The expansion-era Browns -- and in particular, Tim Couch -- took a quantum leap forward in their development on Dec. 30, 2001 before 68,798 fans at Adelphia Coliseum.
The third-year quarterback had what would end up being one of the best games -- if not the best game -- of his career, throwing for a career-high 336 yards and three touchdowns on 20-of-27 passing, in helping rally the Browns from a two-touchdown fourth-quarter deficit to an exciting 41-38 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
The winning points were provided by sure-footed
The contest had no playoff implications. The Browns fell out of contention after a hopeful -- and unexpected -- 6-4 start that had them clinging to the final AFC playoff spot, dissipated into a four-game losing streak heading into the visit to Nashville. With the triumph, they improved to only 7-8, the same as the former Houston Oilers, who watched their two-game winning streak come to a halt after they figured they had the victory secured.
But while they were disappointed on missing out on the playoffs, the Browns, after going just 5-27 in their first two seasons back in the NFL following a three-year absence, still realized they had had a remarkable turnaround and as such were determined to end the year on a positive note. This victory was the first step in doing that, with just one game -- at Pittsburgh a week later -- left on the schedule.
Even more than that, though, it was how the Browns beat a high-profile team such as the Titans, who had been a combined 26-6 in the regular season the previous two years, coming within inches of defeating the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl following the 1999 season. They did so by winning the all-important fourth quarter, when so many games are decided.
Plus it mattered that Tennessee had really handled the Browns in the teams’ first meeting a month earlier in Cleveland, dealing them their first one-sided loss of the year, 31-15, and starting them on that four-game losing streak. It was also Tennessee’s fifth win over the re-born Browns in as many tries.
So for the Browns to win the rematch -- after they had been given up for dead in the fourth quarter -- meant a whole lot to them going forward as they continued their building effort.
The same could be said for Couch, the Kentucky product who was taken with the No. 1 overall choice in the 1999 NFL Draft to be the face of the expansion franchise. With some holes around him on offense, he had struggled in the first year and a half before a broken thumb sidelined him in 2000. He came back in 2001 with a better supporting cast and tool advantage of that to improve his own game -- markedly.
And this -- maybe Couch’s signature game as a pro, one in which he out-performed the Titans’ Steve McNair (16-of-25 for 274 yards and two TDs with no interceptions) -- was the exclamation point to it all as he went on to finish the year with 17 TD passes, then a career high.
It didn’t take long for Couch and the Browns -- and also the Titans -- to get started, as both teams scored a pair of TDs in the first quarter for a 14-14 tie. Cleveland’s came on Couch passes of 33 yards to wide receiver JaJuan Dawson and 20 yards to former Kent State tight end O.J. Santiago, while Tennessee tallied on Kevin Green’s 17-yard run and McNair’s 40-yard pass to wide receiver Kevin Dyson.
It was more of the same in the second quarter, as each club scored 10 points for a 24-24 halftime tie. Phil Dawson kicked a 30-yard field goal, wide receiver Derrick Mason, who had really hurt the Browns in the earlier game that year, snatched a 59-yard TD pass from McNair, Jamel White ran one yard for a Cleveland TD and then Joe Nedney hit a 31-yard field goal.
That set the stage for Titans running back Eddie George, the Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State, to get going. He began the scoring in the second half with two TD runs, a seven-yarder in the third quarter and a 20-yarder to open the fourth quarter, to provide his team with a 38-24 lead.
But the Browns -- and Couch -- wouldn’t quit, scoring a pair of TDs to tie the score at 38-38 as White ran two yards and Couch flipped a four-yard pass to his always-favorite target, wide receiver Kevin Johnson.
Johnson had a game-high six receptions for 70 yards in the game, while wideout Andre King, a former pro baseball player, caught three passes for 61 yards and White added three grabs for 56 yards.
Following those TDs and with the momentum now clearly in the Browns’ favor, Dawson finished the comeback.
George rushed for 130 yards and the two TDs in 26 carries, while the Browns got 46 yards in seven carries from rookie Ben Gay and 42 yards in 21 tries from White.
But on this day, the Browns didn’t need a huge performance from their running attack.
They had two other, more valuable things going for them in an ever-improving Tim Couch and some real perseverance, and that was just enough to get the win.
This Day in Browns History is presented by Cleveland Clinic.