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Here’s to the pre-Super Bowl NFL champions

Detroit Lions, 1963

As we approach Super Bowl 50, it comes as no surprise to the embittered Detroit Lions or Cleveland Browns fan that each team will be left out of any discussions of Super Bowl triumphs, past or present. Neither franchise is known for attaining any real amount of success, right? Not quite.

Both the Lions and Browns have exactly as many NFL championships in their history — four — as the currently dynastic New England Patriots. Their problem, skewing the perception of franchises throughout the NFL, is the dividing line of the Super Bowl era.

In 1967, when it was first held, the Super Bowl was known formally as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. Its familiar grandiose name, followed by a Roman numeral, was added retroactively, though CBS did refer to the game as the Super Bowl in its promos. (That Roman numeral label will be discarded after this year’s contest.) AFL stood for American Football League, the latest powerful challenger to the National Football League’s national hold on professional football.

The NFL’s previous challenger had been the All-America Football Conference, which lasted from 1946-1949 and was headlined by Paul Brown’s superior Cleveland Browns. Quarterbacked by Otto Graham, Cleveland won all four AAFC championships, then joined the NFL in a 1950 merger and promptly won its new league championship.

If the Browns were looking for stiffer competition, they found it in their neighbors to the north. From 1952-1954, the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions met every single year for the NFL crown. Nearly 51,000 fans watched at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on December 28, 1952, as Bobby Layne and Doak Walker helped the Lions to a 17-7 win in the Championship Game. 54,000 packed into Detroit’s Brigg Stadium the next year as the hometown Lions triumphed again, this time in a 17-16 thriller on Bobby Layne’s 33-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Jim Doran. The Browns’ revenge arrived in 1954; they intercepted Layne six times in a 56-10 romp. In 1955, the Lions’ record fell to 3-9 while the Browns didn’t falter, dominating the Rams, 38-14, to earn Graham his seventh and final title. In 1957, the Lions roared back to glory behind Tobin Rote, handing the Browns a 59-14 whipping in the finale.

But all of this occurred before our nation’s collective sports memory caught up with football. As far as national attention is concerned, particularly in hindsight, football arrived with 1958’s televised sudden-death NFL Championship between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, termed the Greatest Game Ever Played. From there, fast-forwarded a decade later, as Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers christened the Super Bowl era with two statement wins before Joe Namath’s New York Jets upset Baltimore and brought the AFL the necessary credibility to keep the event alive.

Go back to the 1940s and 1950s, though. Consider what was happening concurrently in baseball while the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns were having their day.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line — at the same time that fellow pioneers Marion Motley and Bill Willis were starring for the upstart Browns. The greatest moment in baseball history, the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff (Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World), occurred in 1951. The greatest defensive play in baseball history, Willie Mays’s The Catch, was made in 1954. The New York Yankees captured World Series titles in Brownesque fashion, winning in 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1956, and 1958. We as a nation remember all of these events, remember them so well as to compare every home run call to Russ Hodges’s breathless exclamation, contrast every over the shoulder catch to Mays’s remarkable snag, and recollect that Vin Scully was broadcasting Brooklyn Dodgers game then and is still describing Los Angeles Dodgers games today.

Imagine if we separated Major League Baseball World Series titles the same way that we separate NFL Championships, pre-1966, from Super Bowl titles.

The Dodgers have won five MLB crowns in the city of Los Angeles, but only two since the start of the Super Bowl era. (They lost three Series alone in the 1970s — what a disappointment! But you only have to look back a little earlier, pre-SB, to find three Dodger titles in the mere span of 1959-1965.) With increased weight on a smaller period of years, the Oakland Athletics’ 1972-1974 championship run starts to look akin to Terry Bradshaw’s Steelers, and the San Francisco Giants’ three rings in five years makes it even easier to forget their 1955-2009 drought. We might even divide up our World Series era so that it dates back merely to 1969, the first year that divisions were introduced. That would exclude all but one of the Detroit Tigers’ championships while chopping away eight of the St. Louis Cardinals’ NL-best 11 World Series titles.

But this is not baseball’s way. The New York Yankees don’t have only seven rings (their total collected since 1969); they own 27 championships. It is football’s problem, a split-identity issue. Which is stronger: the Green Bay Packers’ four Super Bowl titles and 13 total championships, or the Pittsburgh Steelers’ six championships, each one accomplished in a Super Bowl? (The teams’ histories do not differ significantly. Green Bay dates back to 1921; Pittsburgh to 1933.) How much does it matter that the Chicago Bears only have one Super Bowl title among their eight championships in celebrating their history?

And how long will it take the once proud Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions to recapture that glory from more than half a century ago?

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August Publications