Legendary Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown decided he had to find Otto Graham’s successor in 1952.
With his first-round pick in the NFL draft, Brown chose quarterback Harry Agganis, the son of poor immigrants and a standout at Boston University. Agganis was a bit of a legend in Boston. A multi-sport high school star in West Lynn, Massachusetts, he was recruited by 75 colleges but chose BU so he could be near his widowed mother.
His play drew crowds where there had been none and caught the attention of the NFL’s greatest coach. While some compared Agganis to Sid Luckman and Sammy Baugh, Brown merely said Agganis would succeed Graham.
Brown offered Agganis $50,000 to join the Browns, according to a bio on The Agganis Foundation website, but Agganis turned it down.
He decided instead to join the Boston Red Sox for less money, saying he had proven himself in football and he wanted to prove himself in baseball.
The tale took place in a different era in the NFL. The draft was not the colossal show it is now, and research on players was minuscule compared to today. But Agganis is a cautionary tale both about first-round picks and about quarterbacks. Even with the smartest minds at work, it sometimes does not work out, and the Browns have proven that in their 67 years in the NFL.
Through the team’s history, its success with quarterbacks has been marred by missteps and pratfalls, by bad luck and misfortune, and by lack of commitment to what is the most important position on the field.
It’s easy to look at the Browns’ history since 1999 and find failure at the position. In reality, the Browns’ entire history with the draft and quarterbacks has not been stellar — and only highlights the importance of the Browns getting it right Thursday when they will no doubt select a quarterback with the first overall pick.
This is a team that has never really found and/or committed to a player as its franchise quarterback in the regular draft. None of its best quarterbacks came via the regular draft.
Bernie Kosar is the one player the team found and committed to, but he came via machinations that put him in the supplemental draft. It cost a future first-round pick to bring him to Cleveland, but he did not come in the regular draft.
Graham, the greatest quarterback in Browns history, joined the team as a “free agent” out of Northwestern when the Browns were in the All America Football Conference.
Brian Sipe came in the 13th round, Bill Nelsen was acquired via trade from Pittsburgh, and Frank Ryan was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams. Tim Couch was a first overall pick, but he lasted five seasons of painful expansion football; it’s impossible to look at Couch now and not feel that he deserved better.
The Browns’ history of drafting quarterbacks has produced only two outstanding players, and the team’s history of “committing” to top quarterbacks shows that it hasn’t.
Since 1950, the Browns have drafted 49 quarterbacks, eight in the first round, with four of those first-rounders taken since 1999. Of the eight, only Kosar has been successful; he led the Browns to three AFC Championship Games.
Sipe, a 13th-round choice in 1972 and the team’s all-time leader in passing yards, guided the Browns in the Kardiac Kids era in the 1980s.
The Browns twice drafted quarterbacks first overall: Couch in 1999 and Bobby Garrett in 1954.
Garrett’s was an interesting choice, coming after the Browns went 11-1 and played for the NFL championship. Garrett’s selection and what happened after shows how different the draft was in the fledgling days of the Browns in the NFL.
The draft in those years was based on a lottery, which the Browns won. Garrett was the consensus best pick after an All-America career at Stanford.
The Browns took him as the heir apparent to Graham, who had played eight seasons. However, soon after the draft Paul Brown learned that Garrett was in Air Force ROTC and had a two-year military commitment. Brown traded Garrett to Green Bay before the season in a deal that brought Babe Parilli to Cleveland.
Garrett played nine games in Green Bay, but did not start. In 1957, the Browns reacquired Garrett, with Parilli going back to the Packers.
It was in the 1957 training camp that the Browns, and Brown, learned what was holding Garrett back: He stuttered, which made calling plays difficult. One of his teammates at Stanford eventually told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that they had to smack Garrett on the back to get him to make the play calls.
Coaches did not take sensitivity training in those days, and Garrett retired before preseason ended. He never played a down for the Browns.
The next quarterback taken by the Browns in the top 10 was Mike Phipps, who in 1970 was considered a future star coming out of Purdue.
Art Modell so badly wanted a quarterback that he made a trade with the Miami Dolphins to send receiver Paul Warfield to Miami for the third overall pick. Phipps was selected after quarterback Terry Bradshaw went to Pittsburgh and defensive lineman Mike McCoy to Green Bay.
Warfield was beloved in Cleveland. He had grown up in Warren, Ohio, and attended Ohio State. In his six seasons in Cleveland he had become a fan favorite. When Warfield returned to Cleveland for the first time after the deal for a Monday night game, he received an ovation that he has said was among the highlights of his career.
The Browns were coming off 10-win seasons (in 14 games) in 1968 and 1969 that saw the team make consecutive conference championship games. But Nelsen’s creaky knees (six surgeries) scarred him and scared the team. Modell made a bold move, and it didn’t work out. Phipps went 24-35-1 as a starter in Cleveland and completed just 48.1 percent while throwing 81 interceptions and 40 touchdowns. In 1977 he was traded to Chicago.
Warfield went on to the Hall of Fame and was part of the Dolphins’ perfect season.
The first team the Dolphins beat in the playoffs that season was the Browns, quarterbacked by Phipps. Warfield had 91 yards rushing and receiving, while Phipps went 9-for-23 for 131 yards with five interceptions. Those numbers don’t show how close the Browns came to the upset, though, as they led 14-13 in the fourth quarter before losing 20-14.
Modell’s next move for a quarterback went better, as the team used the supplemental draft rules to their advantage to get Kosar. The Browns made a trade with Buffalo to get the first pick in the supplemental draft, and Kosar delayed his entry to the NFL to avoid the regular draft because he wanted to play in Cleveland.
He had an outstanding career and took part in one of the more exciting eras in team history that included three appearances in the AFC Championship Game. All were against Denver, and included “The Drive” engineered by John Elway, and “The Fumble” by Earnest Byner, which pains Browns fans to this day.
In 1999, the Browns were returning as an expansion franchise and decided to build around a quarterback. They chose Couch with the first pick in the 1999 draft.
Couch had ability and to this day Bruce Arians insists he would have been a successful quarterback had he been handled better. But he was thrown into the starting spot with an expansion team then was jerked in and out of the lineup by Butch Davis.
The Browns let him go after signing Jeff Garcia, who lasted one season. Couch, who ranks fifth in Browns history with 11,131 passing yards, went 22-37 as a starter and guided the team to its only post-1999 playoff experience in 2002, only to miss the playoff game with a broken leg.
Since Couch was drafted the Browns have selected three quarterbacks in the first round, all 22nd overall: Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden and Brady Quinn. None won more than five games and combined they won 10.
Since 2008, the Browns have had eight top 10 picks and not used one on a quarterback. They have not taken a quarterback in the top five since 1999.
In the team’s 67-year history in the NFL, the Browns have had 55 different starting quarterbacks (28 since 1999). Only eight have gone to the Pro Bowl, with 16 total appearances.
Eleven have started a playoff game, with Kelly Holcomb (2002) and Vinny Testaverde (1994) the only playoff starters since 1993. Of the team’s 34 playoff games, Graham or Kosar was the starting quarterback in 20.
The lesson for the Browns as this draft approaches is the lesson of all history: Those who do not learn from it are doomed to repeat it.