The Cleveland Browns and their fans couldn't have dreamed of a sweeter ending to their three-year comeback.
Who says exhibition games don't matter?
Welcomed back to the NFL by the same fans who couldn't say goodbye to them in 1996, the Browns ushered in a new football era in Cleveland with a 20-17 overtime victory against the Dallas Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game.
Just yards from the Hall of Fame's doors, and in the city where pro football was born, the new Cleveland Browns' rebirth became reality a little after 8 p.m. EST.
"Somebody pinch me, I must be dreaming," Bobby Johnson of Massillon yelled as the game kicked off.
Phil Dawson kicked a 20-yard field goal with 8:06 remaining in overtime for the Browns, who capped an emotional day with a victory.
The winning drive was set up by rookie cornerback Daylon McCutcheon's second interception.
Browns rookie quarterback Tim Couch dazzled in his pro debut. Couch, the No. 1 overall pick in April's college draft whom Cleveland hopes will eventually lead them to a Super Bowl title, looked like a seasoned pro in his first NFL game. He completed 11 of 17 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown.
After replacing starter Ty Detmer early in the second quarter, Couch overthrew his first attempt before completing 10 straight. He and rookie Kevin Johnson hooked up for 24-yard scoring play in the second quarter, giving the Browns a 14-7 lead.
"It was good to get that first touchdown pass out of the way," Couch said. "Especially to get it to Kevin. Hopefully, that will be the first of many for us."
But whether they had won or lost, the night belonged to Cleveland and the Browns, whose first win also came in Chris Palmer's debut as an NFL head coach.
"It was emotional," Palmer said. "This is for the fans of Cleveland. They've suffered for three years."
Browns fans hadn't been able to cheer their beloved team since Dec. 17, 1995, the final game at Cleveland Stadium after former owner Art Modell announced he was moving his team to Baltimore.
But once Modell left and the shock wore off, Cleveland fought back and convinced the NFL to bring a team back in 1999. The league also agreed to keep the new team's nickname, colors and history the same.
To showcase the Browns' return, the league switched this year's Hall of Fame Game from Saturday to Monday night so a national TV audience could see the new Browns' debut.
"It's a proud night for the NFL and Cleveland," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said moments before kickoff. "Now the tradition and history can go on for another century."
Clad in brown and orange, some wearing jerseys with names like Kosar, Brown and Kelly stitched on their backs, Browns fans arrived early to tailgate in parking lots and on tree-lined side streets before walking to Fawcett Stadium, which was packed with a record 25,156 fans.
"We've waited three years for tonight," said Scott Moot, of Canton. "Nothing matters now, our Browns are back."
Even the Cowboys were happy to see the old orange helmets again.
"It's good to see the Dawg Pound back in the NFL," Aikman said.
The Browns had just 11 months to assemble a coaching staff and team, and before the game Cleveland president Carmen Policy, who won five Super Bowls in San Francisco, said he couldn't remember being as nervous.
"I think it's important we look like a professional team," Policy said. "I'd like to come out of tonight with the impression that we're not an expansion team on the field."
At times, the Browns looked like any first-year franchise. They committed three straight penalties on a drive in the first quarter, and were guily of 11 infractions overall. Dallas was even sloppier with 17 penalties.
But Cleveland's defense, expected to carry the team, forced four turnovers. Corey Fuller picked off Aikman in the back of the end zone to stop one drive.
Capitalizing on an early fumble by Aikman, the Browns scored on a 1-yard dive by Terry Kirby in the first quarter to take a 7-0 lead. Seconds before Kirby went in, a large dog bone bounced off the turf in the end zone, a reminder of the Browns' days playing in front of the Dawg Pound at Cleveland Stadium.
Dallas tied it in the second quarter with Garrett throwing a 35-yard TD pass to Martay Jenkins.
After Couch's scoring toss to Johnson, the Cowboys again tied it with 1:54 left before halftime on Garrett's 24-yard scoring pass to Jeff Ogden.
Richie Cunningham's 49-yard field goal with three seconds left in the half put Dallas ahead 17-14.
Dawson kicked a 23-yarder in the third to tie it 17-all.
Danny Kight missed a 46-yard field goal attempt as time expired in regulation for the Browns.
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