Around 1970, on Sunday afternoons in Mentor, Ohio, my family would sometimes head off to a particular restaurant for lunch on the way home from church. I remember the dimly lit dining area, the tables cloaked in white and adorned with heavy water glasses stuffed with cloth napkins. Adjacent to the dining area was an even darker bar which was semi-concealed by black curtains. The glass and the brass in the bar glistened from the bright color television on the wall in the corner. During fall afternoons, the TV would be tuned to the Cleveland Browns game. The deep, important voice of announcer Gib Shanley boomed out into the dining area (the bar must have had the radio on as well).
I slipped furtively away from the table to sneak peaks at the TV when it sounded like something big was happening. The bright, yet often mud-stained white uniforms of the Browns lent an aura of greatness to the team. I was only around nine years old, but my curiosity was contagious: both of my parents seemed to follow the Browns more closely as a result of my interest.
My favorite Brown during these years was quarterback Bill Nelsen. He wasn't the best Browns quarterback ever; in fact, if judged by career ratings, he was average at best. Some notable Browns quarterbacks' career ratings:
Otto Graham 87
Bernie Kosar 82
Frank Ryan 78
Tim Couch 75
Vinnie Testaverde 75
Brian Sipe 75
Milt Plum 72
Bill Nelsen 70
Mike Phipps 53
In what feels like a mea culpa: my favorite Browns quarterback had been a star at USC. And a starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Nelsen came to the Browns in a trade with Pittsburgh in 1968. The team was still trying to get over losing Jim Brown in 1966, and Nelsen was taking over for Frank Ryan. Ryan had had some very effective years leading the Browns' offense, and was the quarterback during the 1964 title year. Browns head coach Blanton Collier (whom a Paul Brown biographer maintains was the brains behind the later Paul Brown Cleveland offenses) had noted the ability of Nelsen to shine from time to time on that bad Pittsburgh team. He saw the quarterback's leadership skills- his confidence and accountability. Collier photo at right.
Bill Nelsen starred as a Brown in 1968, earning an 86 passer rating on the strength of 19 touchdown passes. In 1969, his passing yards per game improved by 25, to 196 yds/game. 1969 was a Pro Bowl year for him as well.
A source from 1971 places Bill Nelsen's abilities in the 'leadership' and 'reacting under pressure' categories as second only to Johnny Unitas' that year. Nelsen was highly effective at managing the clock and pulling out last-minute wins.
In his four years as the Browns' starting quarterback, Bill Nelsen led the team to a 34-15- 1 record, including the playoffs. The Browns won three division titles and two conference titles during this time. His favorite targets were future Hall of Fame wide receiver Paul Warfield and Browns legend Gary Collins. Hall of Fame running back Leroy Kelly starred behind an offensive line anchored by Hall of Fame guard Gene Hickerson ("Route 66").
To this day, Nelsen points to a playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys as the apex of his career. It was in 1968, his first season with the Browns. He began the season riding the pine, over which time the Browns began their defense of the NFL's Century Division title by starting out 1-2. Collier inserted Nelsen as the starter against the Steelers in game four, and the team began a 9-1 stretch on their way to winning the division again. The Dallas playoff game was held in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the old Stadium. The Browns defeated the favored Cowboys 31-20. As Nelsen would later joke, they sent Cowboy quarterback Dandy Don Meredith to the (Monday Night Football) broadcast booth that day. That game placed the Browns within one game of the Super Bowl for one of their five times during the Super Bowl era.
What Bill Nelsen was perhaps most known for, however, was his bad knees. Their injury history dated back to his rookie season with Pittburgh, when a Detroit Lions defensive end plowed into them. He would play with most of the cartilage damaged or gone; his knees were reportedly even worse those of his more-publicized contemporary, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath. Ultimately, Nelsen's knees and resulting lack of mobility prompted the Browns to trade Paul Warfield to the Miami Dolphins for the right to draft Purdue All American quarterback Mike Phipps. Phipps was named the starter in his first training camp; to put it politely, his career paled in comparison to Bill Nelsen's. By 2007, Bill Nelsen was 66 years old and living in Orlando, Florida and trying to enjoy golf. "Doctors want to replace both of my knees. I've got bad arthritis in my back and shoulders. (Guys) hit me too many times. I really can't swing a golf club any more. I used to break 80; now I limp around and try to enjoy the sunshine. Hey - you know what? I'm glad I can still do that." Reportedly, Nelsen recently has had further extensive work done on his knees in the hopes of getting back on the links.
It has been argued that Bill Nelsen was the Tim Couch of his era with the Browns. He never seemed to be truly accepted by Browns fans. In Nelsen's case, it was largely due to his replacing the highly productive Ryan. Regardless of quarterback ratings, Bill Nelsen was certainly a cut above Couch, however. While not as good as Frank Ryan, he was a competitor and a leader, who could will the offense to score in a tense situation. It was more than enough to be the type of hero a nine-year-old's mind could immortalize.
Thank you for reading.