Stephen's Blog

LOTL Sports Take: A Run Through Cleveland Sports History

As we head into 2019, we have a Cleveland sporting landscape that has quite literally flipped on its head from just a year ago. Just how different is it? Well, 12 months ago, the Cavaliers led by LeBron James were leading the championship charge for a fourth consecutive year, the Indians were coming off of a 102-win season albeit with an unfortunate postseason defeat, and the Browns were winless and fresh off a winless season celebration parade to celebrate their futility. Does anybody remember that? Because that sounds like an eternity ago. Today, the Indians are on a gradual but clear downswing related to the difficulties of keeping a team together in a small market due to the lack of a salary cap in Major League Baseball. The Browns are on a massive upswing due to a strengthening defensive unit and landing some major impact players on offense including young quarterback Baker Mayfield. And the Cavaliers have fallen off the proverbial cliff following LeBron James’ departure to LA and a myriad of injuries to the remaining players. This whiplash has led me to the following questions. Are the fortunes of Cleveland’s major sports teams really this volatile? And if you could pattern the rising and falling fortunes of our teams like that of the stock market, what would the line graph look like? We’ll seek to answer those questions here tonight, as we take a walk down memory lane. First let’s start with the Indians, who seem to be the most stable of our big 3 at the moment, and have the longest history beginning in 1901. The Indians were generally mediocre for most of their first two decades, before hitting a big upswing from 1917 to 1921, winning the MLB title over Brooklyn in 1920. Following that period, the tribe trended into melancholy for the 20s, and then to stable meh status in the 30s. The war years were not good, but the period post World War II was excellent, maybe the best in club history. The Indians shocked the baseball world in 1948, going from 4th place the previous season to a 97 win season and then an MLB title win over the Braves. From 1950 to 1955, the Indians won at least 92 games every year, but couldn’t break through the Yankees’ incredible dominance in the period. The lone exception to that was in 1954, when the Tribe won a then record 111 games. They came into the World Series as heavy favorites but lost badly to the Giants. After contending a few more times in 1955, 1956, and 1959, the golden era of Indians baseball turned again to mediocrity in the 60s. And then it got worse. From 1970 to 1993, the Indians never won more than 84 games and never made the postseason. It was so bad that some say their greatest accomplishment was being able to stay in Cleveland and not relocating. Then came the second golden era of the 90s. The Indians likely would’ve made the postseason in 1994 but it was canceled due to the baseball strike. In 1995 the Indians posted 100 wins, their best season since 1954, and had arguably one of the greatest batting orders in baseball history. Unforunately they came up against one of the best pitching staffs in history in the World Series and lost to the Braves. The Indians had a great 1996 season but were upended by Baltimore in the divisional playoffs. 1997 appeared to be a letdown for much of the season but a weak AL Central allowed the Indians to reach the postseason again, where they then caught fire and upset New York and Baltimore to reach the World Series against the Marlins. The Indians were denied right at the death, losing an extra inning Game 7. The Indians then had to deal with a historically great Yankees team in 1998, losing in the ALCS, before having another really strong season in 1999 but losing to Boston in the divisional playoffs. The Indians had their last try at contention in 2001 but lost to a great Seattle team that won 116 games. The 2000s were generally a mixed bag for the Tribe. They won 93 games in 2005 but incredibly did not reach the playoffs. In 2007 they did make it and kicked out the Yankees before falling against Boston in a 7 game ALCS. The team struggled after that, posting 81 or fewer wins the next 5 seasons. The Indians’ current run of success had its origins in 2013, when the team reached the newly-created wild card playoff tiebreaker game, but were beaten by the Tampa Bay Rays. The team posted more modest but respectable win totals of 85 and 81 in 2014 and 2015 before bursting onto the scene big time with a 94 win season in 2016. The Indians then laid waste to Boston and Toronto to win the AL Championship, and then seemingly had one hand on their first MLB title in 68 years before they inexplicably ran out of gas, losing 4 games to 3 to the Chicago Cubs. The next regular season was an even greater success, with the Indians winning 102 games but then shockingly losing to the Yankees in the divisional playoffs. Last season, the Indians won a weak AL Central division but were swept by Houston in the divisional round. The prognosis for 2019 appears to be either a similar performance, or perhaps slightly lower given the players that have departed this offseason. Heading to the gridiron now, the Browns had immediate success right out of the gate. Founded in 1946, the team won 4 AAFC titles in a row before jumping into the NFL in 1950. The Browns would go 10-2 that season and win the NFL title 30-28 over the LA Rams. They then went 11-1 the next year but lost to those same Rams in the title game. In 1952 the