CLEVELAND — For countless Browns fans, time has not healed. Art Modell’s move remains an open wound.
And even in death, he torments them.
Modell, the late Cleveland owner credited with helping the NFL grow in prominence but whose decision to relocate his franchise to Baltimore 17 years ago obscures his accomplishments, is one of 15 finalists up for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Modell’s case for induction – he was also a finalist in 2002 – could spark the liveliest debate in New Orleans today among 46 Hall of Fame committee members, who will select between four and seven new members on the eve of the Super Bowl.
His supporters contend Modell helped create America’s most popular sport. His detractors will never forget one bad deed.
“It would be a terrible thing for the NFL if he ever got in,” said Michelle DiBartolo, president of Canton’s chapter of the Browns Backers, a fan club of more than 100,000. “I haven’t met one Browns fan who said he deserves it. Anyway, he doesn’t have the qualifications. How do you put Art Modell next to Paul Brown? That blows my mind.”
Modell will be considered for enshrinement along with coach Bill Parcells, former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., single-season sacks leader Michael Strahan, offensive linemen Jonathan Ogden and Larry Allen, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, running back Jerome Bettis, wide receivers Cris Carter, Tim Brown and Andre Reed, defensive standouts Charles Haley and Kevin Greene, guard Will Shields and defensive back Aeneas Williams.
Also up for consideration, two senior nominees: defensive tackle Curley Culp and linebacker Dave Robinson.
The inclusion of Modell on this year’s ballot has provided another subplot to this year’s Super Bowl, which has had no shortage of juicy story lines. The Ravens’ unexpected run to the championship game has been, in part, fueled by the team dedicating its season to Modell. Baltimore’s players have worn patches with “Art” on their jerseys to honor Modell, who died on Sept. 6 just four days ahead of the opener.
There’s no denying Modell’s impact on the game. As Browns owner in the 1960s, he was involved in negotiating TV contracts that brought the NFL into more of the nation’s living rooms and eventually spawned Monday Night Football, an institution Modell helped create as the league’s broadcast chairman.
Before the move, Modell was adored by Cleveland’s players and fans, who watched him agonize with them over every dropped pass and missed tackle while sitting in his owner’s box high above the field inside cavernous Municipal Stadium.
His many missteps: firing Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown; hastening legendary running back Jim Brown’s retirement because of a contract dispute; trading wide receiver Paul Warfield; signing free agent Andre Rison; financial losses, went mostly overlooked – or were at least forgiven.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end in Cleveland, believes Modell’s contributions warrant a bronze bust.
“You look at what Art has done for this league,” said Newsome, hired by Modell to run the Ravens. “He was involved in the collective bargaining agreement, involved in the TV deal, involved in the merger, won a championship in ’64, won a Super Bowl. He had diversity, the first one to hire an African American. You look at the body of work, why shouldn’t he be in it? If this game is as good as it is today – we all think we have a very good game – then Art was the architect.”
All of the finalists have impressive résumés. Parcells was the first coach to lead four teams to the playoffs. He went 183-138-1 and won two Super Bowls with the Giants. DeBartolo hired coach Bill Walsh, drafted quarterback Joe Montana and transformed the 49ers into a model franchise that won five Super Bowls.
A seven-time Pro Bowler, Strahan recorded 22½ sacks in 2001 and finished with 141½ in a 15-year career with the Giants; Ogden, the first player drafted by the Ravens, made 11 Pro Bowls in 12 seasons; Allen played every offensive line position but center during 12 seasons with Dallas. He opened holes for Emmitt Smith, the league’s career rushing leader; and Sapp had 96½ career sacks, a remarkable number for an interior lineman.
Bettis finished with 13,662 career rushing yards in 13 seasons for the Rams and Steelers; Carter retired with the second-most career receptions (1,101) and receiving touchdowns (130); Brown, a nine-time Pro Bowler, recorded 14,934 yards receiving and 100 TDs; and Reed had 951 career catches, and played in four consecutive Super Bowls with Buffalo.
Tough to block as a defensive end or linebacker, Haley is the only player to win five Super Bowls; Greene reached double digits in sacks 10 times for the Rams, Steelers and Panthers; Shields never missed a game in a 14-season career with the Chiefs, who won four AFC West titles with him up front; Williams made the Pro Bowl as a cornerback and safety, finishing with 55 career interceptions; Culp was mainstay for Chiefs’ dominating defense before helping the Oilers reach consecutive AFC title games (1978-79); and Robinson was a big-play starter on three straight Packers’ title teams under Vince Lombardi.
As for Modell, his critics point to him uprooting one of the league’s cornerstone teams as indisputable evidence he doesn’t belong in the hall.
“It overshadows all his accomplishments,” said Tony Grossi, a selection committee voter since 1999. “It can’t be dismissed.”
As one of those who will help elect Canton’s class of 2013, Grossi, who has covered the Browns since 1984, feels a responsibility to state the case against Modell. He will speak once Modell is presented for consideration by a representative from Baltimore’s market.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti understands Cleveland’s pain. He witnessed Baltimore fans rebel when the Colts went to Indianapolis, so he can relate.
He just hopes Modell gets his due.
“I’m not even asking Cleveland to forgive,” he said. “I just don’t know that Cleveland’s rabid fans should be the reason that they keep him out. Because it seems like a spite thing and not a legitimate ‘let’s look at the resume thing’ and that’s really what I hope changes this year.”