A signed photo of Browns quarterback Tim Couch.
A signed photo of Browns quarterback Tim Couch.

In a sense for collectors, it's like a scene out of the 1980s prime-time soap opera hit, Dallas.

Maybe it was all a dream, but the Cleveland Browns are back after a three year hiatus - thanks to former owner Art Modell's decision to bolt the city and transplant his team to Baltimore. Modell wanted to take the team's heritage - and lucrative colors and past - with him like any other owner who picks up and moves his franchise.

But the NFL, spurred on by angry Browns' backers and collectors, would have nothing of it. So Modell, who could keep the team's players, had to surrender its lucrative merchandising machine that had propelled them to near the top of the NFL wish list for collectors and fans.

For three years, Browns' merchandise was still sold and collected, even though they had no team. Now, they have a team in the form of an expansion franchise and already they have surpassed Modell's Ravens in the standings - the standings that collectors care about.

NFL figures released last week show the Browns rank 20th among 31 teams in merchandise sales since the league's fiscal year began April 1. Not all that impressive. But the NFL adds they will crack the top 10 once play begins this weekend and new collectibles hit the retail stores.

Before the Browns, er, the Ravens, left, the team's items were constantly ranked in the top four teams in the NFL although the performance on the field couldn't match that proud number. The Browns haven't won a Super Bowl and were one of only a handful of original NFL teams that had never made it to the game. It's likely to remain that way this year, too.

Expansion teams usually go one of two routes: they are awful and stay awful or hit the jackpot early and stay that way for years to come, thus increasing their value in the minds of collectors.

The awful and stay awful lot can be traced back to the New Orleans Saints entry into the league in the mid 1960s. For the better part of two decades, the Saints couldn't reach the .500 mark, let alone reach the playoffs. To this date, New Orleans has been in the league since 1967 and has yet to win one playoff game.

Ditto for the Atlanta Falcons, who joined the NFL as an expansion team the year before New Orleans. Until last year's surprising success, the Falcons had made the playoffs just five times in 30 years and had won just two playoff games.

Little wonder Saints and Falcons' collectibles constantly ranked in the lower third of the NFL merchandising list.

Contrast that with two other expansion teams of the 1960s, the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings. It's hard for most fans to realize both clubs were once expansion teams like the current day Browns because of their rapid and consistent success.

Dallas entered the NFL in 1960 as one of the earliest expansion clubs and didn't win a game in its first season. By it's seventh year, it was playing in the NFL championship game and had won a Super Bowl in its 11th year. It's run of success as its self-labeled "America's team" has made Cowboy merchandise constantly in the top five for collectors according to the NFL.

Minnesota came into the NFL as an expansion team the next year, and by its fifth year had posted a winning record and by its 10th season was in the Super Bowl. Both the Vikings and Cowboys have been among the most consistent playoff participants in their 30 years in the league.

What gives Browns' collectors the biggest confidence boost is the recent success of both Jacksonville and Carolina, the two latest expansion entries. Thanks to a generous free agent and draft policy allotted to them by rival NFL owners, the Jags and Panthers hit paydirt early. Carolina made it to the NFC championship game in its second season while Jacksonville made the playoffs in its sophomore campaign as well. The early success of the two teams catapulted them into the top 10 of NFL merchandising sales.

Carolina has slipped since then and doesn't figure to be a playoff contender this year. The Jaguars, other the other hand, have made the playoffs three straight years and are among the favorites this year to win the AFC title and stop Denver's run of Super Bowl championships.

The Browns have been built on the formula that won with the San Francisco 49ers by former 49ers' management. They are talking playoffs this year although that is an unrealistic goal. However, the attention that will be focused on the return of the Browns, plus the rich heritage and tradition of the franchise will continue to make it one of the most sought-after for collectors for this season - and seasons to come.

Randy Minkoff is a former reporter, writer, editor and author, with more than three decades of journalism experience and a unique combination of both print and broadcasting. Minkoff is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, and Crain's Chicago Business. He has been syndicated nationally as a radio/TV critic and has also written a weekly column for the Daily Herald. He is the author of Ron Santo; For Love of Ivy, the biography of the former Cub third baseman and his battle against diabetes. A native of St. Louis, Mo., he is a graduate of Drake University School of Journalism.

The Brown's stadium and a member of the infamous Dawg Pound.
The Brown's stadium and a member of the infamous Dawg Pound.