This year's Cleveland Browns are reminiscent of the story of the emperor's new clothes. Although Jim Brown, in the misty English distance, has announced very definitely that he has forsworn football for making motion pictures and campaigning within his own organization for the betterment of the lot of the Negro in the U.S., the Browns, individually and collectively, seem determined to ignore his absence. To the discerning eye, however, without Jim they are as naked as the old king in his imaginary robe.
Well, not quite.
Although the loss of Brown means that Cleveland's ground game has been diminished by something on the order of a thousand yards per year, the Browns still have one of the better passing attacks in the Eastern Division with Frank Ryan throwing to Paul Warfield, Gary Collins and a rookie sensation, massive Milt Morin, Cleveland's first draft choice. So pleased are the Browns with Morin that they have moved last year's tight end, John Brewer, to linebacker, where he has performed creditably during preseason games. Should Morin be something less than he seemed in the early weeks of training, the Browns still have two very capable tight ends in Ralph Smith and Tom Hutchinson.
But this passing attack, without the complementary threat of Jim Brown as a runner, could lose a great deal of its effectiveness. Ernie Green, who teamed with Brown a year ago when Cleveland won the Eastern championship, is an accomplished blocker, but he has yet to develop into an outstanding runner. Leroy Kelly, at 6 feet and 200 pounds, lacks Brown's size and power. Behind these two are an assortment of raw rookies and journeymen veterans, and the Brown running game, long the backbone of a devastating attack, now must be regarded with suspicion.
"With Jim Brown, we ran 60% of the time and threw only 40%," one of the Browns' coaches said. "I saw a story not long ago saying that we would throw 60 and run 40, but the change won't be that drastic. I figure maybe it will be something like 45 passing, 55 running or 50-50."
Aside from the loss of Jim Brown's pure ability to advance the ball on the ground, his retirement has had a psychological effect on the Browns. There are conflicting reports as to what that effect has been.
"I think that everyone will try harder this year just to prove that we are as good as ever without him," said Frank Ryan. "This team was not simply a Jim Brown team. We could do other things."
Very true, of course, but a rival coach smiled when he heard what Ryan had said. "They may want to prove that they can do it without Jim Brown," he said. "Maybe they can. But they have to miss him, and they have to know when they need a big play from a running back they don't have a running back to produce one. There's no way that can't hurt."
Cleveland fans can be thankful that another mainstay of the team is not quite ready to retire. Lou Groza is beginning the 16th season of a distinguished career in which he has kicked 547 of the 563 extra points he has attempted and 214 of 359 field goals. He is the league's alltime scoring leader with 1,195 points, and that's a record that only Groza himself endangers.
The Brown defense, an overlooked but important factor in their divisional title last year, could be better this season. The defensive line will be the same except for the addition of Walter Johnson, a big and talented rookie tackle last season, who is to take over the starting left-tackle assignment from Dick Modzelewski. Frank Parker, a strong tackle who was injured last season, is fit. Brewer, the erstwhile tight end, has taken over from Galen Fiss at a corner linebacker spot, and Mike Howell, a sophomore defender, will split time with Bernie Parrish in the Brown secondary. So the Brown defense will be deeper and younger than it was in 1965 and presumably better.
Overall, though, the weakening of the offense will be more damaging than any improvement in the defense, and it seems unlikely that the Browns can repeat as division champions.
The Browns, by the way, have another handicap shared by no other club in the East. Their one interdivision opponent this year is Green Bay—and they must play the Packers in the second game of the season.
The Browns have a resourceful and imaginative coach in Blanton Collier. It is just possible that Collier will be able to skin the team through to the title even without Brown. Until it gets some new clothes, however, Cleveland is more likely to wind up second.