November 24, 2009
Cleveland Browns Head Coach Paul Brown had gone into the 1957 draft with the hope of picking Purdue quarterback Len Dawson. Without retired star QB Otto Graham, the Browns went 5-7 in 1956 - the first losing season in team history. Getting a replacement seemed a priority.
However, the Pittsburgh Steelers snagged Dawson with the fifth pick in the first round, and with the sixth Brown chose Jim Brown, the star running back from Syracuse, instead (who else was chosen ahead of Brown? In order: Paul Hornung, Notre Dame QB, by Green Bay; Jon Arnett, halfback from USC, a local star by the LA Rams; John Brodie, Stanford QB, by the 49ers; and Ron Kramer, end from Michigan, also by the Packers). It didn’t take Paul Brown long to realize that he had something special in Jim Brown - after the rookie ran 40 yards for a touchdown against Pittsburgh in the second preseason game, Coach Brown called him over and said simply, “you’re my fullback”.
Jim Brown’s emergence during his rookie season was steady. After eight games, he had run the ball 130 times for 532 yards (4.1-yard average) and four touchdowns. His first hundred-yard rushing day had come three weeks before against Washington. In the ninth game, on November 24, he gave his first significant evidence of greatness.
The Browns were 6-1-1 as they faced the Los Angeles Rams (4-4) at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. Brown scored his first TD of the day, a 69-yard run, in the second quarter to stake the Browns to a 14-7 lead. The Rams pulled ahead and were leading in the third quarter by 28-17 after DT Art Hauser recovered a Cleveland fumble and ran it 29 yards for a score.
It was virtually all Browns after that, however, and Jim Brown scored on three more short touchdown runs to give him four on the day. More significantly, he set a new NFL record with 237 yards on 31 carries as the Browns defeated the Rams, 45-31.
Cleveland closed out the season at 9-2-1, handily returning to the top of the Eastern Conference standings although losing decisively to Detroit in the NFL Championship game. The Rams were 6-6 on the year, finishing fourth in the Western Conference.
Jim Brown led the league in rushing with 942 yards on 202 attempts for a healthy 4.7-yard average gain and nine touchdowns (he also had a TD on a pass reception) – while the big game against the Rams put him out of reach, the runner-up, Rick Casares of the Bears, was 242 yards behind with an even 700 yards. Brown was selected as not only NFL Rookie of the Year, but as MVP by the Associated Press and The Sporting News as well. It was only a sneak preview of sorts; he established a whole new set of rushing standards while leading the league in eight of his nine seasons.
His performance was certainly the key to the team’s success in ’57 – Paul Brown’s solution to the quarterback dilemma was to use nondescript veteran Tommy O’Connell, who statistically was the best passer in the NFL that year but only threw the ball 110 times before an injury finished his regular season two weeks after the Rams game (he returned for the championship contest); rookie Milt Plum filled in and inherited the starting job in 1958.
As a footnote, Len Dawson’s road to the Hall of Fame would be less direct than Jim Brown’s. He threw just 17 passes in three seasons in Pittsburgh before Paul Brown finally acquired him for the Browns. Stuck behind Plum, he appeared to be a flop when he tossed 28 passes in two years and was granted his release so he could join the Dallas Texans of the AFL in 1962; there he was re-united with his former backfield coach at Purdue, Hank Stram. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.