It’s a list, and means nothing. All that matters is
what these men did. My hat’s off to them.
This week, the theme is defense, Orangemen and death. Let’s begin …
91. GERALD IRONS (LB, 1976-1979): After six seasons in Oakland, Irons
came to the Browns by trade in 1976 to help rebuild a linebacking corps that had
long since dwindled. Teaming eventually with a young Clay Matthews, Robert
Jackson and Charlie Hall, Irons helped form a unit that kept the Browns in games
against the vaunted machine in Pittsburgh. His best season may have been 1977,
when he recorded three of his 13 career interceptions. That year, he gained 99
yards on the trio of picks and scored a touchdown. His son, Grant, is a
defensive end for Buffalo, and another son, Jarrett, played at Michigan.
JOE “TURKEY” JONES (DE, 1970-1978): One of the more amusing names
in team history, this Tennessee State alum is best known to fans for
pile-driving Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw in a 1976 game. The move
knocked Bradshaw out of the game, and cost Jones a penalty and fine, but
Cleveland won 18-16. He was near and dear to teammates because he unfailingly
fell for the annual turkey prank pulled on rookies. Jones fell for it three
years in a row, hence the nickname.
93. CARL “BIG DADDY” HAIRSTON (DL, 1984-1989): Now a successful
assistant coach for the Chiefs, Big Daddy played out the end of his career for
the Browns. While never truly spectacular, he gave them veteran leadership and a
solid presence on the line. The bulk of his 94 career sacks came during his
eight seasons in Philadelphia.
94. VINNY TESTAVERDE (QB, 1993-1995): After a dismal six years in the
abyss of Tampa Bay, Testaverde signed as a free agent to back up Bernie Kosar in
1993. Instead, he became a pawn in coach/megalomaniac Bill Belichick’s mad power
scheme. In perhaps the worst-handled public relations disaster in the city’s
history, the beloved Kosar was unceremoniously released in the middle of 1993
while the team was in first place. Testaverde became the starter, but not until
later because he was injured at the time. He put up decent numbers and played
within himself and the system while in Cleveland -- which is exactly the kind of
quarterback Belichick wanted. Vinny, a truly nice guy and friend of Kosar, was
the most mobile passer the team had since Brian Sipe, as witnessed by
Testaverde’s many rollout plays. In 1993, he threw more touchdowns (14) than
interceptions (9) for the first time in his career. He then directed the team to
an 11-5 mark in 1994, which saw the team earn a wild card berth. He led the team
to a 20-13 victory over the Patriots for Cleveland’s first postseason win in
five years. A week later, Testaverde and the robotic offense were unable to
muster any magic in a 29-9 loss at Pittsburgh. Testaverde never seemed to be the
target of fan ire in the Kosar incident, and his play was never that bad. He was
never embraced, either. In the scheme of things, he’ll be remembered in
Cleveland as a second-tier passer of only some note, but forever tainted by the
ROB BURNETT (DE, 1990-1995): In his six seasons with Cleveland,
which drafted him in the 5th round out of Syracuse, Burnett recorded 39.5 sacks,
including 18 from 1992-1994. In that time, he and fellow end Anthony Pleasant
formed one of the best and most effective tandem of ends the team’s ever had. He
spent six seasons in Baltimore before signing with the Dolphins at age 35.
96. KEVIN JOHNSON (WR, 1999-present): Every quarterback in team
history has had his favorite receiver. Tim Couch had no choice but to lock onto
talented Syracuse product Kevin Johnson, a second-round pick. Slightly
undersized and not super fast, Johnson nonetheless was the entire passing
offense for the team’s first three seasons back in the league. Despite extra
attention from defenses, he still hauled in 84 passes for 1,097 yards and nine
scores in 2001, good for third all-time for catches in a season and second in
season yards. Crafty and quick, he has very reliable hands and a $13 million
97. DON ROGERS (S, 1984-1985): One has to wonder how things would have
turned out if UCLA draft pick Don Rogers hadn’t died of a drug overdose in June
1986 (on the eve of his wedding) after his sophomore season in Cleveland. If
Rogers had lived, John Elway may have found things a bit tougher that season,
and his fabled Drive may have ended with an interception or expired clock … and
a Browns trip to the Super Bowl. Young and tough, Rogers was a hard hitter that
could have been the final cog in a Super Bowl-caliber defense. One of several
intriguing “what if” stories in team history.
DAYLON MCCUTCHEON (CB, 1999-present): A very solid tackler,
perhaps one of the best in run support in team history. No matter how heavy the
load coming around the corner, the Southern Cal product gives a textbook clinic
on how to take down the ballcarrier. A solid performer with a long, bright
future. On the short side, but is rarely burned. Teamed with Corey Fuller to
form a solid, if unspectacular, pair of corners.
99. COREY FULLER (DB, 1999-2002): A wily veteran who relied on
technique and experience to keep opposing wide receivers in check. Fuller came
to Cleveland as a free agent from the Vikings, who picked him in the second
round of the 1995 draft out of Florida State. Started every game at corner or
free safety from 1999-2001. A vocal leader, Fuller was the wide old sage of a
secondary that set a team record with 33 interceptions in 2001.
ERNIE DAVIS (RB, 1962): Oh, what could have been. Cleveland
drafted Leroy Jackson out of Western Illinois with the second of its two
first-round draft picks in 1962 (the first pick was Gary Collins), then traded
runner Bobby Mitchell and the rights to Jackson to Washington for Davis, who’d
just won the Heisman as a running back at Syracuse. Davis had followed in
Syracuse alumni Jim Brown’s footsteps to greatness, and the football world was
bracing itself for a backfield of Brown and Davis. Surely, a string of
championships would follow. But leukemia stopped Davis where defenders had
failed. Davis would never suit up for the Browns, and died May 18, 1963. His No.
