While many statistics can be used to evaluate quarterbacks, one of the most important measures of quarterback success is winning championships.
Since the Cleveland Browns joined the NFL in 1950, only two Browns starting quarterbacks have won NFL championships – Otto Graham and Frank Ryan.
Ryan achieved individual success in the NFL, being invited to the Pro Bowl in three consecutive years and being tied for eleventh in NFL history in average yards per pass completion (14.7 yards).
Yet, for Cleveland fans, it will be Ryan’s role as starting quarterback for the 1964 NFL champion Browns that will always be remembered as his most significant accomplishment.
— John Skrtic (@SkrticX) September 26, 2019
We take a look at the life of Frank Ryan – before, during, and after his NFL career.
The Early Years Through High School
Frank Beall Ryan was born on July 12, 1936 in Fort Worth, Texas.
When Ryan was growing up, it hardly appeared that he would become a championship NFL quarterback.
As a child, football was not Ryan’s primary interest.
Instead, Ryan would draw sketches of rockets and figure out how fast a space missile would have to go to escape the gravitational pull of the earth.
Ryan was also not very athletic as a child.
“I was never very fast or well coordinated. I never played any sport well. I couldn’t hit in baseball. I couldn’t dribble in basketball or play tennis or golf. I’m not a natural athlete. I pick up a dart and people start running.”
However, as Ryan grew older, in junior high school, he began to develop an interest in football, in particular, in the forward pass.
“One thing I was fascinated with was the throwing of a football . . . the spiral. . . . The sense of making that rather awkward object go in a beautiful way.”
He began to play football and started for a while in the ninth grade.
Ryan attended R. L. Paschal High School in Fort Worth, graduating in 1954.
Ryan played on the high school football team for three years, but did not become a starter until his senior season in high school.
It may have been expected that Ryan would attend Yale University.
His father and brother were Yale alumni, and academics were as important to Ryan as athletics.
However, Ryan ultimately decided to attend Rice (then known as Rice Institute, and now known as Rice University), instead of Yale.
In explaining the decision, Ryan said:
“I almost went [to Yale]. But I chose Rice instead. I was physics major out of Pascal High School in Fort Worth. No all-state. No big deal. Rice had a program I liked. Besides the coach, Jess Neely . . . was after me. No one from Yale was.”
Ryan stayed in Texas and headed to Houston to attend Rice.
Ryan wanted to major in physics and play football at Rice.
It was uncommon for football players to choose such a demanding major.
“People said, ‘You just can’t do the work at Rice and play football’. That was sort of a challenge, you know.”
Ryan met the “challenge”, being on the Rice football team for three years from 1955 to 1957 and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1958.
In 1955, Ryan (essentially serving as the third-string quarterback) completed 10 passes in 19 attempts for 102 “net” yards and two interceptions.
He also rushed 16 times for 33 “net” yards and two touchdowns.
Rice had a 2-7-1 record in 1955.
In 1956, Ryan (playing part-time) completed 60 passes in 109 attempts for 704 yards, four touchdowns, and seven interceptions and rushed 77 times for 101 “net” yards and three touchdowns.
Rice had a 4-6 record in 1956.
In 1957, Ryan played a key role in a game described by the Texas Sports Hall of Fame as the “Greatest Upset in Texas College Football History”.
On November 16, 1957, Rice played undefeated Texas A&M, then ranked first in the nation.
Texas A&M, coached by legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, featured the eventual 1957 Heisman Trophy winner, John David Crow.
As described by King Hill (who rotated with Ryan as Rice’s quarterback):
“I owe a lot to Frank [Ryan] . . . . Frank took the club about 70 yards right to the goal. I’ll always remember a run he made on the last play of the drive. He spun off tackle, and there was John David Crow waiting for him. Frank stiff-armed him. He really spun his neck back and ran the ball right up to the goal. Then the quarter ended. We changed units, and all I had to do was sneak the thing over for a touchdown. It set me up for All-America. I got a lot of publicity out of the game, but Frank made it possible. You just got to like a guy like that.”
Rice defeated Texas A&M 7-6 and won the Southwest Conference title.
Rice advanced to the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 1958, but lost to Navy 20-7.
Rice’s only touchdown in the game came on a touchdown pass from Ryan (who also had 13 completions in 22 attempts for 151 yards and one interception, and 69 rushing yards in 17 rushing attempts, in the game) to Ken Williams.
