In Phil Savage’s first press conference as General Manager of the Browns, he admirably but naively stated that Browns fans have to get past our “woe is me, head for the hills” mentality. After this weekend, it could be on full display for the nation to see once again.
The Baltimore Ravens are back in the Super Bowl, inspired by their team leader, future first ballot Hall of Famer and murder accomplice. He was drafted in the first round the year after the Browns moved to Maryland and became a hated division rival.
But even worse, perhaps, is that we once more have to face the haunting prospect of seeing the man responsible for that infamous maneuver enshrined in the Hall of Fame (20 miles south of town in our own territory) on this very same weekend. Things always seem to have a way of coming full circle in this town.
If one were to ask a Browns fan their opinion of whether Art Modell belongs in the Hall of Fame or not, the answer would be “(Expletive of choice) no!!!!” Objectivity in the matter is a near impossibility, but as a Browns fan who was 16 when the “Jump Art” banner was flying over Cleveland Municipal Stadium, I’m going to give it my best effort to examine Art’s case for the Hall. This will not be easy. Or pleasant.
The first thing we have to ask is why do we even have to consider this? Obviously there is sufficient support from outside Browns Town to get him this far in the nomination process for the third time. Art joined the NFL in 1961 when he bought the Browns. In truth, he was a major player in many of the defining issues in the league’s history. He negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement with the players in 1968. As the Broadcast Committee Chairman he negotiated the league’s television contracts for 31 years, with TV being instrumental in the development of the sport. He was a driving force behind the creation of Monday Night Football. Unbeknownst to many, Art is the only person elected to serve as President of the National Football League (1967-1969). In 2002, he hired Ozzie Newsome to be the Ravens’ General Manager, making him the first minority in NFL history to serve at that executive level. His teams won championships in 1964 and 2000, and had 28 winning seasons in 43 years as a majority owner.
One might argue that none of that is Hall of Fame worthy, but he would be going in as a contributor, so we have to compare his candidacy with other contributors that have been enshrined. The most recent owner to make the Hall was Ralph Wilson. Modell’s candidacy is stronger in both on-field achievements and off-field influence on the game than Wilson, and it compares favorably to some of the other contributors enshrined as well. Al Davis moved his team up and down the California coast and sued the league multiple times before being enshrined (and then moved it again and turned his franchise into a mockery after).
What has kept Art out of the Hall so far is the obvious; he fired Paul Brown and moved the Browns to Baltimore.
Art fired Paul Brown after the 1962 season and replaced him with Blanton Collier, one of Brown’s assistants. In Brown’s final four seasons, the Browns went 7-5, 8-3-1, 8-5-1, and 7-6-1. Collier turned the team around and they won at least nine games in each of his first eight seasons, winning the championship in 1964 and playing for it in 1968 and 1969. In retrospect, firing Paul Brown looks more like Jerry Jones firing Tom Landry and replacing him with Jimmy Johnson than it does a career-staining blunder.
There is no need to rehash all the factors that went into the move to Baltimore. Art caused his financial problems, but the local politicians have to share the responsibility as well. The bottom line was that he could sell the team to Al Lerner or move it to a city that was rolling out the red carpet for him and giving him the keys to the city. He chose to move it because he wanted to keep the team in his family. Even though he was looking out for his family, the right thing to do would have been to sell, without question. Ultimately he was forced to sell the team in 2004 anyway.
Here is a very difficult truth to digest… After making the two most unpopular decisions of his team ownership, within five years of both he won his championships.
I believe if the Hall of Fame were in any of the other 49 states, Art would have been elected some years ago. I also believe that it is right that he has been kept out until after his death, out of respect for and fear of Browns fans. Someday Art will probably make it into the Hall, as 80% of the candidates who make it this far eventually do.
The best argument that can be made against Art right now is how he compares to the other 14 candidates. Given that a maximum of seven can get in, I can argue that there are seven that are more deserving. Of course, some of them have been on the ballot before and haven’t made it yet, either. His recent death and his team in the Super Bowl this weekend could provide the boost his candidacy needs to get him in, however.
If I had Tony Grossi’s Hall of Fame vote THIS year, my verdict for Art Modell’s candidacy would be #Artout.
Prediction: Art is denied again and his team loses by two scores. No need to head for the hills this weekend, fellow Browns fans. The hills will be there when we need them, though. They’re never far away.