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In front of a record crowd of 25,156

By David CarducciRecord-Courier staff writer Published: August 10, 1999 12:00 AM

In front of a record crowd of 25,156 fans at Fawcett Stadium and a national television audience, the Browns franchise made its official return, winning a 20-17 overtime thriller to open the preseason against the Dallas Cowboys.

A 35-yard interference penalty called against Dallas cornerback Kevin Brooks set up Phil Dawson's game-winning 20-yard field goal with 8:56 left in overtime.

"It was an emotional win," said Browns coach Chris Palmer. "Even though it's preseason, it's always nice to get a win. This was for the fans of Cleveland. They have suffered for three years without a football team."

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Winning is nice, but the real purpose of a preseason opener is the first opportunity to evaluate players in competition.

The most impressive performance was turned in by No. 1 draft pick Tim Couch, who gave a preview of what could be a bright future in his professional debut.

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Couch entered the game with 12:20 remaining in the second quarter, and after over-throwing wide receiver Kevin Johnson deep down the left sideline on his first pass, completed 10 consecutive throws.

The former University of Kentucky star won over the fans early in his first series by displaying unusual poise in the pocket, stepping up under pressure to complete a 5-yard bullet to fullback Tarek Saleh for a first down.

In his second series, he demonstrated perfect touch in throwing his first professional touchdown pass to Johnson, who made a beautiful finger-tip grab in the left corner for a 24-yard score and a 14-7 lead with 9:17 left before the half.

"That felt great, especially to get it to Kevin," said Couch. "We came in the same draft class, so it was special, and hopefully it will be the first of many for us."

Couch won over more fans by displaying an unexpected toughness, lowering his head to take on Dallas linebacker Dat Nguyen in an attempt to pick up a first down on an on a 6-yard scramble in the third quarter.

While the gutsy head-first dive encouraged a standing ovation from the crowd, it brought a scare to Palmer.

"I told Tim that on Wednesday (in training camp), we are going to work on sliding," said Palmer. "Overall I was very pleased with Tim. He and (starting quarterback) Ty Detmer both did a very nice job. Tim made some plays. It is no secret he is the cornerstone of this franchise."

Couch finished with an impressive 11-for-17 performance for 137 yards.

Some other young players also made the most of their first appearance in the National Football League.

Seventh-round pick Madre Hill, from the University of Arkansas, proved he has fully recovered from a pair of knee surgeries in college. Hill, who led the Browns with 62 yards on 10 carries, showed break-away speed, cutting off left tackle for a 28-yard run during the third quarter.

"That's what I bring," said Hill. "I'm kind of a home-run hitter. I'll get 3 yards, then 3 yards, then I'll break away for 60 yards. I'm just grateful that Cleveland has given me this chance. I want to show that I can help this football team."

Rookie cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, a third-round draft choice from USC, also had an impressive debut, intercepting two passes. His second interception, on a sideline throw by Dallas quarterback Mike Quinn, set up Cleveland's game-winning drive in overtime.

Little-known wide receiver Curtis Marsh, who spent parts of four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers, made some key catches in the second half to lead Cleveland receivers with three catches for 36 yards.

According to Palmer, the biggest surprise of the night was rookie wide receiver Ronnie Powell, a converted running back from Northwestern State who the coach called "green as the grass."

Powell showed impressive speed in beating Kevin Brooks down the left sideline to pull in a 50-yard bomb from third-string quarterback Mike Cook.

While some rookies helped their cause with their performance, overall the Browns were not completely sharp in the first game.

The starting offensive line was called for three false starts, including one by Scott Rehberg, who may have hurt himself in his battle with Orlando Bobo for the starting right guard job.

The two-headed, first-team running attack of Terry Kirby and Sedrick Shaw struggled, gaining just 15 yards on 10 carries. Shaw's performance was marred by a second-quarter fumble at the Dallas 12-yard line.

Kirby did manage to score the first touchdown for the Browns in three years, diving over from 1-yard out with 8:12 left in the first quarter. The score capitalized on a fumble recovery by John Thierry on the Cowboys' opening drive.

Dallas tied the score at 7-7 early in the second quarter on a 36-yard touchdown pass from Jason Garrett to sixth-round pick Martay Jenkins, then again at 14-14 on a Garrett to Jeff Ogden touchdown pass of 24 yards with 1:54 left in the half.

The Cowboys took a 17-14 lead into the half on a 49-yard field goal by Richie Cunningham with three seconds remaining.

Troy Aikman started at quarterback for Dallas, completing 9-of-11 for 85 yards in the first quarter, but was intercepted in the end zone by Cleveland cornerback Corey Fuller. Browns starting quarterback Ty Detmer was 2-for-6 for 11 yards.

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