When our old backup FB signed big and won it all

After eight years as a Brown, Cleo Miller signed with the USFL' s Michigan Panthers 33 years ago today.

Pro football was a different game and a different business 33 years ago. I won’t spell it all out for you except in relation to this obscure anniversary in Browns history.

Whereas the Browns’ free agency period this year has been marked by the departure of players amassing a combined 116 starts last year, back in 1983 the rules made player movement much harder.

So the Browns news on this date 33 years ago was unusual. Running back Cleo Miller, who had been with Cleveland for eight years, became the first Brown to leave for the new United States Football League. He signed a three-year guaranteed contract for $475,000, which was good money then for a 31-year-old backup fullback. (It’s equal to about $1.13 million in today’s dollars.)

His agent was Greg Campbell, whose other clients included Muhammed Ali and whose accomplishments included maneuvering for the trade that brought All Pro berzerko Lyle Alzado to Cleveland in 1979.  Campbell was instrumental in bringing Miller and several other NFL veterans to the upstart league’s Michigan Panthers.

The spring league’s season had already started, and the Panthers were a lowly 1-3 when Miller arrived. Owner Alfred Taubman spend mightily on several other vets as well, and by season’s end Michigan had its first pro football championship team since the Lions routed the Browns in the 1957 NFL title game.

Miller played a stabilizing role as a blocker for leading rusher Ken Lacy, adding 466 yards from scrimmage of his own.  Scroll to 2:25:30 to see his touchdown in their divisional playoff win. The team’s leaders included QB Bobby Hebert, WR Anthony Carter, and LB John Corker, whose 28 sacks remains unsurpassed in any season in any pro league.

Players like Miller are pretty much obsolete in today’s NFL. There’s aren’t many blocking backs who stick with a team for eight years and get as many touches as he did — seven per game over the span of his tenure here. His 4.2-yard rushing average ranks fifth in Browns history among those with at least 500 carries.

As a Kardiac Kid, Miller played a key role in a crucial division game at Houston in 1980, scoring both Browns touchdowns and scampering for a key 50-yard run in a 17-14 win. In my book I ranked him 13th among all Browns running backs, between Leroy Hoard and Jamal Lewis. Now 63 years old, the Arkansas native remains in the Cleveland area.