Before the new Cleveland Browns took their first baby steps tonight, club president and minority owner Carmen Policy admitted to some nervous pacing most of this historic day. Most of all, Policy said just before kickoff of the expansion team's first preseason game, "It's important that we look like a professional team."
When rookie quarterback Tim Couch entered the fray early in the second quarter, that was never a concern. The Browns scored on their first possession courtesy of an early Dallas Cowboys fumble, and Couch gave the record crowd of 25,156 fans at the annual Hall of Fame game an evening to savor with a 20-17 overtime victory over the defending NFC East champions.
In a typically sloppy opening preseason game that included 28 penalties, including 17 against the Cowboys, Phil Dawson's 20-yard field goal with 8 minutes 6 seconds left in overtime decided the outcome of the Browns' first game since Art Modell moved the old Browns to Baltimore in 1996. The Browns also had a chance to win on the last play of regulation, but Danny Kight's 46-yard kick was wide right as time expired.
Couch, 22, completed 72 percent of his passes at Kentucky last season and was the first player selected in the college draft, receiving a $48 million, seven-year contract. He showed more than just a few flashes of brilliance after entering with 12:29 remaining in the second quarter, even if most of his good work came against second- and third-team Dallas defenders. He also cautioned about reading too much into his debut.
"I thought it was all right, a few bad plays, a few good plays," he said. "But we got the victory, that's the most important thing. I've still got a long way to go. It was a good first game, but I still have to make positive plays."
There were plenty of those tonight. Replacing mostly ineffective starter Ty Detmer, Couch completed nine of his first 10 passes for 88 yards in the second quarter, directing one scoring drive that ended with a 24-yard touchdown pass to fellow rookie Kevin Johnson, the Browns' second-round pick from Syracuse.
The throw ended a five-play, 54-yard drive, with Couch completing all four of his passes for 47 yards, the last a perfectly executed corner route by Johnson. Couch hit his receiver in full stride a step ahead of cornerback Zebbie Lethridge for a 24-yard touchdown with four minutes left in the half, giving the Browns a 14-7 lead.
On his first series, Couch had moved his offense 57 yards to a first down at the Dallas 12 before running back Sedrick Shaw ended the drive with a fumble.
Couch played the entire third quarter before taking a seat and finished the night with 11 completions in 17 attempts for 137 yards and one touchdown, with a long completion of 31 yards. He showed great poise and patience in the pocket, frequently throwing to second- and third-option receivers.
Others in the Browns' hierarchy were beaming over the final result, and particularly Couch's play.
"I think his performance tonight was reflective of what everyone in this organization expected when we drafted him," Policy said. "We just didn't expect to see it this early. To see the way it was delivered in this game gave us a pretty good feeling about the future."
Even Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman (9 for 11 for 85 yards and one interception), who played only three series with the first offense, was impressed.
"I thought Tim Couch had a nice first half," he said. "He hung in the pocket well and did a good job of picking up his secondary receivers."
All of that almost certainly will translate into the inevitable quarterback controversy in northeast Ohio, far sooner than Coach Chris Palmer probably had expected. Detmer was mostly dreadful against the Cowboys' first-team defense, completing only two of his six passes for 11 yards in three possessions.
Still, Palmer insisted he thought both men looked good tonight, despite Detmer's dismal numbers. He said again he would still prefer not to rush Couch, who is still adjusting to the pro game and Palmer's thick playbook, filled with over 100 passing plays.
But Couch clearly was the most talented Cleveland quarterback on the field tonight, and Palmer said he'll also play more this week in practice working with the first unit.
"It will be a situation from week to week that we'll evaluate," Palmer said. "When it becomes clear, everyone will know it. The players will know it, the fans will know it and I'll know it. It is becoming clearer."