Moment 1: Dawson's strike
Steve King, Staff Writer
Ignorance is bliss.
At least it was for the expansion Browns on Nov. 14, 1999.
So much has been made about the fact that, with only two exceptions -- right tackle Orlando Brown and cornerback Antonio Langham, both of whom had played with the original franchise -- these new Browns didn't really understand the team's history.
They had come from a variety of different teams and situations, and as such, they didn't appreciate the Browns' rivalries. They didn't know Otto Graham from Billy Graham, Mac Speedie from Speedie Gonzalez, Tommy James the football player from Tommy James and the Shondells.
But that day over seven years ago is one time when their unfamiliarity with things definitely worked in the Browns' favor as they gained their second -- and final -- win of the season with a stunning, final-play, 16-15 upset decision over the arch rival Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium.
These were the same Steelers who had blistered the Browns 43-0 in Cleveland in the regular-season opener just two months before, serving as the ultimate party poopers for the team's and the city's grand return to football after a three-year absence.
Forget the fact the Steelers had been just mediocre since whipping the Browns, having won four of their next seven games to stand a good-but-not-great 5-3 at the halfway point of the season. Indeed, that meant little.
What mattered was that the Browns had been able to beat the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium about as often as Art Modell is awarded the key to the city of Cleveland, Doug Dieken and Dwight White exchange Christmas cards or Iron City becomes Cleveland's choice for beers.
The place was a house of horrors for the Browns. It was akin to being in the bowels of you-know-where, only worse.
The Browns had won there just four times in 27 tries since the place opened in 1970. And all four of those victories came in a row, from 1986-89. So from 1970-85, the Browns were 0-16 there, and they were 0-7 (including one playoff game) from 1990-95, when the original franchise bolted to Baltimore.
Sure, the prowess of the Steelers, who rose to prominence in the 1970s after four decades of futility, had something to do with the Browns' problems. But the fact of the matter is that the Browns also hurt themselves, finding a way to lose games on days when they certainly played well enough to win.
That meant nothing to these new Browns, though. They weren't in Cleveland when all of that happened. In some cases, they weren't anywhere -- they weren't even born. Because of that, then, the Steelers were just another team, and Three Rivers was just another stadium. Neither one was anything special.
So the Browns had no real fear of playing in Three Rivers. In fact, they welcomed it. They would have played the Steelers in owner Dan Rooney's back yard, for that matter. Their only focus was that they wanted another shot at the club that had so thoroughly dominated them in the opener.
OK, so maybe the Browns couldn't win the game, but they were bound and determined not to get wiped out like they had in Cleveland.
The Browns went into the day with at least some hope -- at least as much as they would have at any point in that 1999 season, which ended with a franchise-worst 2-14 record. The Browns had edged the New Orleans Saints 21-16 two weeks before on Tim Couch's 56-yard Hail Mary pass to wide receiver Kevin Johnson on the final play. So though their record was just 1-8, they knew they could win a game -- and they knew they could do it on the road.
But beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh had always been an entirely different animal altogether for the Browns, and it would be interesting to see how much history had seeped into the Browns by kickoff.
Apparently, the Browns were Teflon, for they deflected any influence of the past when, on the first series of the game, they stunned the Steelers and the crowd of 58,213 by marching 80 yards in five plays for a touchdown on Couch's 35-yard pass to Johnson.
The Browns also came out playing well defensively. They gave up a 47-yard field goal by Kris Brown on the ensuing possession to cut their lead to 7-3, but they dodged a real bullet late in the first quarter. Taking over at the Cleveland 37 following an exchange of punts, the Steelers gave up the ball on the first play when Kordell's Stewart's pass for wide receiver Troy Edwards was intercepted by strong safety Marquez Pope.
The Steelers took the second-half kickoff and got into position for another Brown field goal -- this one from 32 yards -- to slice their deficit to 7-6. The fact the Browns were still ahead in the third quarter already represented a moral victory after what had happened in the first game.
Pittsburgh then got the break it was looking for moments later when Couch, upon being sacked, fumbled the ball away to end Orpheus Roye, who would sign with the Browns in free agency the following year, at the Cleveland 8. Richard Huntley scored on a five-yard TD run two plays later, and the Steelers went for the two-point conversion to try to go ahead by seven points, 14-7. But it failed when Stewart was stopped short, leaving the lead at 12-7.
No matter. It appeared the Steelers, after a slow start, were now on their way. They appeared to be in control even more after Brown hit field goal No. 3, a 47-yarder, with 10:10 left in the game to boost the advantage to 15-7.
Now the Browns would need two scores to win, or a TD and a two-point conversion of their own just to tie. Neither seemed plausible to longtime Browns fans. After all, this was Three Rivers, where nothing goes right, especially in the fourth quarter.
