Lost in the runup to the Patriots’ Sweet 16 party was any talk of the first undefeated team in pro football history.
No, not them. The other one.
No, I’m not going to equate the Cleveland Browns’ 1948 season that saw them go 14-0 and win the All-America Football Conference championship with the achievements of the Patriots or the Dolphins (or even the 1984 49ers or 1985 Bears).
But they do need to be recognized for their accomplishment.
The Browns, who sprang into being when the AAFC did in 1946, dominated the first truly successful challenger to the NFL and, paradoxically, helped contribute to the league’s demise by doing so.
In the midst of a 29-game unbeaten streak, the Browns went 14-0 in 1948 and crushed the Buffalo Bills 49-7 in the AAFC Championship Game. They became the first pro team to go unbeaten and untied and win its league title game (the Chicago Bears of 1934 and 1942 had gone unbeaten in the regular season, but lost both times in the NFL Championship). The NFL, which does recognize statistics and accomplishments of the American Football League, ignores those of the AAFC, despite merging with it in 1950.
Here’s how the Browns did it:
|1||Fri||9/3/1948||Los Angeles Dons||W 19-14|
|2||Sun||9/12/1948||at Buffalo Bills||W 42-13|
|3||Fri||9/17/1948||at Chicago Rockets||W 28-7|
|4||Sun||9/26/1948||Chicago Rockets||W 21-10|
|5||Tue||10/5/1948||at Baltimore Colts||W 14-10|
|6||Sun||10/10/1948||Brooklyn Dodgers||W 30-17|
|7||Sun||10/17/1948||Buffalo Bills||W 31-14|
|8||Sun||10/24/1948||New York Yankees||W 35-7|
|9||Sun||11/7/1948||Baltimore Colts||W 28-7|
|10||Sun||11/14/1948||San Francisco 49ers||W 14-7|
|11||Sun||11/21/1948||at New York Yankees||W 34-21|
|12||Thu||11/25/1948||at Los Angeles Dons||W 31-14|
|13||Sun||11/28/1948||at San Francisco 49ers||W 31-28|
|14||Sun||12/5/1948||at Brooklyn Dodgers||W 31-21|
|15||Sun||12/19/1948||Buffalo Bills||W 49-7|
Cleveland did have a few close calls:
- They trailed Baltimore 10-7 in the third before rallying to win game five, 14-10.
- The following week, the Brooklyn Dodgers had them tied 17-17 in the fourth before the Browns pulled away.
- In game eleven in New York, Cleveland was tied with the Yankees 14-14 in the second before the Browns scored the next 20 points.
- The 49ers led the Browns 21-10 in the third in a game at Kezar Stadium on the Sunday after Thanksgiving (with Cleveland playing its third game in eight days) before Otto Graham and company won it 31-28. It was their closest victory all season.
Six Browns (plus Head Coach Paul Brown) wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the franchise went on to play in the NFL title game in each of its first six years after the merger. Yet the 1948 team is virtually ignored when talking about history’s greats.
Yes, the AAFC wasn’t quite the NFL (and the Browns’ dominance of it made it even less so), but consider these facts:
- In the years immediately following World War II, there were only 10 NFL teams. The postwar boom showed there were sufficient players and fans for more football, and the Browns, 49ers and the rest of the AAFC proved they were more than just another minor league.
- As mentioned above, the Browns routinely played three games in eight days near Thanksgiving, playing Sunday-Thursday-Sunday (in 1948, they played in New York on Sunday, Los Angeles on Thanksgiving and San Francisco on Sunday – and travel in 1948 wasn’t what it is today). Yet they won all three, with the thinner rosters of the time and many players going both ways.
- Cleveland won their 15 games by an average of 16 points (the ’72 Dolphins’ average was 14 points, the ’97 Patriots’ is 20 through 16 games).
Ironically, the Browns were too good. Going 52-4-3 and winning four titles in four years took the drama out of the AAFC season. By 1949, the league’s lack of competitiveness was a key to an attendance decline that, along with the bidding war for players, made a merger with the NFL inevitable.
The 2007 Patriots just might be the best team ever assembled. The 1972 Dolphins, while probably not one of the ten overall strongest teams ever, deserve a ton of credit for what they did. But the 1948 Browns shouldn’t be forgotten or ignored. They were a special team, too.