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Weren’t the Rams Cleveland’s First NFL Champions?

It’s a question that comes up a lot: Weren’t the Rams Cleveland’s first NFL champions, and the Browns the city’s second?

Actually, no. Cleveland has the singular distinction of being the only American city to win championships with three different NFL franchises.*

So, who was this team that preceded both the Rams and the Browns as Cleveland champions?

It was none other than the Cleveland Bulldogs. In 1924, in only the fifth regular season of an organization that was fresh off a name change from the American Professional Football Association to the National Football League, the Bulldogs (7-1-1, .875) picked up one more win than had the Chicago Bears (6-1-4, .857) and laid claim to the pennant.

Cleveland Browns, Cleveland Rams, Cleveland Bulldogs
A Cleveland Plain Dealer cartoon on the eve of the Browns’ first All-America Football Conference title game in 1946 bears witness to the NFL champions who preceded them: the 1924 Bulldogs and 1945 Rams.

And here’s where controversy erupted. Because the Bulldogs had edged Chicago 16-14 in an early-season match-up at Dunn Field (later League Park), the Bears challenged Cleveland to a December 7 rematch at Wrigley Field and thrashed the Bulldogs soundly, 23-0, thinking they had made their case for dominance of the league.

No dice, NFL officials said at their annual meeting in January 1925. The regular season had ended November 30. Therefore, any game played after that qualified as merely an exhibition. The Bulldogs were champions; the Bears were livid.

But, weren’t the legendary Bulldogs—also champions the previous two NFL seasons—actually from Canton? They were. But by 1924 they were so financially strapped in the future Pro Football Hall of Fame city 60 miles south of Cleveland that the organization took to canvassing the city trying to sell season tickets, to little avail. So Samuel H. Deutsch, owner of a rival NFL team called the Cleveland Indians, bought the Bulldogs and combined the best players from his 1923 Indians with the best of the Bulldogs to create the 1924 NFL champions in Cleveland. In 1925 the franchise splintered again, with several Canton businessmen buying back the rights to the Bulldogs from Deutsch and playing games in Canton, while Deutsch continued to call his Cleveland team the Bulldogs.

This is critical. Had the Bulldogs moved lock, stock, and barrel from Canton to Cleveland in 1924 after their 1923 title—or from Cleveland back to Canton in 1925 after their 1924 title—they would have become the first NFL champs to play elsewhere the next year. But they didn’t, and as a result, two decades later when the 1945 Cleveland Rams became the 1946 Los Angeles Rams, they became the first—and to this day only—NFL champions to play the following season fully intact in a completely different city.

 

* As I say, Cleveland is the only city to win NFL championships with three different franchises. Checking in with two titles each are Baltimore (Colts, Ravens) as well three major metropolises that at various times were home to two franchises simultaneously: Chicago (Bears, Cardinals), Los Angeles (Rams, Raiders), and New York (Giants, Jets).

Are the 1937 Rams the All-Time Losingest NFL Team in Cleveland?

Until 2016, the answer would have been yes. In 1937 the debut edition of the Cleveland Rams and their 0–10 (.090) record put in a performance of on-field futility that surpassed even the inaugural Cleveland Browns II of 1999 (2–14, .125).

And then along came the Browns of 2016 and their 1–15 (.067) record.

All-Time Worst NFL Teams in ClevelandYes, Cleveland football fans—not just Browns fans but fans of all Cleveland NFL teams through the decades—have never seen an NFL season more awful than the one they’ve just witnessed. And that’s saying a lot.

You see, Cleveland was a charter member of the American Professional Football Association (APFA) all the way back in 1920—just shy of a century ago. We now know the APFA as the National Football League, born of man in that famous manger Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio; and believe it or not, it actually took some time for NFL football to take hold in what was then baseball- and boxing- and college-football-mad Cleveland.

Hugo Bezdek
Hugo Bezdek was a fantastic Major League Baseball manager and college football coach, but as the head coach of the 1937-1938 Cleveland Rams he was an abject failure. He was fired after compiling a 1–13 record and never coached pro football again.

Three NFL teams predate the Rams and the Browns in Cleveland: an NFL charter franchise called first the Tigers then the Indians in 1920 and 1921; a Canton Bulldogs / Cleveland Indians blend (1923-1927) newly christened the Cleveland Bulldogs in time to become NFL champs in 1924; then, for one single season that was underwritten by the league in hopes of getting something started in Cleveland, a second version of the Indians. But that team was was disbanded after compiling a 2-10 record, thereby qualifying it for fifth on Cleveland’s all-time infamy list.

In terms of losing percentages the 2016 Browns have beaten ’em all—the debut rosters of four different expansion teams included.

Optimistic Browns fans might choose to derive some hope from the Rams’ rags-to-riches story. And it is indeed true that after cycling through four head coaches and turning over their entire roster between 1937 and 1944, the Rams dove deep into the 1944 NFL draft and selected, with the 42nd overall pick, a dark-horse quarterback out of UCLA who hadn’t even earned All-American status. The very next season, 1945, Bob Waterfield passed the Rams to a 9–1 record and the NFL championship.

The Browns can only hope the 2017 player draft in April brings much the same result. They currently hold the number-one pick.