45 was retired by Cleveland. He gets a nod here not only for his touching story,
but that he had the innocent decency and respect to apologize to then-owner Art
Modell for the medical bills. Nearly 40 years later, the gesture takes on an
entirely different context. Davis will forever be remembered as a brief,
shooting star and nice person. Modell … well, history has rendered its judgment.
100-B. DON FLEMING (DB, 1960-1962): Three weeks after Davis’ death,
the team suffered another blow when 25-year old safety Don Fleming was
electrocuted with a fellow worker on a construction job (back in the day when
being an NFL player didn’t pay obnoxious sums). The Shadyside native played
safety for the Browns after a football and baseball career at the University of
Florida. His No. 46 jersey was retired.
THE FANS/DAWG POUND: Fearsome. Gruesome. Violent. Loyal. Loud.
Ferocious. Fickle. Jaded. Obsessed. Steadfast. Fixated. Gutsy. Neurotic. Ugly.
Beautiful. Naked. Masked. Odorous. Faithful. Terrifying. Eager. Impatient.
Deafening. Indomitable. Boisterous. Unsightly. Drunk. All of the above, since
Cleveland has been fortunate to have had a history of reliable kickers and
punters, which is a third of the game. Apart from just a couple of seasons, the
kicking duties in Cleveland have been in the hands (or feet) of just five men
for half a century: Lou Groza, Don Cockroft, Matt Bahr, Matt Stover and Phil
Dawson. Here’s my take on the best:
Lou Groza: The Toe was The Man. He was a real football player because
he started at tackle for most of his career. Owns the team record for almost
every kicking category, from most field goals (233) to most points (1,345). The
Grand Old Man is a top 10 player.
Horace Gillom: He punted from 1947-1956. Holds the team record for the
top three longest punts (80, 75, 73 yards) and a slew of other marks. Should be
in the Hall of Fame.
Don Cockroft: I don’t know where Adams State is, but the Browns did
and it’s a good thing. Kicked and punted for 13 years. Dependable, which is all
you want from your kicker. Tutored by Groza.
Matt Bahr: Mr. Reliable for many years in Cleveland.
Chris Gardocki: The team’s best player by far for its first two
seasons back from hiatus. His long and accurate kicking certainly helped some
games from becoming blowouts. His NFL record of punts without a block grows
weekly. There may not be a better positional punter in the game today. Should be
in the Pro Bowl. Snubbed.
Matt Stover: Yes, he’s an evil Raven now, but while in Cleveland he
set numerous marks for kicking and was very, very reliable. He was a great
relief to discover after the one disastrous season of Jerry Kourac. Yeesh.
Phil Dawson: His pair of nifty onsides kicks this season, plus his
steadiness and accuracy make him the latest in a long line of great kickers for
Cleveland. Perhaps he’s not great yet, but a couple more seasons and he’ll be
well into the record book.
Fair Hooker (WR, 1969-1974): The name alone …
Najee Mustafaa (DB, 1993): He was signed from the Vikings for one
reason – he’s one of the few men alive that could cover Jerry Rice. He did so in
the Browns’ 23-13 victory over the Niners on Monday Night Football. He set the
team record (since tied by Anthony Henry in 2001) for interception return with a
97-yarder against the Dolphins in 1993.
Orlando Brown (OL, 1994-1995, 1999): A powerful blocker with a
positive future until a penalty flag hit him in the eye during a game. He was
suspended for shoving the referee in anger after the play, but his playing days
ended with the injury. One must wonder what Brown’s presence on an improving
2002 Cleveland squad might have meant.
Anthony Henry (DB, 2001-present): A nod for leading the NFL in
interceptions with 10 in 2001. He’s tied for the team record with long pick
return, a 97-yarder against Jacksonville. A future star that just needs time.
Ken Carpenter: (RB, 1950-1953): Cleveland’s first NFL draft pick. An
Oregon State Beaver.
BEST OF THE REST
Don Strock, Mike Pagel, Gary Danielson, Hermon Fontenot, Tim Manoa, Jeff
Jaeger, Mark Harper, Jeff Gossett, Al Gross, Curtis Dickey, Harry Holt, Dave
Puzzouli, Chris Rockins, Tom Cousineau, Glen Young, Steve Cox, Charles White,
Dave Mays, Cleo Miller, Oscar Roan, Larry Poole, Ken Brown, Van Green, Frank
Pitts, Bo Scott, Stevon Moore, Derrick Alexander, Darrel Brewster, Paul Farren,
Mike Baab, Ricky Feacher, Dino Hall, Cleo Miller … hell, I could list a hundred
more names. You get the point.
Elvis (Crooner, 1943-1977): Said to be a fan of the Browns. A
collection of his top ten hits went platinum last year, 25 years after his
death. Long live the King.
Hank Aaron (Hall of Fame slugger): Another fans of the Dawgs. Who
better to have on your side than the King of Rock and Roll and the King of
Condoleeza Rice (National security advisor, 2000-present): She has the
president’s ear and is said by many to be the power behind the throne. There are
whispers she’ll replace Dick Cheney on the ticket in 2004. She’s a Browns fan.
Instead of hanging chads, we’ll have slinging bones. Bush-Rice in 2004!