Browns only went 8-4 but still won their division and reached the title game, but lost to the Lions. In 1953 the Browns went 11-1, but were defeated again by the Lions in the title game. Finally, the Browns beat those same Lions for the title in 1954 following a 9-3 regular season. They then tacked on their 3rd title in 6 years with a 9-2-1 regular season followed by a 38-14 blowout win over the Rams. This run of success by the Browns from 1950 to 1955, 3 championships and 3 runner-up finishes, is without question the greatest in Cleveland sports history. The Browns continued to be very good over the next two decades, posting winning records every year from 1957 to 1973. They played for the NFL title in 1957 but were beaten by the Lions. The Browns had a great stretch from 1963 to 1965, winning 10 games in 1963 and 1964, finishing the 1964 season with a 27-0 shutout win over the Colts for their 4th NFL title. They nearly repeated in 1965 after winning 11 games, but were beaten by the Packers in the title game. The Browns carried on, making the playoffs in 1967 but losing to the Cowboys. In 1968 they beat those same Cowboys but were beaten by the Colts in the NFL title game (which preceded Super Bowl III). Another NFL title loss came to the Vikings in 1969. The Browns reached the playoffs again in 1971 and 1972, but were beaten by Baltimore and Miami respectively, the latter of which went undefeated. The Browns went through ups and downs for the rest of the 70s before reaching the playoffs again in 1980. The team won 11 games but were beaten by Oakland in the “Red Right 88” game. More ups and downs came in the early part of the 80s before the Browns’ second golden era began in 1985. The team won the AFC Central before coming up short against Miami in the playoffs. 1986 was even better, as the Browns won 12 games and beat the Jets in a 2 overtime thriller before being brutally defeated by Denver in the AFC title game on a controversial walk off field goal preceded by John Elway’s famous “drive”. The Browns were back again in 1987, winning 10 games and beating Indianapolis in the divisional playoffs before losing again to Denver in a game that featured Earnest Byner’s “fumble” on the goal line on what would have been the go ahead touchdown. The Browns won 10 games in 1988 but lost in the wild card round to Houston. Their last big run at glory came in 1989, where the Browns went 9-6-1 and won the divisional playoff game against Buffalo. They were again beaten by Denver in the AFC title game though, causing a generation of Cleveland fans to forever hate John Elway’s guts. Since 1990, it has been nothing but pain for the Browns. The team has had only 3 winning seasons and 2 playoff appearances, those coming in 1994 and 2002. And of course, the lowest point of all came in 1995, when team owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore. Since returning to the league in 1999, the Browns have had 10 seasons where they have won 4 or fewer games, including historic futility of 1 win in 2016 and 0 wins in 2017. Luckily though, this 2 decade run of misery that has christened FirstEnergy Stadium as the “Factory of Sadness”, may be coming to an end. The current team was just a half game below .500 in 2018, with a look of trending upward. We press onto the hardwood now and to the newest of our Big 3. The Cavaliers had a very poor start from 1970 to 1973, losing at least 50 games each season. But the team had a good run from 1975 to 1976, winning 40 games in 1975 before winning 49 games and the Central Division in 1976, knocking out Washington in the conference semifinals in what was called the “Miracle of Richfield”. The injury-plagued Cavaliers were unfortunately beaten by Boston in the Eastern Finals. From there, the Cavaliers lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1977 and 1978. The Cavaliers were brutal from 1979 to 1987, never posting a record over .500. Owner Ted Stepien made so many bad decisions the league was making rules in his name to avoid teams making his mistakes in the future. But the team turned around late in the 80s, reaching the playoffs in 1988. They then won a team record 57 games in 1989 and looked a good bet to win the title but were shockingly beaten in the first round thanks to Michael Jordan’s famous “shot”. The team trended downward in 1990 where they lost to Philadelphia in round 1, then didn’t make the playoffs in 1991. But the Cavaliers rebounded big time in 1992, equaling their record win total of 57. They then defeated New Jersey and Boston en route to the Eastern Finals, but the Cavaliers were beaten by Chicago 4 games to 2. The next year the Cavaliers had another fine season, winning 54 games, but their season was again ended by Chicago, this time in a sweep. Mediocrity reigned for the rest of the decade with the Cavaliers losing first round series 4 times from 1994 through 1998. Things took a turn for the worse after the 1999 NBA lockout, as the team lost at least 50 games every year from 2000 to 2003, posting a 17-65 record in 2003. The franchise’s fortunes then turned around in an instant, as the Cavaliers landed the top pick in the NBA draft lottery, earning them the right to draft local basketball prodigy Lebron James. With Lebron in the fold, the Cavaliers were back above .500 in 2005, then were back in the playoffs in 2006, knocking out Washington in round 1 before falling to Detroit 4 to 3 in the Eastern semifinals. Then the ascent continued in 2007, as the Cavaliers knocked out Washington and New