Controversy at Quarterback is Nothing New for the Cleveland Browns

Controversy at Quarterback is Nothing New for the Cleveland Browns

Rod Bluhm
2 years ago
7 min read
Deshaun Watson meets with the media at his introductory press conference with the Browns.

If you haven’t followed the Browns for more than a few seasons, you may think the team’s biggest struggles have involved finding a reliable kicker and learning to put up with Cleveland jokes. 

While these issues have been present, they lack the historical significance that quarterback controversy has in the organization. The polarizing trades involving Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield may have left many fans shaking their heads, but they are par for the course for the Browns. 

The franchise has survived in the past. It will do so now.

The first controversial decision surrounding the quarterback position was made in the infancy of the Cleveland Browns. It probably wasn’t highly debated at the time, yet the decision to start Cliff Lewis over Otto Graham early in the 1946 season would certainly raise eyebrows today. At the time, Head Coach Paul Brown was concerned over Graham’s lack of time in camp since he was discharged from the Navy late in the summer. It obviously all worked out as Graham took over as the starter in week three. Lewis saw action at quarterback from time to time, played defensive back, and returned punts. 

Otto Graham retired after the 1954 season, but was convinced to come back and play for the highest salary in the league in 1955 when no one stepped up as a replacement. Graham retired for good after the Browns won the title that season.

The Browns struggled to their first losing record in team history in 1956. With Otto Graham gone, one can imagine a mini version of “the QB jersey” making an appearance from 1956 to 1957 when the Browns used five different players at the position. 

The fifth player was Milt Plum.

Milt Plum was drafted by the Browns in the second round of the 1957 Draft. You may recall that they took Jim Brown in the first round that year. Plum had the advantage of playing QB with a backfield of Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell. He was also able to fling the rock. His passer rating mark set in 1960 held up until Joe Montana broke it in 1989. Plum seemed to be the answer. Plum was quoted by a newspaper reporter as calling Paul Brown’s offense stereotyped prior to the 1962 season. Plum called the report fictitious, but the damage was done. Paul Brown quickly traded him to the Detroit Lions. 

Adding fuel to the fire is the matter that Plum’s backup in 1960 and 1961 was future Hall-of-Famer Len Dawson. He left the Browns in 1962 for the Dallas Texans, who would become the Chiefs. 

Peter Jones (@The_IT_Hedgehog) adds additional context to Plum’s years in Cleveland.

“Plum went to the Pro Bowl after the 1960 season. The other Pro Bowl QBs were Johnny Unitas, Norm Van Brocklin and Bart Starr – all Hall of Famers. [He] went to the Pro Bowl again after the 1961 season. The other Pro Bowl QBs that year were Sonny Jurgenson, Y.A. Tittle, Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas. Again, all Hall of Famers. This is an idea of the level of competition Plum was up against when he played, and partly why he went a little under the radar.”

Jim Ninowski's Return

Jim Ninowski, one of the five quarterbacks to play in the 1956 and 1957 seasons, was reacquired from Detroit in the Milt Plum trade. He was expected to play in a powerhouse backfield with Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. Ninowski was hesitant to return to the Browns, but finally agreed to a one-year contract over an early retirement. Davis would never play for the Browns and Ninowski started the first seven games of the 1962 season before being lost for the season to injury. 

Frank Ryan Takes The Reigns


Frank Ryan, who had been acquired from the Rams to be Ninowski’s backup, finished the season as the starter. Ryan’s fortunes changed when Paul Brown was fired after the 1962 season and replaced by long-time assistant Blanton Collier. Collier chose Ryan as the starter for the 1963 season over Ninowski, essentially causing Ninowski to lose his job due to injury. 

Frank Ryan would lead the Browns to their last championship in 1964 and would be the starter into the 1968 season.

A QB Trade With Pittsburgh

Bill Nelson was acquired from the Steelers in May of 1968. If you want controversy, how about a trade with the Steelers? Nelson took over for Ryan part way through the 1968 season and played well as the starter through the 1971 season. It may seem controversial for Nelson to take over for Ryan, but Ryan was aging, banged up and was becoming less effective.

Bill Nelson held off one of the Browns most controversial quarterbacks, Mike Phipps, until 1972. Phipps was traded for Browns great and Hall of Famer Paul Warfield. Most people see it as one of the Browns worst trades, but there is more to the story. When Brian Sipe took Phipps job in 1976 due to an injury to Phipps, another trade took place. Phipps went to the Bears for a first-round pick in the 1978 draft. That pick turned into Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome. You must admit, Paul Warfield for Ozzie Newsome sounds a lot better than Warfield for Phipps.

