December 17th, 1995, Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Loud cracks, and chants of “Save our Browns”, and “F*** Modell” echo throughout the stadium. Fans start tearing out their section of the wooden bleachers so they can keep their seat now that the Browns are leaving. The Browns are up 26-10 on the rival Bengals with less than a minute to play and time running out, but there aren’t any cheers, and high fives in the stadium. Some fans are sobbing, some are just staring down at the field in disbelief, and some are rioting. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before” says Marc Sessler a writer for NFL.com, and a lifetime Browns fan. “The game, and the lead up to it felt like a wake. It just had a really somber mood.” This is the last time these fans–some of the most diehard fans in the NFL–will see their beloved Browns. The game ends, and the players run over to the Dawg Pound(The fan section) and start saying goodbye to the fans one last time. The fans start grabbing the player, not wanting to let go and grabbing at the players’ jerseys.
In 1995 longtime Browns owner Art Modell decided to move the team to Baltimore. Due to bad investments and poor decision making, the Browns, and more importantly, their stadium was putting Modell deep in the red. During the offseason between the 1995, and 1996 season, moving trucks came in, packed the Browns up, and moved them to Baltimore. Fans were understandably outraged by this as the Browns had been an NFL staple for years and one of the classic franchises. The NFL was looking to expand, and appease a very angry fan base in Cleveland. In 1999 the league promised that they would bring an expansion team to Cleveland. The Browns team name, history, and records would stay in Cleveland but the players, coaches, and everything else would move to Baltimore and become the Ravens. This move set up an incredible series of events that rippled out into the NFL and changed the league as we know it.
In 1961 Art Modell bought the Browns, who at the time were the best team in football. Modell made so many head scratching decisions as owner it makes you wonder if he had a secret hatred for the city Cleveland, or if he was just one of the many awful things to happen to the Browns. Before Modell the Browns had been around for 15 seasons, appeared in 10 championships, and had won 7 of them. The Browns had a record of 151-49, winning just over 75% of their games, making them arguably the greatest dynasty in the history of pro football. Just to put that in perspective Bill Belichick’s win percentage with the Patriots through 15 years is 73% they’ve been to 6 championships, and won 4 of them. This team won a higher percentage of their games, and was twice as successful as the Patriots! Now compare that level of domination to what they were under Modell’s ownership of 34 years (1961-1995). Under Modell the Browns went 252-233-10 which is a winning percentage of 50.9%. Modell fired Paul Brown after the 1962 season which led to a steady decline in the franchise’s success. Paul Brown went on to own, and coach the expansion Cincinnati Bengals, and led them to 2 Super Bowl appearances, and would beat the Browns every year, who wouldn’t be relevant again until the 1980s when Marty Schottenheimer was hired. Schottenheimer led the Browns to 2 AFC Championship games in 1987 and 1988 but lost both in heartbreaking fashion to John Elway and the Denver Broncos. Modell’s patience grew thin and even though Schottenheimer led the Browns to the playoffs in 1989 Modell wanted a coach who could win him a Super Bowl.
Bill Belichick, and The Move
In 1991 the Browns hired a young football genius named Bill Belichick. Belichick had an incredible resume. He had just come off a Super Bowl winning season with the Giants, as their Defensive Coordinator, and had just spent the past seven years learning under great Head Coach Bill Parcells. Once hired Belichick brought in great football minds around him to become scouts. He brought in Thomas Dimitroff who would end up being the General Manager for the falcons, Scott Pioli who would become a General Manager for the Chiefs, Ozzie Newsome who is currently the General Manager of the Ravens, and Jim Schwartz who would end up coaching the Lions for a few years just to name a few. That is an insane amount of front office talent, and Belichick trained them all. This group of football minds would spend the next five years turning Cleveland into one of the most competitive teams in the NFL. Going into the 1995 season the Browns were one of the best teams in the NFL, and they were even picked by Sports Illustrated to win the Super Bowl.
