• 59°

Dawg Pound unleashed again

The Associated Press

CANTON – From the time Al Lerner was named their new owner last September, the Cleveland Browns had just 11 months to get ready to play the Dallas Cowboys.

Tuesday, August 10, 1999

CANTON – From the time Al Lerner was named their new owner last September, the Cleveland Browns had just 11 months to get ready to play the Dallas Cowboys.

Cleveland’s fans have had three years to prepare.

And at a little after 8 p.m. tonight when they take the field at Fawcett Stadium to face the Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game, the new Browns will be welcomed back by a city, the NFL and a national TV audience like a long lost relative.

Browns fans, who cried when their team was swept out of town by Art Modell in 1996, will finally be able to reconnect with Cleveland’s glorious football past.

Finally, the bridge between the old Browns and the new Browns will be complete. Old memories will make room for new ones.

”I know when I take the field, and see the fans and the Cowboys,” said Browns rookie quarterback Tim Couch. ”Then I’ll know I’m in an NFL game.”

So will the Browns, who after a three-year exile are being reborn in football’s birthplace.

Never has an exhibition game meant so much, and more than 17,000 fans turned out for Sunday’s walk-throughs for both teams.

In exhibition games on Saturday, Denver defeated San Diego 20-17 in Sydney, Australia; Chicago beat Indianapolis 9-6; and the Raiders edged St. Louis 18-17.

Cleveland’s comeback isn’t just for Browns fans, either. It’s for every fan who had his favorite team moved whether in Baltimore, New York, St. Louis or Los Angeles.

On Saturday, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue talked with Cleveland’s players about the hurt he felt as a child when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved out West.

”I could relate to that, too,” said Browns coach Chris Palmer, who felt similarly betrayed when the New York Giants went to San Francisco.

But after wiping away their tears when Modell abandoned them, Cleveland fans fought back and convinced the NFL to bring a team back in 1999.

”It says a lot about Clevelanders,” Browns linebacker Chris Spielman said. ”It says a lot for the NFL to bring a team back so quickly, and it says a lot for Mr. Lerner to put up a half-billion ($530 million) dollars. There’s a special relationship between the fans and the team here.”

This year’s Hall of Fame Game was moved from its traditional Saturday slot to Monday in prime time by the league to showcase the Browns’ return as the first expansion team with a history.

The game will cap an unforgettable football weekend in northeast Ohio. Saturday, former Browns tight end Ozzie Newsome was enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

”For us to go down there and be able to play as a local team in that whole setting, coming back new …,” said Palmer, making his debut as an NFL head coach. ”I won’t be the only one with butterflies.”

Even America’s Team is caught up in the excitement.

”I have a hard time thinking the Cleveland Browns are new,” said Cowboys coach Chan Gailey, who became familiar with the Browns and their tradition while an assistant coach in Pittsburgh. ”That doesn’t sound right. It seems like there ought to be some special name or exotic name for an expansion team. I’m struggling with them being a new team. They’ve got the same fans, I know that.”

Cleveland’s new football era will begin the Tim Couch Era with the Browns.

The rookie quarterback, taken No. 1 overall by the Browns in April’s NFL draft, will make his pro debut midway through the first quarter. He’ll replace Ty Detmer, who will run the Browns this season until Palmer and his staff think Couch is ready.

Couch outwardly doesn’t appear to be nervous.

”I played in the SEC and we played in the big game week in and week out,” he said. ”I’ll probably forget it’s on TV once we get out there and start playing football again.”

Palmer has had just seven months to put together a staff, assemble a team and have it ready by Monday. It’s too early to worry about final scores yet, he said.

”Winning takes care of itself,” he said. ”All I’m looking for is improvement with my players, that we’re getting better from week to week.”

Notes: X-rays on cornerback Antonio Langham’s right knee were negative and Palmer said a decison will be made at game time as to whether Langham will play. Langham had his knee buckle during a drill late in Saturday’s practice. … 15,000 fans turned out for Sunday’s walk-through practices by the Browns and Cowboys. … Palmer named Spielman, Detmer, offensive tackle Lomas Brown and cornerback Corey Fuller captains for the game. … Tight end Irv Smith said he would wear No. 8 instead of No. 82 for the game in deference to Newsome, who wore No. 82 during his career.