In 1957, Rice had a 7-4 record and was ranked eighth in the nation in the final Associated Press poll.
For the full 1957 season, Ryan completed 34 passes in 56 attempts for 444 yards, five touchdowns, and three interceptions.
He also rushed 86 times for 264 yards and one touchdown.
After playing at Rice, Ryan did not expect to be drafted in the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
However, to Ryan’s surprise, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the fifth round of the 1958 NFL draft (as the 55th overall pick).
In the 5th round that year, the #Rams drafted a math brainiac from Rice — QB Frank Ryan — who wrote my favorite all-time doctoral dissertation: “Characterization of the Set of Asymptotic Values of a Function Holomorphic in the Unit Disc.” QB’d the #Browns to the ’64 #NFL title. pic.twitter.com/o21GAIQ09w
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) September 15, 2018
Ryan was the sixth quarterback selected in the 1958 draft, including behind King Hill, his quarterback mate at Rice, who was selected by the Chicago Cardinals with the first overall pick, and Jim Ninowski, who was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the fourth round.
Ryan pursued a doctorate degree in mathematics while playing football.
During his first seven years in the NFL, Ryan began his graduate work at UCLA and then transferred to Rice, where he studied during his off-seasons from football
In 1958, Ryan saw limited action playing in five regular-season games.
Ryan completed five passes in 14 attempts for 34 yards, one touchdown (Ryan’s first NFL regular-season touchdown pass, for six yards to Lamar Lundy, as the Rams routed the San Francisco 49ers 56-7 on November 9, 1958), and three interceptions and rushed for 45 yards on five rushing attempts.
The Rams had an 8-4 record in 1958 and failed to make the playoffs.
The Rams also failed to make the playoffs in Ryan’s other three seasons with the Rams, finishing with records of 2-10 in 1959, 4-7-1 in 1960, and 4-10 in 1961.
Ryan saw more playing time his second season with the Rams in 1959, as Ryan played in 10, and started three, regular-season games.
In 1959, Ryan completed 42 passes in 89 attempts for 709 yards, two touchdowns, and four interceptions.
He also rushed for 57 yards and one touchdown (Ryan’s first NFL regular-season touchdown, on an eight-yard run, in a 24-16 Rams loss to the San Francisco 49ers on November 8, 1959) on 19 rushing attempts.
Ryan’s playing time with the Rams again increased in 1960 (as Ryan played in 11, and started five, regular-season games), but, as in 1958 and 1959, Ryan still generally was viewed as the backup quarterback to Billy Wade.
When Ryan did start at quarterback with Los Angeles in 1960, his play was marked by inconsistency.
In several games, Ryan would play well, but then throw an interception or overthrow an open receiver and get pulled from the game by Rams head coach Bob Waterfield.
For the 1960 regular season, Ryan completed 62 passes in 128 attempts for 816 yards, seven touchdowns, and nine interceptions and rushed for 85 yards and one touchdown on 19 rushing attempts.
Ryan hoped to become the full-time starter at quarterback for the Rams in 1961.
However, although the Rams traded Billy Wade to the Chicago Bears, it was Zeke Bratkowski, and not Ryan, who was generally viewed as the Rams’ starting quarterback in 1961.
Frustrated by his inability to become the full-time quarterback starter with the Rams, at the end of the 1961 season, Ryan went to Rams general manager Elroy Hirsch and demanded a trade.
On July 12, 1962 (Ryan’s 26th birthday), the Rams obliged Ryan’s request, trading Ryan and running back Tommy Wilson to the Cleveland Browns for defensive lineman Larry Stephens, a 1963 third-round draft pick, and a 1963 sixth-round draft pick.
While Ryan was acquired by the Browns to back up starting quarterback Jim Ninowski, that plan and Ryan’s NFL career changed when Ninowski broke his collarbone in the seventh game of the 1962 season against the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 28, 1962.
Ryan replaced Ninowski in the game and completed 11 passes in 18 attempts for 144 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions, as Cleveland defeated the Steelers 41-14.
Ryan then became the Browns’ starter at quarterback for the remainder of the 1962 season.
In 1962, playing in 11, and starting seven, regular-season games, Ryan completed 112 passes in 194 attempts for 1,541 yards, 10 touchdowns, and seven interceptions.
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) July 17, 2018
Ryan also rushed for 242 yards and one touchdown on 42 rushing attempts.