Everyone loved Brian Sipe.

His MVP season in 1980 still contains multiple team passing records. Sipe exited in somewhat controversial fashion when he signed with the New Jersey Generals of the USFL prior to the 1984 season.

Bernie's Cleveland Controversey

Bernie Kosar forced his way to his hometown by manipulating the supplemental draft system in 1985, but we loved every minute of it. Was it controversial? Sure. Was it perfect for the Browns? Absolutely!

Kosar went on to lead the Browns to three AFC Championship games and become one of the most beloved players in Cleveland sports history. He was the starter well into the Bill Belichick era. However, the young coach and the hometown favorite QB didn’t see eye to eye. As we know now, Belichick wanted a ball control offense with short passes. Kosar wanted to continue to call many of his own plays. 

Belichick unceremoniously cut the Kosar, who was nothing short of a hero in Cleveland, in the middle of the 1993 season. The coach who would one day be labeled as the best ever, cut our hero. Most fans have never forgiven the coach. Controversial wasn’t a strong enough word. This move drew raw emotion from fans. His replacement, Vinny Testaverde would start until the franchise was temporarily ripped from our city following the 1995 season.

The Return of the Browns? The Return of Controversey

When the Browns franchise was resurrected in 1999, the Browns were given the first draft pick and received additional picks in other rounds. It was an interesting draft. The Browns needed a lot after an expansion draft that yielded a less than impressive haul. The Browns seemed to have a choice between Tim Couch and Akili Smith, yet Donovan McNabb was a promising prospect along with considering Ricky Williams or a huge trade with New Orleans giving them the right to take Williams first. The Browns had options. 

Looking back and saying they should have done something else is easy. 

The truth is that Tim Couch was an excellent player who just didn’t have a good team around him and therefore had his career cut short due to injuries. McNabb had an excellent career on a far better team. It’s impossible to say what would have happened if the Browns would have traded with New Orleans. Couch only played in Cleveland through 2003. 

The QB Carousel Begins


Get your quarterback jersey ready. From Kelly Holcomb to Colt McCoy, to Connor Shaw to Cody Kessler, we saw way too many quarterbacks from 2003 to 2018. We had controversy on an almost weekly basis. We didn’t know who the starter would be, if a new QB would be signed or cut, or if the team even had a guy to play QB some Sundays. 

The Brian Hoyer era was perhaps the most disturbing. When Johnny Manziel was inserted as the starter during a Browns winning streak before he was ready, we all wanted to scream. 

Baker Mayfield brought swag, attitude and yes, controversy to town. In a 2018 NFL Draft class with multiple options at QB, the Browns selected Baker to the chagrin of some fans and the cheers of others. Baker is a guy you root for when he’s on your team, but his cockiness may rub you the wrong way if he plays for your rival. 

Controversy started in camp when Head Coach Hue Jackson had no interest in allowing Mayfield to compete for the starting job. The job was handed to Tyrod Taylor, but Mayfield was pressed into action in week three when Taylor was injured. He went on to set the rookie touchdown passing record (since broken). 

Mayfield seemed to possess some of the same qualities as Milt Plum and Bernie Kosar, which caused him to clash with coaches. The issue for Mayfield was that he never had the success that Plum and Kosar did. His chain was much shorter. To be fair to Plum and Kosar, there is only talk of them each disagreeing with a single head coach. Those head coaches just happen to be two of the greatest of all time, and two guys who probably didn’t want to be questioned.

Deshaun Comes To Town

Fast forward to 2022 and the trade that brought Deshaun Watson to Cleveland. It is undoubtedly one of the largest trades in Browns history. It will be debated and questioned for years. That is before you even consider character and legal issues concerning Watson. If the Browns win, the trade will likely be lauded in the future. If issues continue to arise, it will be considered a failure.

The Watson trade necessitated the trading of Baker Mayfield. Some fans followed Mayfield to Carolina. 

Controversy has surrounded the quarterback position in Cleveland through the history of the franchise. From Cliff Lewis to Deshaun Watson, it’s been a part of following the Browns

We have survived controversy in the past and will continue to do so. This team is more than just a compilation of players, coaches, and staff. It’s history, tradition, brotherhood, and much more. Every player is important, but there is no player alone that means more than the team.

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