Jersey, before dethroning Detroit in the Eastern Finals to reach their first NBA Finals in franchise history. The Cavaliers were defeated by San Antonio in those finals. In 2008 the Cavaliers went through transition, ultimately winning 45 games and losing to eventual champion Boston in the Eastern semifinals. The next two seasons the Cavaliers posted the best record in the league, winning 66 games in 2009 and 61 games in 2010. They should have been ripe for their first NBA title, but were shockingly beaten in the playoffs by Orlando in the East Finals in 2009, then lost to Boston in the East semifinals in 2010. Then the Cavaliers fell off the proverbial cliff as Lebron cast “the decision” upon Cleveland, announcing he was moving to Miami. The team was awful the next year, but was bad enough to draft another young prodigy, guard Kyrie Irving. The team was beleaguered from 2011 to 2014, losing at least 49 games each season. But then salvation came almost as unexpectedly as the grim reaper had struck four years earlier, as Lebron elected to return to Cleveland, vowing to win a title for the CLE. In 2015 the Cavaliers won 53 games, and steamrolled their way through the playoffs to meet Golden State in the Finals. Without Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving able to play, the Cavaliers lost the Finals 4 to 2. The next year, a rematch seemed all but inevitable as both teams earned the top seed in their conference and then reached their 2nd straight NBA Finals. Down 3 games to 1, the Cavaliers rewrote history, winning the last 3 games to win their first NBA Championship and the first title for the city since the Browns’ title win in 1964. Over 1.3 million people crowded into downtown Cleveland for the victory celebration. The Cavaliers would win the Eastern Conference again in 2017 and 2018 but were unable to get past the Warriors on either occasion. At present, the Cavaliers have hit yet another cliff caused by another Lebron departure, this time to Los Angeles, and carry the worst record in the league. If you are still reading right now, I commend you because that was a longer walk than I had envisioned. In conclusion, each of Cleveland’s 3 major teams have had periods of greatness and periods of futility. The Indians were great in the 1910s, 50s, and 90s, with another solid run in the past 3-4 years. The Browns were the class of the NFL in the 50s and 60s, with another great run in the 80s. And the Cavaliers have been the strongest recently, having very strong runs in the early 90s, 2000s and 2010s. Are Cleveland’s sporting fortunes really constant or volatile? In all seriousness, looking at the year to year performance of the Browns and Indians, it appears the two teams rise and fall very slowly, with long periods of either success or failure, with long periods of rebuilding or slow decline in between. The Cavaliers on the other hand, seem to rise and fall very rapidly, in some cases going from worst to first or vice versa in their division or conference. My feeling is that this could be due to the nature of basketball, where there are fewer players on the court and one player can dominate whereas football and baseball are true team sports. How can we model our sports history? Well, if you imagine each team’s performance like that of a publicly traded stock, you can rather easily compare them. Here’s what such a line graph would look like: As you can see, the Blue line represents the Indians, the Red line represents the Browns, and the Green line represents the Cavaliers. In compiling the numbers for each year, I followed this formula. Each team was given their win percentage for that year to start. In the event a team reached the postseason, they earned an extra .025 pts for a wild card or 1st round loss, .05 points for a divisional round or conference semifinals loss, .1 points for a conference finals or league championship series loss, .2 pts for a World Series or NBA Finals loss, and for title wins, the season was counted as a perfect score of 1. In the end, a few things are obvious. The blue line is rather constant most of the way, with few big spikes or drops, the big spikes in 1920 and 1948 representing championships for the Indians. The last 20-25 years have been pretty consistently good for the Indians, with only a few truly bad years in there. The red line representing the Browns has some sharp rises and falls, but that is largely because a 1 or 2 game difference in a 16-game season shows up more dramatically than a 1 or 2 game difference in baseball’s 162-game slate. The Browns had a really, really strong performance early on with championships in 1950, 1954, 1955, and 1964. More recently, the red line has pretty consistently been the lowest of the three. And then the green line representing the Cavaliers has bounced around all over the place, especially within the past 2 decades. Early on the green line was often the lowest of the three, but recently has been the highest, including the Cavaliers’ 2016 title win. This high variability will continue into the near future with a big drop coming in 2019. In the end, if I were an investor, I would be buying the Browns right now for sure. I’d be holding the Cavaliers (hopefully I sold last year at the peak), while the Indians are hard to figure out. I’m not sure whether to sell now or to hold and see how 2019 unfolds. We’ll discuss the future of the three teams in our next LOTL blog. I promise it won’t be as long as this one!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *