Since pro football season is upon us, it seemed appropriate to stay with the theme that Matt Wood began with his "Top-Five: Browns' Most Hated Rivals" feature last week, and to also focus on Cleveland's long gridiron history, but with a different twist.
It is true in any battle that a strong infantry is the key to an army's success, and that analogy definitely applies to football, especially to football Cleveland-style, where winds off of Lake Erie are prone to play havoc with a passing attack late in a season, and where occasional snow makes running routes or even backpedaling to set up to throw iffy propositions.
You have to be able to run the ball, you have to be able to eat up some clock with a lead, you have to be able to pound for that first down if your quarterback is ineffective. If you cannot do those things, you will probably lose. If you cannot do them over the course of a season, you will definitely lose.
Throughout their first incarnation the Browns were blessed with some terrific running backs. Ernie Green, Leroy Kelly, Mike Pruitt and Greg Pruitt, Bobby Mitchell, Marion Motley, Kevin Mack, Earnest Byner and of course the immortal (if cantankerous) Jim Brown are names that come immediately to mind, but there were also Fred Morrison, Ed Modzelewski, Dub Jones, and Chet Hanulak. All of them, at one time or another, had a hand in being part of a "dynamic duo" at running back.
But which five years stood out, which five years saw a combination of rushing yards and touchdowns that have stood the test of time? And, shockingly, which seasons, when the Browns played only fourteen games, or only twelve, still sit at the top of the all-time list of best tandems by the raw numbers, even after the NFL schedule expanded to sixteen games 33 years ago?
As I so much enjoy doing, I am going to enter a time machine and look back. Please feel free to come with me. There is always room for you.
Part of what I looked for here were not only the numbers themselves, but the larger context of the success of the team in each season in question, and the relative strength of the team in that season at other positions. For example, in 1959 the Browns' tandem of Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell averaged 172 yards per game and totaled nineteen touchdowns, but the Browns finished only 7-5 and did not make it to the championship game, in the days when only two teams made it to the postseason; while in 1985 the Browns finished 8-8 and yet won their division and ended up losing in the playoffs to the Miami Dolphins with Mack and Byner both rushing for over a thousand yards and totaling 15 touchdowns as Bernie Kosar got his feet wet in the NFL. Which tandem had a better season in this context?
Without further ado, here are my Top-Five dynamic duos at running back, and the season where they made their mark:
# 5 -- Jim Brown and Ernie Green, 1965
The Browns, a season removed from winning the NFL championship from the Baltimore Colts, were loaded offensively in 1965, with Frank Ryan and Gary Collins deadly complements to each other in the passing game.
That being said, the performance of the running tandem of Jim Brown and Ernie Green was also a strength which set up the passing game. Brown, with 1,544 yards and 17 touchdowns, was, as he had been for nine years, the heart and soul of the team, while Ernie Green completed this "colorful" duo with 436 yards and a pair of scores. The combined total of 1,980 yards and 19 touchdowns in 14 games led the Browns to an 11-3 record and back to the championship game, where the Browns fell to the Packers in Green Bay, 23-12.
# 4 -- Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell, 1958
1958 was a year of heartbreak for the Browns. They went into the last regular season game against the New York Giants with a 9-2 mark, which led the Giants by one game. New York proceeded to win the finale to force a rematch in a playoff game. In those years, ties were settled on the field, not in some complicated mathematical formula for tie-breakers.
New York then won the playoff game, shutting out the Browns 10-0, and went on to play the Baltimore Colts in a legendary contest which some have said was "The Greatest Game Ever Played", a game won on an Alan Ameche one-yard plunge in overtime.
Jim Brown led the way for the Browns in rushing in his second NFL season with 1,527 yards and 17 touchdowns, and was nicely assisted by Bobby Mitchell, who added 500 yards and one score. Their combined rushing total of 2,027 yards and 18 TD's was a Browns' season record for a duo up to that point, and although the Browns fell short at the end, over 2,000 yards was more than noteworthy enough to make this list, and would stand as the team record for exactly...one year, until it was broken by...
# 3 -- Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell, 1959
This was the season where the Browns averaged more yards per game from a duo than at any other time in their history, at 172.66 yards per game. It goes without saying that Jim Brown again got the lion's share of the yardage, piling up 1,329 on the ground but this time being aided to the tune of 743 yards from Mitchell. The total of 19 touchdowns on the ground from the pair also bettered 1958's mark, with Brown scoring fourteen times after the hand-off and Mitchell five times.
Unfortunately, that success on the ground did not translate as well as it had in '58, as the Milt Plum-led offense was only able to muster a 7-5 record, and this time, there was no last game (or last two games) drama.
Even so, the new mark in yardage from a tandem made 1959 worthy of third place on the list, in my opinion.
# 2 -- Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner, 1985
Here is that aberration of a season when little was expected of the Browns and, quite frankly, little was delivered. But here is that context thing again. Most seasons an 8-8 record is memorable only for not being a losing season, but in 1985, it was good enough to deliver a division championship to the Browns and a date in the AFC playoffs against the Dolphins.
Shockingly, a long Byner TD early in the third quarter gave the Browns a 21-3 lead over heavily-favored Miami, but alas, it was not to last, as the Dolphins, behing Dan Marino and a rejuvenated defense, came all the way back and won another Cleveland heartbreaker, 24-21.
What made the season truly special, though, was the twin 1,000 yard running of Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack. Byner, with 1,002 yards and eight TD's, and Mack, with 1,104 and seven rushing scores, set a new standard in combined excellence in the backfield.
But didn't I say earlier that part of what I was looking for was the relative success of the team as well as the raw numbers? Well, yes, I did, but truly, that division title, as cheaply-earned as it was, was a startling surprise and was the springboard for a prolonged run of success. And what made Mack's and Byner's efforts even more notable were the facts that the Browns were breaking in Bernie Kosar on the fly, opposing defenses knew the Browns were more than likely going to rely heavily on the running game, and yet...baby they were born to run.
# 1 -- Jim Brown and Ernie Green, 1963
This was a season when the Browns bolted from the gates and appeared well on their way to an East Division title. Beginning 6-0, the Browns were clicking on all cylinders, but unfortunately things cooled off in the last eight games, which Cleveland only managed to split, and the final 10-4 mark was good only for second place behind their perennial nemesis of the 50s and 60s, the New York Giants (the Detroit Lions were a nemesis of another kind in various championship games of the 50s, but that is a story for another day).
Even with the faltering finish to the season, Jim Brown had the season of a lifetime, and that season was possible because of the steady assistance of his running mate, as the colorful Brown-Ernie Green combination set a single-season record which is not likely to be broken soon by any pair of running backs with 2,389 yards. That Jim Brown piled up 1,863 yards and twelve touchdowns by himself is what people remember, but being spelled by Green to the tune of 526 yards gave Brown the much-needed breathers that made such a season possible for himself. When you can sit out a play and have your running-mate able to carry the load for a while, it is a luxury that any team would gladly pay dearly for.
Brown's mark for yardage stood until broken by O.J. Simpson in 1973, and included a 232-yard outburst against the Dallas Cowboys and 223 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Yes, it is true that the Browns fell short in this year that I have chosen for Number One on my list. But in this case, I feel that the numbers truly speak for themselves.
Obviously my list here was more than a little subjective, and it may well be that you will disagree with more than one part of it. If you do disagree or find something up for debate, I invite your comments and/or criticisms.
But for now, let's get this 2010 party started. It is a season of low expectations, like that other season was so long ago that I mentioned above. But with Jerome Harrison and James Davis and Peyton Hillis: who knows if the next memorable tandem might be only a few games away?