The trophy that will be presented to the winner of Sunday evening’s Super Bowl 54 between the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs is named in honor of the wrong man.
The Lombardi Trophy is, of course, named for Vince Lombardi, who coached the Green Bay Packers from 1959-67, winning five NFL Championships and the first two Super Bowls in his final seasons, and then the Washington Redskins in 1969 – after they had been coached the previous three seasons by Cleveland Browns Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham – before succumbing to cancer at the way-too-young age of 57.
Lombardi’s greatness – and he was truly great – through the 1960s as the Super Bowl, or, as it was first known, the NFL-AFL World Championship Game, made him a good and timely candidate to have the trophy carry his name.
And so it was.
No one has ever really challenged the worthiness of that honor. It would be the pro football version of blasphemy. After all, Lombardi is iconic. His name and “legendary” go together so smoothly, and so seamlessly, that it just seems right.
Anything else would be … well, wrong, or so it would appear.
But let’s ignore that. Let’s challenge the trophy being named for Lombardi. It needs to be challenged.
Quite simply, the Super Bowl trophy should instead be named for his good friend, Massillon native and former Massillon High School and Ohio State head coach Paul Brown, the iconic first head coach of the Cleveland Browns. It’s not that Lombardi is unworthy of the trophy honor. Hardly. It’s just that Brown is more worthy – in most regards, much more worthy.
Brown coached the Browns for 17 seasons, from 1946-62, and for the first 10 of those years, through 1955, he took them to 10 straight league championship games, winning seven titles. That is the greatest run in pro football history, and it’s not even close. Everything else pales in comparison.
That, in itself, makes Brown the very best coach for the Super Bowl trophy, yet it’s not even his most appealing trait in this instance. Rather, it’s what he gave to the game in terms of improvement and innovations. That’s why he’s called “The Father of Modern Football.”
Without Brown’s contributions, the game would be much different – and not as good, or advanced, as it is now. Oh, sure, these things would have all eventually happened without Brown, but not as quickly and not as well.
Brown brought the modern passing attack to football. Everything today emanates from what he did during his time in Cleveland. Before he came along, the passing routes and schemes looked like something Fred Flintstone might have come up with.
In the running game, he brought the trap play, adding some finesse to power football.
He was the first to realize the importance of special teams, especially the kicking game, and used it to gain an advantage.
He brought African Americans into the game permanently, finally breaking the color barrier once and for all after World War II.
Brown brought full-time, year-round assistant coaches.
He brought film study by those coaches.
He brought the classroom setting where players watched film with the coaches and took notes.
Yes, notes, because Brown brought playbooks to the game. No more drawing up the plays in the dirt.
He brought the helmet microphone and communication system to send in plays.
He brought the face mask into the game, providing some much-needed safety.
He was the first to put a premium on speed. While other coaches emphasized size, he knew speed was the greatest asset for his players to have.
Brown’s Cleveland teams were, in just about every way, much more advanced than those against which they were competing.
But Brown, who finished up his coaching career by guiding the Cincinnati Bengals through their first eight seasons before working full-time as their owner and general manager, coached so many years ago that, to many involved in, or just watching, today’s game, he’s nothing more than a guy wearing a suit and fedora on the sidelines in black-and-white photographs in dusty old history books tucked away onto long-forgotten shelves in some library.
However, the man who is regarded by many today as the greatest head coach ever, Bill Belichick, is admittedly a tremendous Paul Brown fan. He knows just how special Brown was, and still is, for that matter.
That’s good enough for me, and it should be good enough for the NFL, though the Super Bowl trophy will never be renamed.
But it should be.
And now you know why.