Master Innovator

General Published on : 1/1/2005
 The Browns, Bengals and entire NFL owe Paul Brown a debt of gratitude

It is only fitting that the first regular-season NFL game to be played in Cincinnati's new Paul Brown Stadium should be between the Bengals and Cleveland Browns.

After all, both teams were founded by the man for whom the new facility on the banks of the Ohio River is named.

There are more than just a few coincidences in this relationship. Not only did PB start both franchises, but their colors are almost the same. It hasn't been lost on many that so are their "CB" initials, nor the fact that both play in the state of Ohio, where Brown became a coaching legend long before he entered pro football. 

Our story, however, starts in 1946 when Brown founded the Browns in the old All-America Football Conference and so dominated the league, winning all four championships, that he helped drive it out of business. Then in 1950, just five years after the Cleveland Rams won the NFL championship and fled to Los Angeles, the Browns led the city back to the NFL and capped the re-entry by defeating the Rams for the title.

For the 17 years Brown was head coach, general manager, and really, supreme potentate of the team, the Browns ruled Cleveland and, for most of that time, the NFL. In his 13 NFL seasons, they won three titles, and they were in the championship or a playoff game eight times in their first nine seasons.

Then the unthinkable occurred. In 1962, Art Modell, majority owner of the Browns, fired Brown and sent him into football exile for five seasons.

A year after the NFL and old American Football League decided to merge, PB was awarded the Cincinnati franchise that began play in the AFL in 1968. He was in total control as head coach and general manager and in 1970, when everyone played under the NFL shield, he won a division title and went to the playoffs. At the time, that was the earliest playoff entry by any expansion team and it made a mockery of Modell's cruel denunciation, when he fired Brown, that "the game had passed him by."

Of course, it never did. Brown, who was elected to the Hall of Fame the same year he founded the Bengals, proved it on the field during eight seasons as Cincinnati's head coach, making three more playoff appearances before retiring from coaching in 1975. 

As general manager until his death in 1991, he presided over four more playoff seasons, two of them culminating in trips to the Super Bowl. In 25 pro coaching seasons, including the AAFC, he had a .660 winning percentage.

But Paul Brown is important historically to more than just two teams. Without doubt, he is the greatest innovator in NFL history.

His unique fingerprints not only touched the Bengals and Browns, but really reached into every aspect of the game. Everything from the game on the field, to playbooks, to full-time coaching staffs, to intelligence tests for draft prospects, to detailed film (now videotape) breakdowns, to the use of facemasks on helmets, to sending in plays from the sideline via "messenger guards." 

Brown also never has been given full credit for breaking the color barrier in modern pro sports when he signed two eventual Hall of Fame players, fullback Marion Motley and lineman Bill Willis, in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson's debut in major league baseball.

"Whether they know it or not, nearly everyone in football has been affected by Paul Brown," former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle once said. "His wealth of ideas changed the game."

A good example is the so-called West Coast offense that has dominated the NFL for the past couple of decades. That moniker is a misnomer. It should be called the Ohio Offense because it is basically the same one that Brown designed and used when he coached the Browns and Bengals. Hall of Famer Otto Graham used it to win seven league championships.

Brown brought it to Cincinnati and taught it to Bill Walsh, one of his assistant coaches, who used the offense to win three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and was wrongly credited, as he later admitted, for its origin.

"I learned it from Paul Brown," Walsh wrote in a book a few years ago.

A lot of people in football could say the same thing.