By Zane Miller
When looking at stories involving sports teams, we tend to look at either the really great teams or the really terrible teams. While this makes sense, sometimes it’s nice to show some attention to those clubs that put themselves solidly in the middle of the pack.
As of the 2021 National Football League season, there have been a total of 187 seasons by currently active teams who have finished with a .500 winning percentage at the end of the regular season. Of these teams, five have finished in the same spot in both points for and points against for that season. This includes the 1965 New York Giants (10th), 1980 Denver Broncos (16th), 1998 Seattle Seahawks (10th), and the 2003 New Orleans Saints (14th). While all of these are strong candidates to become the NFL’s most mediocre team, none are as middle of the road as the 1970 Cleveland Browns.
The Browns came into the 1970 season looking to build on their impressive 10-3-1 record in 1969, enabling the team to reach the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season before losing to the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL Championship Game, allowing the Vikings to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. However, making the postseason this year in particular would be more of a challenge, as the NFL expanded from just 16 teams in 1969 to 26 teams in 1970, due to the American Football League merging with the NFL after 10 years of competition. While the postseason field was also expanded from four teams to eight teams, this still meant that there would be more teams missing the playoffs than in years prior.
The Browns started off their season on Monday, September 21st, 1970 against the New York Jets, who were playing their first regular season game as members of the NFL. As if this wasn't enough, this matchup was also the first Monday Night Football game in league history. Cleveland took momentum for their season early, as quarterback Bill Nelsen led Browns to a 31-21 victory to start the year at 1-0. However, the team would soon take their first loss of the new season, as the San Francisco 49ers defeated them 34-31 in the ensuing game on September 27th.
Through the first six weeks of the season, Cleveland was still sitting in a good position to continue their playoff success, claiming a 4-2 record. However, a crushing three-game losing skid would cost the Browns dearly, as they were beaten by the San Diego Chargers 27-10, the Oakland Raiders 23-20, and the Cincinnati Bengals 14-10 to knock the Browns down to a losing record for the first time in the season with just five games to go.
While the team would somewhat recover as they went 3-2 in their remaining games, capping off 1970 with a 27-13 win over the Broncos on December 20th to put themselves at a 7-7 record, it wouldn’t be enough to reach the playoffs. Cleveland missed the postseason for the first time since the 1966 season, as head coach Blanton Collier retired at season’s end, citing hearing difficulties as the main factor in his decision.
When looking at the overall statistics at the end of the year, it’s easy to see what led the team to finish at a .500 record. The 1970 Browns scored a total of 286 points, good for 13th out of the 26 teams in the league. On the defensive side, the Browns allowed 265 points in total, which also put them at 13th out of 26 teams in that category.
Nelsen was the primary starting quarterback for the balance of the season, as he claimed a 6-6 record with 16 touchdown passes, 2,156 passing yards and a 50.8% completion percentage. Nelsen missed two games during the season, as he was unavailable with a knee injury in the team’s week three game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and was replaced by backup Don Gault, as the Browns won 15-7 in what would be the only win of Gault’s NFL career. In week nine against the Bengals, Nelsen was benched after two straight losses. Rookie quarterback Mike Phipps, whom the Browns had drafted at third overall in the offseason, took over to no avail as Cleveland lost to fall behind at 4-5.
Fullback Bo Scott was the team’s leading rusher, earning six touchdown runs along with 625 yards, while Gary Collins led the Browns’ wide receivers with four touchdown catches, claiming 351 yards in the process. As for the defense, the best player for Cleveland was likely defensive lineman Jack Gregory, who scored 15 and a half sacks during the season, second-most in the NFL only behind the Raiders’ Tony Cline, who earned 17 and a half sacks. Defensive back Erich Barnes also had a solid season, getting five interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
For the 1971 season, Collier was replaced by offensive coordinator Nick Skorich, who remained as Cleveland’s head coach through 1974. The Browns picked up where they had left off after 1969, going 9-5 and making it to the 1971 playoffs, although they lost in the first round to the Baltimore Colts 20-3. Nelsen stayed on as the team’s starter in 1971, before knee injury issues forced him to give way to Phipps in the 1972 season. In 1972, Cleveland finished with a 10-4 record, the last time the team would take a double-digit win total until 1980. While they made the postseason, in the first round they faced the undefeated Miami Dolphins, who won 20-14 and went on to win the Super Bowl, as of this writing making them the only NFL team to go undefeated in both the regular season and postseason.
While the Browns span from 1967 to 1972 was mostly successful, their 1970 season remains as an anomaly, marked as the most average season in the history of the NFL.
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