August 1, 2014

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What might have been: Documentary relives move, success that should have been Browns’

Northeast Ohio sports fans major in what could’ve been.

Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot and The Decision have been the standard curriculum for years. The NFL Network will add another lesson to the syllabus tonight.

“Cleveland ’95: A Football Life,” which airs at 8 o’clock, chronicles the final season before Art Modell took the Browns to Baltimore. Not only does the documentary examine the heart-wrenching move, it focuses on the staff assembled by coach Bill Belichick and the team’s bright future that was extinguished by Modell’s betrayal.

Apparently the filmmakers didn’t think the 0-4 start had depressed fans enough.

The sting of the move has never left Cleveland, even with the return of a team after three seasons in the wilderness. But this film will be painful for other reasons than reliving the final home game at Cleveland Stadium on Dec. 17, 1995.

Belichick had led the Browns to the second round of the playoffs in 1994, which remains the franchise’s last playoff win. With his staff of future all-stars and the principles he would use to win three Super Bowls in New England, the Browns appeared to be on their way to a series of playoff trips.

“There was that sense of we had turned the corner,” Eric Mangini, a low-level assistant in 1995 who returned to coach the Browns in 2009-10, said in the film. “All of that time, all of that work, all of that effort — we were poised to make that next jump.”

The move sabotaged it all.

The announcement during the season destroyed any possibility of success. Then Modell fired Belichick after the year and before the team settled in Baltimore.

The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl in 2000 with a largely different group of players, but they wouldn’t have without the drafts of general manager Ozzie Newsome and director of player personnel Phil Savage, who were hired by Belichick in Cleveland.

“When I won in 2000, I owe a lot of that to Bill Belichick,” Newsome said.

The reason for the film is the future successes of Belichick’s staff “who took what they learned during their five years under Belichick and applied it throughout their football careers,” according to the news release.

Newsome, Savage, Scott Pioli, Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Tannenbaum became NFL general managers. Nick Saban is a three-time NCAA national championship coach. Mangini and Detroit’s Jim Schwartz made it to head coach in the NFL.

The staff churned out nine NFL head coaches and general managers and three coaches at major college programs. Many described themselves as errand boys trying to get their foot in the door.

“Those years in Cleveland, those teams, those people impacted the NFL,” Pioli said. “It impacted a lot of football.”

The hour-long episode includes never-before-seen footage of Belichick meeting with his staff and of Belichick at home. There’s also pregame and postgame footage from the final home game. Actor Josh Charles of “The Good Wife” narrates.

Many of the characters from 1995 give their perspective nearly two decades later. Belichick, Newsome, Saban, Savage and NFL Network analyst and former front office executive Michael Lombardi were among those interviewed. Former running back Earnest Byner choked up talking about the final game at the stadium.

Among the interesting sights are Mangini and Saban in big glasses, which were cool back then. Savage looks about 18 years old sitting at his cubicle watching film. And a raw Newsome gives a scouting report to Belichick.

“What was Bill looking for in people?” Newsome said. “Bill was looking for Bill. And he found a lot of little Bills.”

Watching the clips of Modell and Belichick won’t be easy for Browns fans. They remain among the top villains in Cleveland sports history.

It’s also difficult to see the promise that went unfulfilled here. The Browns were coming off the playoff year and in first place at 3-1 when the move became public. It’s obvious all the experiences led to Super Bowls in Baltimore and New England.

“I thought we’d be good for a long time,” Saban said. “We had a great group of people there and we were all committed to trying to bring that franchise back (to prominence).”

Belichick is more open than during his battles with the Cleveland media and discussed the impossible position in which Modell put the team. He doesn’t pull any punches.

“I felt bad for that team, the players and the coaches that were working so hard with less than no support,” he said. “The owner was nowhere to be found. He was in Baltimore. It kind of felt like you were on a deserted island fending for yourself.”

Most sports documentaries celebrate a championship or a gold medal. That’s not how it works in Cleveland.
The only championships occurred in black and white. So those glories have been relived already.

This film is fitting for Cleveland because it’s part-heartbreak, part-what could’ve been. Worth watching, but not always easy to sit through.

“We got better every year, our program improved every year,” Belichick said. “I wish that it would have turned out a bit differently, but we tried to do what we could and the best that we could for ourselves, for the team and for the city of Cleveland. I have no regrets about that.”

Newsome encapsulated the movie in a sentence that could cause a sleepless night for Browns fans.
“No doubt, we would’ve won a Super Bowl,” he said.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.