Paul Brown, pro football's master manipulator, sat in his suburban Cleveland home last week counting his blessings as he digested a Thanksgiving dinner. A bird in the stomach may be worth two in the bush leagues, but Brown, whose buoyant Clevelanders once again are knocking on the NFL's throne-room door after a unique year in exile, knows that heavy rests the crown on a champion's head in this explosive circuit. He was feeling expansive but not speculative.
This balding little genius, who has brought the Ohioans back from the dead in less than a year to within one victory of their 11th divisional championship in 12 years under his astute leadership, still faces road dates at Detroit and New York.
But resurgence from a dismal 5-7 season in 1956 to top dog this year smacks of more than luck-of-the-draw, even if his first pick in last year's draft was the incomparable rookie Jimmy Brown.
Coach Brown takes exception to being hailed a defensive genius. "I like to think we coach more than defense," he says.
Seasoned Linebacker Walt Michaels is given major credit by his coach, who gives Michaels rein in calling defensive shots in contrast to the messenger service that directs the offense from the bench.
"I suppose you could say we used a basic 4-3-4 defense," said Brown reluctantly, "but it's constantly changing. We don't call many defensive signals from the bench because to a certain extent we're guessing. And we feel the boys on the field can guess as good as we do."
Brown insists personnel and not his strategy tells the real story this year, but that's where his deft touch is golden. Big Bob Gain was switched from end to tackle; Preston Carpenter from halfback to end, where he's become "A humdinger of a receiver"; Rookie Vince Costello has proved a remarkable middle linebacker; Galen Fiss has filled in spectacularly for injured Chuck Noll, and service returnees Bill Quinlan at end and Tom Catlin (only back two weeks) have been remarkably sharp.
"We got rid of the people who no longer were willing to pay the price," Brown explained unflinchingly. "Why, we've got 13 or 14 new men this year and their youth and exuberance more than make up for their mistakes from inexperience." Gain, in Brown's own words, "was a big change for the better over [John] Kissell."
But the key man in the stingy Cleveland defense is Costello, a 225-pound "free agent," signed by Brown on the hunch he'd pad his 195-pound playing figure at little Ohio University.
"He's an exceptional tackler with a great and innate ability to diagnose plays. We knew about him because we have an insight to Ohio U players. Howard Brinker, our defensive backfield coach, was his coach at Ohio U under Carroll Widdoes, who once was on our staff."
As for stubby Tommy O'Connell's sudden emergence as a field general de luxe, Brown bristles at the thought the former Illinois passing star was a "sow's ear."
"Sure, Tommy was the Bears' bench quarterback once, but some teams let Bobby Layne get away, too," he challenged.
O'Connell, nonetheless, has developed tremendously under Brown's patient and understanding guidance, working feverishly with special running-pass techniques to improve his footwork.
Brown speaks no more ecstatically of prize Jimmy Brown than of his others. But his pride shows through. For instance, would he like to switch the amazing Syracuse comet to halfback as has been suggested? "I'm satisfied with him the way he is and where he is," said Brown emphatically. "He's bigger than most people think at 6 feet 2 and 228." At fullback he's the most devastating force in the league.
Brown shied away from a comparison of his newest fullback sensation and Marion Motley, the human battering-ram who along with Otto Graham first opened the throne-room doors for Cleveland.
"Jimmy and Marion are a little different types," he said. "Maybe Marion was stronger, but Jimmy has enough power. Maybe Jimmy is faster, but Marion wasn't slow. They're both great, but Marion was such a good old war horse I'd rather not compare them."
After last week's impressive 31-0 victory over the Chicago Cardinals, Brown has every right to feel pleased with his latest edition. Yet nothing is as uncertain as next Sunday's game in the NFL. Next week, for instance, the Browns and Colts could sew up their respective divisions if they beat the Lions and 49ers—or throw them into a Donnybrook if they lose.
PASSING of unheralded Tommy O'Connell has helped Cleveland back to top.
RUNNING of Rookie Back Jim Brown gives Browns new Marion Motley look.