In June of 1974, I was filing scouting reports for Oakland Raiders Player Personnel Director Ron Wolf. When he hung up the phone and pushed out his cigarette I asked Ron a question. “Who has the best players,” my question implied I meant currently in the National Football League.
“Houston Oilers,” he answered while reaching for a report from the briefcase on his desk.
Houston Oilers? I couldn’t understand that. Houston was coming off a season in which they won only one game. I had expected Ron to say the champion Miami Dolphins, or any of the other powerhouses in the league including the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings and us. But instead, Ron said ‘Houston Oilers’ as a matter of fact. He went on to clarify his answer.
“You didn’t ask me who the best team was, you asked me who had the best personnel. The Houston Oilers have been drafting at the top for so long they couldn’t help themselves but to acquire a lot of talented athletes.”
The Oilers organization came off that 1-13 campaign in 1973 and moved up to seven wins and seven losses the following year and just missed the playoffs in 1975 with a 10-4 regular season record. Their talented roster also cracked the playoff field in 1978 with a 10-6 campaign that ushered in three straight postseason appearances.
Teams that have horrible records for a lot of years in a row are likely to pick up talent in the draft. How well they mold that talent into a winning team is another step towards capturing a Super Bowl victory.
The Cleveland Browns of recent seasons have strung together records that you wouldn’t want to show up on your report card. The Browns lost 44 of 48 games beginning in 2015 including an 0-16 mark in 2017.
Bad for the fans, but a benefit for the Browns draft prospects.
Like most teams that were really, really bad for an extended time, the Browns have corralled some extraordinary talent. The prospects can be seen as bright when gauged from a number of angles. Cleveland did something last season nearly as rare as a 56 game hitting streak in baseball, they had their initial breakout season and were victims of point spreads that routinely clipped the Browns backers.
Cleveland went from a doormat to one of the betting world’s favorite teams. The Browns went from a team that suffered a dozen consecutive losing seasons to a playoff berth in 2020 while compiling an 11-5 regular season record.
Yet, what did all that success do for their backers at the window?
Not so much.
The Browns had five of their straight-up wins turned to losses against the point spread during the regular season. Leaving Cleveland with a 6-10 regular season point spread mark. It is very uncommon for wise guy bettors to get beat against the line five times by the same team, particularly when that team is enjoying a breakthrough season and winning a high percentage of their games straight-up.
More importantly, what can we deduce will follow this success on the scoreboard while the books erased almost half of Cleveland’s wins?
We might have an early indicator in that the Browns won both their postseason games last year against the point spread, upsetting the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field and battling the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs in a highly contested contest at Arrowhead Stadium.
Two years ago, when the Browns were suffering their 12th straight losing campaign, Freddie Kitchens was their head coach. His lack of leadership got the Browns one more losing season to stock up on draft day prospects, and then with that talent in camp Cleveland brought in the man who appears poised to take this team over the top, Kevin Stefanski.
This talented team leader spent his entire NFL career prior to joining the Browns with the Minnesota Vikings. He remained on Minnesota’s coaching staff through three different head coaches, a tribute to his high standing in the organization.
Snapping a twelve year losing streak and winning a playoff game against longtime rival Pittsburgh goes a long way on what we can expect from this Browns team in 2021. This year, they just may be dominant enough to beat more point spreads during their wins, or, as was the case last season, the books know where to set the spread to fend off losses while this emerging young club sparkles on the field.
In any case, Cleveland joins my list of twelve possible Super Bowl winners this year that all have good reason to capture the Vince Lombardi Trophy next February.