By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
Welcome to our nightmare: So you’re upset and discouraged by another 0-4 start to a Browns season? Well, try this as a pick-me-up – a retrospective look at the last miserable season of the Bill Belichick Browns in Cleveland in 1995.
Recapture the glory of hack wide receiver Andre Rison – the worst NFL free agent signing of all time. Experience again the funereal atmosphere of that final game in old Municipal Stadium – a win, no less -- where fans uprooted rows of wooden seats and tossed them into the Dawg Pound end zone. Relive the announcement by Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening waving a signed contract by Art Modell and telling the world, “The Browns indeed are coming to Baltimore.”
Just what was NFL Network thinking in chronicling Cleveland’s deepest heartbreak in the latest installment of its fantastic series A Football Life with “Cleveland ‘95”? The one-hour episode is shown for the first time Wednesday at 8 p.m. on NFL Network.
“It’s an interesting story because there are so many layers to it,” said Greg Frith, NFL Films producer who conceived the episode and conducted the interviews. “There’s the story of Cleveland and losing its team. The other story is about Bill Belichick and this tremendous staff he’s building. And ‘95 is like ground zero. All the plans get shot to hell. It was such a unique season for any team. No team had been through anything like it.
“I’m curious about how it will be received in Cleveland.”
I told Frith exactly how it will be received in Cleveland. Cleveland will watch it and weep. There will be a run on Prozac and Zoloft because depression will set in all over again. I mean, who captures the funeral of a loved one on videotape, like a wedding?
“That’s pretty much what it’s like to be a Cleveland fan, isn’t it?” Frith said. “Trying to put myself in their shoes, I’d say it’s pretty depressing. It’s like, ‘We had it all here. We had all these pieces in place and look what happened.’ But maybe a slight percentage of your brain will say, ‘At least we contributed to what’s happening today.’”
I don’t think so.
Belichick’s all-star cast: Frith doesn’t examine or debate the details of Modell’s desperate end run to Baltimore to avoid personal bankruptcy. Instead, he focuses on the group of energetic go-fers Belichick cultivated in his organization in five years as Browns coach.
They all extol the virtues of their master, who, of course, went on to take the New England Patriots to five Super Bowls, winning three. They were twenty-something “slappies” – Scott Pioli’s word – at the time, and went on to achieve great things in the NFL after their Cleveland learning experience.
The roll call of Belichick’s staff interviewed in the episode, and their current or former positions:
Pioli, GM of the Kansas City Chiefs; Ozzie Newsome, GM of the Baltimore Ravens; Thomas Dimitroff, GM of the Atlanta Falcons; Mike Tannenbaum, GM of the New York Jets; Nick Saban, head coach at University of Alabama; Jim Schwartz, head coach of the Detroit Lions; Kirk Ferentz, head coach at University of Iowa; Eric Mangini, former head coach of the Jets and Browns; Pat Hill, former head coach at Fresno State University; and Mike Lombardi, former Belichick personnel assistant.
It really comes across as piling on when these men talk about how they believed the Super Bowl would have been Cleveland’s – and not Baltimore’s – if the move had not happened. Whether Modell would have had the cash to finance the team in Cleveland is not addressed.
The foundation of that Ravens 2000 Super Bowl team was laid in the 1996 draft – after the team relocated to Baltimore – when Newsome, directing a draft for the first time, fended off Modell’s desire for troubled running back Lawrence Phillips and selected tackle Jonathan Ogden first and then linebacker Ray Lewis with the team’s second first-round pick. The second pick was the product of a trade-down the year before with San Francisco.
Lombardi says, “We’d done a lot of work on Ray Lewis (in 1995). The Ray Lewis pick was pretty much done before the plane ever left to go to Baltimore.”
Of course, neither Belichick nor Lombardi was there in Baltimore to make the pick in 1996. Belichick, who broke into the NFL with the Baltimore Colts as a go-fer to Ted Marchibroda in 1975, was fired by Modell and replaced, ironically, by Marchibroda. Lombardi bounced around a few NFL teams before landing as an analyst on NFL Network.
Set your DVR: The episode includes some vintage behind-the-scenes footage collected by the late Casey Coleman, the former Browns radio play-by-play announcer, who was granted exclusive access by Belichick in a 1992 series for Channel 8.
Should Browns fans watch? Yes. Of course. It’s as riveting as a train wreck.
It should also be mandatory viewing for incoming owner Jimmy Haslam and partner Joe Banner. They can’t begin to understand the frustration and anger of Browns fans without understanding what was taken from them in 1995.
The saddest parts of the documentary involve scenes of the final game on Dec. 17, 1995. The footage of center Steve Everitt saying goodbye to denizens of the Dawg Pound and them not letting him go … well, you will understand why Everitt still wears a Browns bandanna 13 years after retiring as a player.
Earnest Byner cries while recounting that final game.
NFL Network interviewed some members of the media for the show, including Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer and Greg Brinda of ESPN Cleveland 850 WKNR. On a personal note, I was asked to be interviewed. There was a scheduling conflict. But honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to talk about that season. It still hurts real bad.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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