October 31, 2010

1999: Re-formed Browns Win 1st Game with Desperation TD Pass on Final Play

Cleveland was without NFL football for three years after the original Browns franchise was moved to Baltimore following the 1995 season. The team’s fans had been outraged when owner Art Modell announced that the club would be leaving the city it had called home since its debut in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) in 1946. Not all of Modell’s fellow owners were pleased, either, but Commissioner Paul Tagliabue worked out a compromise in which the city would gain a new club in 1999 that would inherit the name and history of the exiting team. Modell’s team was renamed the Baltimore Ravens and continued on as though it was an expansion franchise.

The re-formed Browns took the field in 1999 under the ownership of Al Lerner and a front office led by Carmen Policy, team president, and Dwight Clark, director of football operations, that had been associated with a winning operation in San Francisco. Chris Palmer, most recently the offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, was the new head coach, and symbolically there was a new playing field, Cleveland Browns Stadium, that was built upon the site of the old Municipal Stadium.

As an expansion team (in reality, if not in terms of inherited name and history), the Browns had the first overall pick in the ’99 NFL draft and took Tim Couch (pictured above), a 6’4”, 227-pound quarterback from Kentucky. Veteran QB Ty Detmer started the season, but Couch took over in the second week.

As has often been the case with expansion teams, the club got off to a rough start. The new Browns lost their first two games by a combined score of 69-9. Winless in their first seven contests, the club struggled to score points, only reaching double figures in two of those games (with a high of 17). Couch played as well as could have been hoped, but several of the veterans did not, particularly on the offensive line. The running game was not strong, and even when Couch had time to throw, there was no game-breaker among the wide receivers.

The Browns took on the New Orleans Saints at the Louisiana Superdome on October 31. Under Head Coach Mike Ditka, the team had stunned the pro football world at the NFL draft by trading all of its picks in order to move up and select RB Ricky Williams, the Heisman Trophy-winner from Texas. The controversial gamble had not worked, and the club was 1-5 as it played host to Cleveland before a crowd of 48,817.

New Orleans got on the board late in the first quarter after safety Rob Kelly recovered a fumbled punt by Browns WR David Dunn at the Cleveland 15 yard line. QB Billy Joe Hobert tossed a five-yard touchdown pass to WR Keith Poole for a 7-0 lead.

Cleveland’s defense set up a score midway in the second quarter when DE Roy Barker intercepted a pass and returned it 14 yards to the New Orleans 22. Couch connected with RB Marc Edwards for a 27-yard touchdown that tied the game. However, just before the end of the half, Doug Brien booted a 49-yard field goal for the Saints that put them back in front at 10-7.

The Browns defense set up another touchdown in the third quarter when the second Saints quarterback, Billy Joe Tolliver (replacing the injured Hobert), fumbled an attempted handoff in his own territory and DT Darius Holland recovered for Cleveland. Couch threw to fellow rookie WR Kevin Johnson for a 24-yard TD and 14-10 lead.

Before the third quarter was over, Brien kicked his second field goal from 22 yards out to narrow Cleveland’s margin to one point. It appeared that the Saints had an opportunity to take the lead midway in the fourth quarter, but Williams fumbled the ball away at the Browns’ 12 yard line with 5:27 remaining to play.

New Orleans got another chance, however, and looked set to kick a game-winning field goal with time running out. However, they called a timeout with 29 seconds still remaining, rather than letting time run all the way down. Brien was successful on the 46-yard kick for a 16-14 lead, but the Browns still had 21 seconds to work with.

Johnson returned the ensuing kickoff 25 yards. Couch threw an incomplete pass on the first play, but then was successful on a 19-yard pass to WR Leslie Shepherd, who quickly stepped out of bounds at his own 44 with two seconds remaining. With time for just one desperation play, Couch launched a long “Hail Mary” pass toward the end zone. The ball was tipped by two defenders, but Johnson managed to catch it and just stay inbounds for a stunning 56-yard touchdown. The new Browns had their first win by a score of 21-16.

The entire Browns team engaged in a wild celebration on the field, while the frustrated Saints could only walk off the field in disbelief. “I couldn't have thrown it another yard,” said Couch afterward. “I put everything I could into it and threw it as high as I could. It's a neat way to get your first one.”

“Sometimes you've got to be lucky, and we were lucky today,” summed up Coach Palmer.

The Saints outgained the Browns, 351 yards to 243, and had a significant advantage in first downs, 25 to 9. But they also turned the ball over five times, to just once by Cleveland. The Browns defense played well, and despite being without its best player, LB Jamir Miller, who was out with a shoulder injury.

Tim Couch completed 11 of 19 passes for 193 yards with three touchdowns against no interceptions. Kevin Johnson (pictured at left) caught 4 passes for 96 yards and the two TDs, while Leslie Shepherd contributed 4 receptions for 52 yards. As usual, the team was ineffectual on the ground (62 yards on 21 attempts), with RB Karim Abdul-Jabbar leading the way with 39 yards on 13 carries.

For the Saints, Ricky Williams ran for 179 yards on 40 attempts, but also fumbled three times. The two Billy Joes at quarterback combined for just 13 completions in 29 attempts and each gave up an interception; Hobert had a TD pass among his four completions, while Tolliver was successful on 9 of 20 passes for 92 yards. Williams and Keith Poole both caught three passes (for 8 and 23 yards, respectively) while RB Aaron Craver gained 32 yards on his two receptions.

It was the fifth loss of the season for the Saints when holding a fourth quarter lead, on the way to a miserable 3-13 finish at the bottom of the NFC West; a major housecleaning ensued. Cleveland won once more and ended up last in the AFC Central with a 2-14 record, but they had made their first win a memorable one.

Tim Couch had a respectable rookie season, completing 55.9 % of his passes for 2447 yards with 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. However, he led the league by being sacked 56 times, and his career in Cleveland was ultimately disappointing.

Kevin Johnson led the Browns in pass receiving for the year with 66 catches for 986 yards (14.9 avg.) and eight touchdowns.