The Browns started the season a disappointing but hopeful 4-5 when Art Modell announced to the team that they’d be moving to Baltimore, because the city of Cleveland wouldn’t provide Modell with a new publicly funded stadium. The announcement sucked the air and spirit out of the Cleveland locker room and they finished the year at 5-11 and moved to Baltimore. Over the next 20 years the Baltimore Ravens would win 2 Super Bowls and Bill Belichick’s new team the Patriots would win 4. The Ravens had a record of 188-154(55.0%) and the Patriots under Belichick would go 196-71(73.4%)The Browns on the other hand would go 87-185(32.0%) over that stretch, and would see only one playoff game, while becoming the laughing stock of the NFL. “The fans still hate Modell. It happened over 20 years ago, but Cleveland sports fans can still blame a lot of their heartache on Modell. I wouldn’t be surprised if Modell was the most hated sports figure in Cleveland even after Lebron left for Miami”. Modell’s tactic of holding the city of Cleveland hostage unless he got his stadium led to the creation of 12 new stadiums throughout the NFL, countless more renovations, and another team relocating, as well as the Raiders, and Chargers threatening to relocate currently. Leaving the question: What could’ve been if the Browns never left?
Effect on the American Taxpayer
The reason Modell moved the Browns simply put is that he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. The more complex explanation is that he made some terrible business decisions. Up until 1973 the Browns stadium–which was also home to the Indians–was owned by the city, but then Modell made a deal with the city that made him the owner of the stadium for just 1$ and the cost of maintenance. Modell cut corners and the stadium started to become a dump. The Indians got so upset with the quality of the stadium that they went to the city, and asked for a stadium of their own. The city agreed, and offered to build new stadiums for the Indians, Cavaliers, and Browns. The Indians, and Cavs accepted the deal but Modell declined it because he wanted to be the owner of the stadium the Browns played in, even though the city was offering him a brand new free stadium. Once the Indians moved the stadium lost a large amount of it’s profits, and the Stadium became a hole in Modell’s pocket. The stadium started falling apart but Modell didn’t have the money to refurbish it. He went to the city and demanded a new stadium at the cost of the taxpayer that he would own. The city tried to compromise and offered Modell everything he wanted except he wouldn’t be allowed to own the stadium. Modell agreed to the deal but in private he was working out a secret deal with the city of Baltimore to move the Browns there.
Modell held the city hostage, and when he didn’t get everything he wanted, he threw a tantrum, and moved the team. This gave owners the ability to get whatever they wanted from their cities. The city council would have to give the owners their fancy new stadiums or the team would move, and it’s very difficult to get reelected when you’re the reason your city lost its beloved franchise. This led to 12 new stadiums being built with taxpayer money, 2 teams on the verge of relocating, and one team that actually did relocate. If Modell doesn’t move the Browns none of this happens, and the league is incredibly different.
Effect on Baltimore
One of the biggest impacts would obviously be on Baltimore. Baltimore was close to getting an expansion team for 1996 season but once the Browns moved it didn’t make sense to provide them with an expansion team. These expansion Baltimore Ravens would be very similar to the Houston Texans who were an expansion team that joined the league in 2002. They would struggle for years possibly a decade but would slowly turn around, and start becoming a decent team. I compare these Ravens to the expansion Texans rather than the expansion Browns because it’s difficult to be as horrible as the Browns have been. There isn’t another team in NFL history that has gone through 20 bad years like the Browns. The Browns have been so poorly owned, managed and operated that I can’t see an expansion team replicating that awfulness especially when you look at the success of the Panthers, Texans, and to some extent the Jaguars, all of which were expansion teams.
Effect on New England
The Patriots are the hardest ones to predict what would happen over these past 20 years. The Patriots have been maybe the greatest dynasty in the history of football for 2 main reasons: Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady. In this scenario neither of those integral pieces would be in New England. According to the New England Sports Network the Patriots almost hired Gary Crowton after Parcells retired as the Patriots head coach. Crowton has had little success as a coach elsewhere to say the least. He lasted 3 years at BYU before he was fired, and currently is the offensive coordinator at Southern Utah University. This makes me think that the Patriots would’ve regressed back to the team they were in the 80s, and 90s. A mid level competitor that makes the playoffs half the time, and would maybe make one Super Bowl run. They would’ve had Bledsoe for 6 years but Bledsoe was on the decline, and replacing Parcells with Crowton as their Head Coach is a colossal downgrade. For the first few years the Patriots would be ok thanks to Parcells’ left over talent but by 2003 you’d start to see a steady decline in New England. Robert Kraft is one of if not the best owner in the NFL so I think he’d be able to right the ship but they most likely would be a middle of the road team with some good seasons, and some seasons where they’re among the worst 10 teams in the league. Think today’s Atlanta Falcons as a comparison.