But again, the Browns, unaware of all that, simply rolled up their sleeves and went to work. The defense did its part first, getting the ball at the Pittsburgh 15 after Stewart's pass to Edwards was intercepted by end John Thierry and returned eight yards.
Three plays later, Couch threw five yards to fullback Marc Edwards with 5:12 remaining. The Browns tried to tie the score at 15-15 by going for two points, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's run up the middle was stopped.
Still, trailing only 15-13, the Browns had made it respectable. This was a whole lot better than 43-0.
Stopping the Steelers on the ensuing possession, getting the ball and driving for the winning field goal was a bit too much to ask, however. Remember, this was Three Rivers and the Browns were an expansion team.
But the Browns did force the Steelers to give up the ball, and when Jim Miller's 52-yard punt went into the end zone, the Browns took over at the 20 with 1:51 left. They had a chance, but since the game was in Pittsburgh, they would need a miracle to win, particularly with the fact they had no timeouts left.
The Browns got a five-yard freebie when Roye jumped offside before the first play, then Couch threw a 23-yard pass to wide receiver Darrin Chiaverini. On top of that, linebacker Mike Vrabel, from Ohio State and Walsh Jesuit High School, just north of Akron, Ohio, was penalized 15 yards for roughing the passer on the play.
So with still plenty of time left -- 1:43 -- the Browns were set up nicely at the Pittsburgh 37.
Browns fans kept thinking the worst, though. They had seen it happen to their team in Pittsburgh too many times before. At some point, they were convinced, the Browns would fumble or throw an interception, or the ghost of Steelers founder Art Rooney would rise up and trip up a runner one inch from the goal line on the game's final play.
Yes, something would happen.
And something did indeed happen, but this time, it was good.
Couch passed seven yards to running back Terry Kirby on the next play, but left tackle Lomas Brown had to carried off the field with an injury. Since the Browns were out of timeouts, by rule, 10 seconds were run off the clock, leaving 1:13 left as they worked from the 30.
A five-yard run by Abdul-Jabbar on the next play gave the Browns a first down at the 25, but the clock, after being stopped momentarily to re-set the chains, kept rolling along. Now only 40 seconds remained.
Abdul-Jabbar ran three yards to the 22 to place the ball in the middle of the field for Phil Dawson to kick the game-winning field goal.
The Browns' strategy had become clear. Head coach Chris Palmer was going to have Couch spike the ball with only a few seconds left, then rush Dawson and the field-goal unit onto the field.
The clock kept running, but the offense left the field, being replaced by the field-goal team -- without Dawson, though.
Apparently unaware that Palmer wasn't going to stop the clock with a spike and was instead going to run it down to the end, kick the field goal and give the Steelers no time to come back, Dawson was busy on the sidelines, practicing his kicks into a net.
Standing only a short distance away, safety Earl Little saw what was going on and ran to tell Dawson. The kicker became wide-eyed and ran out onto the field faster than any player the Browns had.
The clock kept moving. It was at nine seconds when Dawson began to set up. The snap from Ryan Kuehl came back perfectly -- as it always did -- with only two seconds left. Holder Chris Gardocki, now with the Steelers, placed the ball down perfectly, as he always did.
And Dawson hit the ball well right down the middle.
Then the ball appeared to run into an invisible wall, causing it to immediately start dropping.
Though the Steelers deny it, Dawson claims to this day it was a well-known fact among NFL kickers that during games at Three Rivers, the Steelers would open the big door leading to both teams' locker rooms in the fourth quarter only when the opposition was moving in that direction. He said it created a giant wind tunnel that severely limited the length and height of kicks.
Whatever the case, it was going to be a photo finish to see which one was going to win the race to the crossbar of the goal post -- the ball or the wind.
The ball won by about two yards, giving the Browns an unbelievable 16-15 triumph.
The stadium was dead silent for a moment or two, then the boos started cascading down out of the stands. How could the Steelers lose to a team they had beaten 43-0 earlier in the year?
That's the same thing Browns fans were asking themselves exactly a decade before when their club, after winning the 1989 season opener in Pittsburgh 51-0 to hand the Steelers their all-time worst defeat, lost to them five weeks later in the return match in Cleveland.
The Steelers were shell-shocked. It would set them off on a six-game losing streak en route to a 6-10 finish, a far cry from the way their season began.
The Browns? They were giddy. But not that they had beaten the Steelers. It was simply because they had won a game on the road for the second time in three weeks.
True to his team's reputation, Dawson said he had no idea of the significance of the Browns winning in Three Rivers until his dad, a fan of the team for decades, called him from his home in Dallas screaming, "Do you know what you've just done?! Do you know what you've just done?!"
Uh, not really, but if you say so, Dad.