The Browns had a 7-6-1 record in 1962 (3-3-1 in the seven games Ryan started).
A key point in Ryan’s development as an NFL quarterback was when Blanton Collier replaced Paul Brown as head coach of the Browns in 1963.
Collier told Ryan to imagine he was looking at a pretty girl and focus on his intended receiver in the same way.
“That was a good point and he made it. He had a lot of little ideas like that. He was quite good at that method of teaching. It certainly made sense to me. I was never a terribly accurate passer but I think I was better under him than I would have been otherwise.”
Collier felt that Ryan “used to overthink himself” and told Ryan that “every time you try to mastermind a situation you fail more often than not”.
Ryan appreciated Collier’s coaching.
“He is the first coach that ever really coached me. He spent days with me, weeks. He taught me those three steps: setting, aiming, throwing. He taught me to pick out a small target on a receiver rather than just trying to hit a big blob out there with arms. If you’re looking at a little pink dot on him then you’re reducing your error.”
Collier’s coaching helped Ryan have an excellent NFL season in 1963.
On October 20, 1963, Ryan completed 15 passes in 23 attempts for 203 yards, four touchdowns (including three to Gary Collins), and one interception, as the Browns defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 37-7.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) July 30, 2020
In 1963, playing and starting in 13 regular-season games, Ryan completed 135 passes in 256 attempts for 2,026 yards, 25 touchdowns (ranking third in the NFL), and 13 interceptions.
Ryan also rushed for 224 yards and two touchdowns on 62 rushing attempts.
The Browns had a 10-4 record in 1963 and just missed the playoffs.
As good as the 1963 season went for Ryan and the Browns, 1964 was an even better season.
— NFL Classic! (@79_nfl) December 6, 2019
On September 27, 1964, Ryan completed 11 passes in 26 attempts for 193 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception, as the Browns defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 28-20.
The following week, in a 27-6 Cleveland win over the Dallas Cowboys on October 4, 1964, Ryan completed 15 passes in 26 attempts for 256 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception.
The Browns needed a win in their final regular-season game to make the playoffs.
Ryan responded with one of the best games of his NFL career, completing 12 passes in 13 attempts for 202 yards and five touchdowns and rushing for 14 yards and one touchdown on two rushing attempts, as Cleveland defeated the New York Giants 52-20 on December 12, 1964.
For the 1964 regular season, starting all 14 regular-season games, Ryan completed 174 passes in 334 attempts for 2,404 passing yards, 25 touchdowns (leading the NFL), and 19 interceptions. Ryan also rushed for 217 yards and one touchdown on 37 rushing attempts.
Ryan was invited to his first Pro Bowl in 1964.
The Browns finished the regular season with a 10-3-1 record, won the NFL East Division title, and advanced to the NFL championship game against the Baltimore Colts on December 27, 1964.
The Colts were significant favorites and may have felt overconfident heading into the game.
“We bumped into a large part of the Colts team at a movie theatre the night before the game and that was not a restful meeting. It put us all up in the bit about, ‘let’s go out and do the right thing.’ Mainly, they were jeering us for not being qualified to be on the same field with them.”
Ryan showed that the Browns were more than “qualified”, helping the Browns win their first NFL championship since 1955, as Cleveland shutout the Colts 27-0.
— Sad CLE Sports (@SadCleveland) December 27, 2017
Ryan completed 11 passes in 18 attempts for 206 yards, three touchdowns (18 yards, 42 yards, and 51 yards, each to Gary Collins), and one interception in the game.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) August 20, 2020
After the game, Ryan said:
“I don’t think I played particularly well for me. It was just an average day. My play selection wasn’t as good in the first half as it should have been, but I think it was better after that. We knew the Colts had the best rushing defense. Our plan was to throw short, quick passes and occasionally take a chance on a long one. On all three touchdown plays I had a long time to throw. I think that was because we established our running game. We just kept doing the things we knew we could do well. They just couldn’t stop Jimmy (Brown) and that slowed up their rushing on me. If Jimmy wasn’t human, I would have run him on every play.”
There were two key occurrences for Ryan between the 1964 NFL championship game and the start of the 1965 season.
First, Ryan injured his shoulder while playing in the Pro Bowl.
It was to be the first of various injuries (to his elbow, arch, ankles, knee, and cervical disc) that were to plague Ryan throughout the remainder of his NFL career.
Second, Ryan received his doctorate degree in mathematics from Rice in June, 1965.
