An evening of euphoria over pro football's return to the shores of Lake Erie quickly turned into grim reality for Cleveland Browns fans who came to see their beloved team play its first regular season game since Dec. 17, 1995.
The fact that the old Browns' most hated rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, came here and spoiled the celebration by administering an unsympathetic, 43-0 thrashing tonight only added to the dismay of the 73,200 who filled the new Cleveland Browns Stadium.
The Browns kept the team name, colors and club records after Art Modell moved the old franchise to Baltimore after the 1995 season. This hardly was the way they wanted to open the first chapter of their fresh start.
"With all of the excitement, the fans may have been expecting too much," said Browns starting quarterback Ty Detmer, who completed 6 of 13 passes for 52 yards and an interception. "This team was put together in six months. I'm sure the fans won't give up on us, but everyone has to be realistic."
Meanwhile, after a 1-3 preseason that seemed to indicate serious problems with the Steelers' offense, Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart and his teammates got healthy in a hurry tonight.
They opened a 20-0 lead after two quarters, rolled up 370 yards during the first three quarters and had 460 yards by game's end, including 213 rushing. The Steelers ran 88 plays, the Browns 22, and Pittsburgh had the ball for almost 48 minutes. In the third quarter, Cleveland gained one yard. It had only nine yards rushing all night. The Browns threw two interceptions and also lost two fumbles.
"We didn't worry about them being an expansion team," Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland said. "We looked at them like any other team. They're coming back after three years. They had a right to party before the game and all that hoopla, but we took it in stride and did what we had to do."
The game was so well in hand midway through the third period that Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher replaced Stewart for the night as a safety precaution. Stewart completed 15 of 23 passes for 173 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.
Stewart had come under heavy criticism in Pittsburgh for his poor play during the preseason. But the Steelers insisted they had held back on many of the offensive looks used tonight by first-year offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, who called all the plays.
"That's the way I like to play my first game," Stewart said. "We saved the best stuff for our first game. It's the same offense--just a few wrinkles. [Gilbride] was calling plays to make me comfortable, and he did a great job. And there's still more to come."
Running back Jerome Bettis rushed for 89 yards on 18 typically bruising carries. Bettis did not play during the preseason as he recovered from an appendectomy in the spring and a bad knee. He was supposed to get only about a dozen carries tonight, but he battered would-be tacklers as if he was in midseason form and also was replaced early in the second half.
"I stretched out real good before the game, and just went out and went to work," Bettis said. "As the game went on, I got the rust off me. I was ready to go. I said all week I'd play as much as they needed me to go. We're back."
The Browns, 2-3 in the preseason, were totally inept this longest of nights, especially on offense. Detmer almost certainly will be looking over his shoulder this week in practice toward rookie Tim Couch, the first overall pick in the draft, who entered with 10 minutes 38 seconds remaining and his team trailing by 36 points.
Then again, Couch hardly distinguished himself, either. His first pass was intercepted by safety Scott Shields, leading to Pittsburgh's last touchdown. He threw three passes without a completion against a defense that came after him on every play.
The Browns have said they want to bring Couch along slowly and not get him shellshocked early. By the time Cleveland faces Tennessee in Nashville Sunday, they may have reconsidered that noble philosophy.
"You never want to take a beating like this," Couch said. "The only positive thing we can take out of this is that we can't go anywhere but up. We can't get any worse than we were tonight."