IOWA CITY — The hard-luck Cleveland Browns enjoyed a resurgence in the mid-1990s under Coach Bill Belichick.
In 1994, the Browns finished 11-5, won a playoff game and defensive coordinator Nick Saban guided a unit that allowed the sixth-fewest points in NFL history. The offense approached the top 10 in multiple rushing categories, in part because of assistant coach Kirk Ferentz’s tutelage of a blue-collar offensive line.
In 1995, Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News predicted the Browns would reach their first Super Bowl. In early November, with the team in a first-place divisional tie, owner Art Modell announced the franchise would move to Baltimore. The Browns flopped on the field, and Cleveland descended into chaos off it.
NFL Network premieres a one-hour documentary “A Football Life: Cleveland '95” at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The show chronicles how Belichick assembled a staff filled with some of football’s top leaders over the last two decades. Executives Ozzie Newsome (now with Baltimore) and longtime NFL executive Michael Lombardi helped mold the Browns into a contender. Current NFL general managers Mike Tannenbaum (New York Jets), Scott Pioli (Kansas City) and Thomas Dimitroff (Atlanta) plus Lions Coach Jim Schwartz and former Jets and Browns head coach Eric Mangini were young do-it-all “slappies,” described by Ferentz as guys “with desks out in the hall.” Saban (Alabama) and Ferentz (Iowa) became two of college football’s top coaches.
The show, which The Gazette viewed in advance, also displays the raw emotion by Cleveland fans, coaches and players when the bedrock franchise was ripped from the shores of Lake Erie.
“It would be hard to top that as far as like just things going on that you could never imagine,” Ferentz told The Gazette. “We all lived through it, and history has proved there were a lot of good coaches on that staff, starting with Coach Belichick. He’s a Hall of Fame coach. Sometimes it’s not about a person or the people. Sometimes circumstances override things. To me that would be an example of one.”
The show documents two primary angles: the staff and how the Browns move affected the players and coaches.
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“When we attacked it, we knew we wanted to get into all the slappies and the coaching staff under Belichick, but we didn’t want to ignore Cleveland,” NFL Films producer Greg Frith. “That was sort of the ground zero moment for this staff in the 1995 season.
“When you put that at the back drop, you have an incredible coaching staff that goes on to do all these great things. They all or mostly all lived through what was probably the weirdest season ever experienced in the NFL. I think you have the basis for a good film.”
Newsome was a Hall of Fame tight end with Cleveland before joining the Browns front office as a scout. In the documentary, Newsome said Modell told him privately he planned to move the franchise. Modell then addressed the team two days before a pivotal home game against the Houston Oilers.
“I remember driving home,’ Newsome recalled. “I live probably 30 or 35 minutes from the practice facility. That drive seemed like it lasted three and a half or four hours.
“You’re thinking about Red Right 88. The Drive. The Fumble. I’ve got all of those emotions going through me as I’m driving home. And I get home and I tell my wife, ‘We’re moving to Baltimore.’”
Cleveland’s fans revolted, calling in death threats and hanging Modell in effigy. Modell, who died Sept. 6 at age 87, never returned to Cleveland in a public capacity.
Houston drilled Cleveland 37-10, sending the Browns into a six-game spiral.
“I felt bad for the team and the players and the coaches that were working so hard with less than no support,” Belichick said. “The owner was nowhere to be found. He was in Baltimore. You felt like you were on a deserted island fending for yourself.”
Ferentz, who was 40 at the time, supported a family with five young children. While he and the coaching staff tried to keep the team together, it became a futile effort.
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“From my recollection, when the move got announced, the heart of the team was just stripped away,” Ferentz told The Gazette. “It was just punching the clock and going to work. In effect, the team quit. It wasn’t intentional; it was just a result of a bad situation.”
The documentary shows Cleveland's final home game that season, a 26-10 win against Cincinnati on Dec. 17. Fans entered the stadium with saws and screwdrivers, taking every last piece of the surroundings with them.
"I remember saying someone’s going to rip the wrong bolt out of this thing and the whole place is going to come falling apart," Schwartz said.
Cleveland's players ironically mobbed the Dawg Pound following the game, shedding tears and dispensing thank yous to one of the NFL's most loyal fan bases. During the game, teams switched sides after crossing midfield to avoid the notorious bleacher section.
"People just wanted pieces of tape, sweaty, bloody pieces … people just wanted something to hold on to," Browns center Steve Everitt said. "I can remember losing it."
"I was saying thank you to the people who had been a part of … part of a lot of joy," said Browns running back Earnest Byner, choking up 17 years later. "A lot of good times and a lot of difficult times and remained supportive of something that they really loved."
The Browns became the Baltimore Ravens in 1996. Ferentz moved with the team and became the Ravens’ assistant head coach for the next three seasons. The team’s first draft choice was future Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden. The Ravens’ second first-round pick, which was obtained in a trade with San Francisco, was Ray Lewis, the NFL’s greatest defensive player of his generation. They provided the Ravens’ cornerstone of success, which included a Super Bowl title in 2000.
That could have been Cleveland under Belichick.
“Nobody will ever know have ever known had the team not moved and Bill been allowed to coach there for 10 years,” Ferentz told The Gazette. “We’ll never know. It might be the Pittsburgh Steelers. They don’t panic when things go bad there.”
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"No doubt. We would have won a Super Bowl," Newsome said. "We were too talented, we were too committed. We were all on the same page."
Several of the "slappies" remain close. In the mid-1990s they shared an apartment without air conditioning or cable. They barely had food, and Schwartz remembers with horror the day he made a sandwich with the last of Belichick's turkey and feared he'd be fired.
The original "slappies" segment totaled 22 minutes, and was chopped almost in half.
"We weren't able to even get to half of them," Frith said. "The stories of Mangini sleeping on Pioli's couch and the door was left open because there was no air conditioning. A raccoon comes in through the middle of the night. ..."
Dimitroff and Pioli are still best friends, Frith said. An early scene showed the two meeting at Pioli's Kansas City area home before the 2012 season opener. Pioli's mansion is a far cry from the tiny apartment he and Dimitroff shared next to Cleveland's airport.
"Two rival GMs in the league, it's like your buddies playing fantasy football," Frith said. "Except they're doing it for real."
Belichick was 36-44 in Cleveland and was fired two months after the season.
"If there was one message or one point, it was to sort of dispel the myth that Belichick failed in Cleveland," Frith said.
Modell was willing to participate in the documentary but was not interviewed. Frith said he didn't want to involve the political stalemate for a new stadium, which led to the move.
"If you bring Modell into the film, then you're forced to go down that road," Frith said.