While still playing for the Browns, “Dr. Ryan” taught classes and became an assistant professor at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland.
While Ryan was not to win another championship with the Browns, he helped the team make the playoffs in two of the three years from 1965 to 1967.
Ryan was invited to his second consecutive Pro Bowl in 1965.
He also was voted first-team All-Conference by The Sporting News in 1965.
With an 11-3 record in 1965, the Browns again won the NFL East Division title and advanced to the NFL championship game.
However, the Browns lost to the Green Bay Packers 23-12 on January 2, 1966.
Ryan completed eight passes in 18 attempts for 115 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions in the game.
Ryan had his best statistical year in 1966.
In 1966, Ryan started all 14 regular-season games and completed 200 passes in 382 attempts for 2,974 yards (ranking second in the NFL), 29 touchdowns (leading the NFL), and 14 interceptions. Ryan also rushed for 156 yards on 36 rushing attempts.
Ryan was invited to his third consecutive Pro Bowl in 1966.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) October 4, 2020
The Browns missed the playoffs with a 9-5 record in 1966.
1967 turned out to be Ryan’s last full year as starting quarterback for the Browns.
The Browns won the NFL Century Division title with a 9-5 record in 1967.
However, in the playoffs, Cleveland lost to the Dallas Cowboys 52-14 on December 24, 1967.
Ryan began the 1968 season as Cleveland’s starting quarterback.
Sports analytics, 1968: "3rd down,6 yards to go.Frank Ryan called '86 slot cross.'Why?The week before,he fed facts & figures into a small console in his den.Miles away, @ a GE time-sharing center,a computer analyzed specific game situations.Then it fed back the best play to call" pic.twitter.com/k7HDOBXvRX
— Andrew Maraniss (@trublu24) June 6, 2018
However, in the fourth game of the season, Ryan was replaced by Bill Nelsen as the starter.
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) November 4, 2019
Ryan played in only seven, and started only three, regular-season games in 1968.
In the playoffs, the Browns defeated the Dallas Cowboys 31-20 on December 21, 1968, before losing to the Baltimore Colts 34-0 in the NFL championship game on December 29, 1968.
Ryan did not play in the Cowboys game and saw limited action (completing two passes in six attempts for 19 yards) in the Colts game.
On September 8, 1969, Ryan was released by the Browns.
He was quickly signed by the Washington Redskins on September 15, 1969
After seeing very limited action with the Redskins in 1969 (completing one pass in one attempt for four yards) and in 1970 (completing one pass in four attempts for three yards), Ryan officially retired from the NFL on April 13, 1971 at the age of 34.
The Years After the NFL
Ryan met his wife, Joan, in college and the two have been married since Ryan’s senior year in college.
Joan worked as a sportswriter for The Washington Post.
Ryan and Joan live in Grafton, Vermont.
After his football retirement, Ryan worked as the director of information services for the U.S. House of Representatives and helped develop the first electronic voting system used by Congress.
Ryan later worked for Yale University as athletic director, lecturer in mathematics, and associate vice president for institutional planning and for Rice as vice president for external affairs, professor of mathematics, and professor of computational and applied mathematics.
He has also been president of a company which designed and manufactured cable and interconnect products for the computer and communications industries.
He has been honored in the Paschal Alumni Association Hall of Honor and on the Fort Worth Independent School District Wall of Fame
In 1973, Ryan was inducted in the Rice Athletic Hall of Fame.
Ryan received the Distinguished “R” award (“bestowed upon a Rice University alum and member of the ‘R’ Association [a group representing and providing support for Rice letterwinners] who has led an exemplary life; is well-adjusted with respect to his or her personal, family, civic and public responsibilities; and has achieved distinction and success in his or her chosen field of business or profession, while maintaining an interest in athletics at Rice after graduation”) in 1993.
In 2005, Ryan was inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program.
Since Ryan was released by the Browns in 1969, Cleveland has had various quarterbacks start playoff games for the team – Bill Nelsen, Mike Phipps, Brian Sipe, Paul McDonald, Bernie Kosar, Don Strock, Vinny Testaverde, and Kelly Holcomb.
However, none of these quarterbacks was able to achieve what Frank Ryan accomplished – lead the Cleveland Browns to the NFL championship.
Based on this success alone, Frank Ryan deserves recognition as one of the great quarterbacks in Cleveland Browns history.