December 10, 1994 – Cleveland Browns at Dallas Cowboys
The 1990s are a bitter decade for Browns fans. After the 1995 season, the city of Cleveland would lose professional football for three seasons after Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore. The move was painful for many reasons, but as Browns fans have watched the New England Patriots achieve an unmatched level of dominance with Bill Belichick as their head coach, it’s only natural that Browns fans would wonder what could have been.
Belichick had taken over an old Browns team that had fallen short so many times. The run finally ended in a 3-13 1990 season that saw Art Modell fire head coach Bud Carson after less than two years. Carson replaced Marty Schottenheimer who resigned after the 1988 season citing “irreconcilable differences” with Modell.
Carson had led the Browns to the AFC Championship game in 1989, but the team was a shell of itself and fans could see the window was closing fast.
Enter Belichick. After three seasons that saw a total reconstruction of the roster including the release of beloved quarterback Bernie Kosar, the Browns put it all together in 1994. They started the season with a 6-1 start and were 9-4 when they had to travel to Dallas in a game where the team knew a win would virtually guarantee them a playoff spot. The Browns defense was spearheaded by defensive coordinator Nick Saban (yes THAT Nick Saban) and led the league in fewest points given up per game at 12.8 points.
Keep in mind, this Dallas team was at the height of its dominance. While it’s true that head coach Barry Switzer had replaced the departed Jimmy Johnson, the Cowboys still had the “triplets” – quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin.
Yet on this late Saturday afternoon, the Browns defense bowed up holding the Cowboys to just 14 points, the Browns offense was equally stymied managing just one touchdown and four Matt Stover field goals. My most vivid memory of this game was the way it ended.
After putting the Browns up 19-14 with just over two minutes left in the game, the Browns special teams made the nearly fatal sin of allowing a long kickoff return. Dallas took over at their own 49 and quickly marched down to the Browns 6. With time for only a couple of plays, Aikman threw an incompletion and the Cowboys called their final timeout.
On the game’s final play Aikman connected with tight end Jay Novacek over the middle, but instead of finding the end zone, Novacek was tackled at the one-yard line by safety Eric Turner and the Browns had literally held on to a 19-14 win that would lead to their only playoff appearance and their last before the move to Baltimore.