What Could’ve Been:
The impact on the Browns is incredible, currently the Browns are the league’s laughingstock, and are on the verge of only the 2nd 0-16 season in league history. In this scenario however they don’t start as an expansion team which is a large reason they would be successful. Being an expansion team puts you at a serious disadvantage compared to the rest of the league. How the expansion team gets their players is through an expansion draft. In an expansion draft every team has to put up 4 players that can then be drafted by the expansion team if the expansion team wants them. No one’s putting up Odell Beckham, or Von Miller, they’re putting the 4 worst players from their team. This is a large part of the reason why the Browns were so bad for so long.
If they weren’t an expansion team they would’ve been able to keep all the pieces that made up the legendary 2000 Ravens defense. In this scenario the Browns also keep Belichick. After the Browns moved to Baltimore Belichick was fired because he protested the move which pissed off Modell. The Browns have had terrible coaches ever since their creation and this would fill that gaping hole with the best coach in NFL history. IN the 2000 draft the Ravens–who are pretty much the Browns, because in this scenario Cleveland never moves–drafted Chris Redman a QB out of Louisville to fill their need at QB. Redman never did anything in his career and had a record of 4-8 on only 12 career starts. However with Belichick running the show he would pass on Redman, and instead take a slow, small-framed QB with a weak arm out of Michigan named Tom Brady. Not only do the Browns have the best pieces of the real world Patriots, thanks to Belichick, and Brady, they also have the best pieces of the Ravens, as well such as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Jonathan Ogden, Jamal Lewis, and Rod Woodson, all of which are Hall of Fame caliber players. In this alternate reality the Browns would be the greatest dynasty ever in the history of the NFL.
If you replace every Ravens or Patriots Super Bowl since 2000 with the Browns here are the Super Bowl Champions: Browns, Browns, Buccaneers, Browns, Browns, Steelers, Colts, Giants, Steelers, Saints, Packers, Giants, Browns, Seahawks, Browns, Broncos. Those 6 Super Bowls right there would tie the Browns with the Steelers for the most Super Bowl Championships. Now add the years where the Patriots were a play or two away from a Championship. In 2006 they barely lost to the Colts in the AFC championship game, in 2007 they lost to the Giants on an incredible fluke play to ruin what would’ve been a perfect season, in 2011 they barely lost to the Giants again thanks to an incredibly fluke play. If you give them those additions from the real world Ravens they would win all of those matchups without a doubt. Making the Super Bowl Champions look like this: Browns, Browns, Buccaneers, Browns, Browns, Steelers, Browns, Browns, Steelers, Saints, Packers, Browns, Browns, Seahawks, Browns, Broncos. This is an unprecedented level of dominance in today’s NFL. The team would be borderline unstoppable, and would be in contention for the title of greatest dynasty of all time. The Steelers won 6 championships over the course of 34 years, the Browns would win 9 in less than half that time. They also would be the only team to go back to back 3 times, and the only team to ever go 19-0. No NFL team has ever had a worse stretch of 16 years than the Cleveland Browns, but if Modell hadn’t blown it up the Browns would’ve had the best 16 years in NFL history.
There are a lot of parallels between what happened with the move to Baltimore, and what Modell did with Paul Brown. In both cases he fired one of the 2 best coaches in NFL history to fluff his ego. In both cases he ended up destroying a dynasty, and in both cases he made the Browns among the worst teams in the league. This happens far too often with owners in the NFL. They think they understand the game, and what’s best for their team, but in reality they’re billionaires with less football knowledge than your average armchair QB, who have no idea how to create a winner. There are exceptions of course like Pat Bowlen with the Broncos, or Robert Kraft with the Patriots, but for the most part owners are like Modell, and Jerry Jones who end up growing their ego, and fattening their wallets even at the cost of their franchise’s success.