After all the Cleveland Browns have gone through this season, Sunday's 34-17 victory over the Texans may not have solved all of the problems that plagued the Browns in their previous three-game losing streak, but at least it was a start.
"It is the tonic the head coach needs," said Browns coach Butch Davis. "I hope it is the tonic the team needs. We needed a win. There is no denying it. We needed to get a victory at home. We needed a win to stop the bleeding."
If the Browns were looking for reasons to believe they had turned a corner, they could point to an aggressive defense that sacked Texans rookie quarterback David Carr nine times. In their first six games, the Browns recorded just six sacks.
The Browns offense also rebounded after a lackluster first half, shedding the conservative label it had earned in the three-game losing streak.
Tim Couch helped to heal his relationship with Cleveland fans after he was booed loudly in his previous home game, tossing a 25-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Morgan, then trying to celebrate with the crowd on a leap into the Dawg Pound. Unfortunately, the former University of Kentucky basketball recruit misjudged the height of the wall and never quite made it into the stands. It was one of the few low points in a day that saw Couch complete 21-of-31 passes for 148 yards and no interceptions, and his teammates reminded him of that woeful jump after the game.
"They said, `We thought you were Mr. Kentucky in basketball, but you've got no hops," Couch chuckled. "It was a great win and it was great to get the fans back on our side."
Even with all of those positives, the Browns would have been in for a dogfight if not for the play of their special teams.
After watching the Texans take a 14-10 lead midway through the third quarter, rookie Andre Davis provided the spark the Browns needed with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
The special teams also forced a key fumble that provided the Browns only offense of the first half. Steve Heiden stripped the ball from Texans punt returner Jermaine Lewis and rookie Kevin Bentley fell on the fumble at the Houston 13-yard line with 1:41 remaining in a scoreless first quarter. The turnover set up rookie William Green's first career touchdown - a 1-yard run early in the second quarter.
The Browns coverage teams made life difficult for one of the league's top return men as Heiden, Brant Boyer, Chris Akins and Michael Jameson took turns delivering big hits on Lewis and keeping the Texans' offense from starting drives on a short field.
"We did a phenomenal job in punt coverage," said Butch Davis. "Jermaine Lewis is one of the league's most talented guys and to somewhat negate him and make him a non-offensive threat in regards to field position was huge for us."
Wide receiver Corey Bradford and some creativity by former Browns head coach and current Texans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer helped Houston keep the game close for the better part of three quarters.
Bradford made a diving catch in the end zone on a 37-yard pass from Carr to tie the game at 7-7 early in the second quarter. Palmer later used some razzle-dazzle to give the Texans their only lead, calling for a wide receiver reverse-pass that caught the Browns secondary completely off guard. With 8:44 remaining in the third quarter, Jabar Gaffney took a pitch, ran to the right sideline, then tossed a 39-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Bradford, giviving Houston a 14-10 lead.
Andre Davis came to the rescue on the ensuing kickoff, following blocks by Barry Stokes and Mark Campbell, then using a head-and-shoulder fake on Houston kicker Kris Brown to break free on the left sideline for his 95-yard return.
The special-teams score was a huge psychological lift for a Browns team that has become conditioned to expect some kind of bizarre disaster to spoil a close games.
"(Davis' return) negated whatever momentum swing they might have gained," said Butch Davis. "It also kept our guys (heads) in the game. We've struggled with that recently ... There have been so many bizarre things, the beer-bottle game against Jacksonville, the (last-second Hail Mary) in Chicago, and sometimes if it is close or tight going into the fourth quarter, our guys wonder if the football gods are looking down on you."
The football gods actually blessed the Browns on Sunday. After Houston tied the game at 17-17 on a 47-yard field goal by Brown, Couch led the Browns on a 6-play, 60-yard drive that ended with his 25-yard touchdown strike to Morgan on a deep out in the end zone. Morgan admitted afterward that had Houston challenged the catch, instant replay might have showed that he got only one foot down in bounds on the left sideline.
"I got away with that," said Morgan. "They could have easily reviewed it and taken it away, but it is in the books now."
Once they had the lead, the Browns pass rush pinned its ears back and battered Carr. Defensive ends Kenard Lang, Tyrone Rogers and Barry Word each recorded two sacks. Word capped the victory by forcing Carr to fumble at his own 4-yard line just before the two minute warning, setting up a 2-yard touchdown run by Jamel White that closed the scoring.
"We came out hungry," said Word. "Houston gave up 31 sacks in their first five games, so we knew we could beat them. If we were going to get out of our slump, we knew this was the week to do it."
Even with the productivity of the Browns pass rush, the Texans failed to take advantage of some key defensive breakdowns. Bradford was left wide open on two plays that should have turned into long touchdown passes, but Carr misfired long on both occasions.
The Browns offense also raised some red flags, totaling just 230 yards of total offense, including a dismal 63-yard first half. If not for Jamel White reversing his field for a 36-yard run in the fourth quarter, the Browns would have posted some ugly rushing numbers. Green rushed for just 24 yards on 12 carries and the Browns managed just 84 rushing yards against a Houston team that had allowed an average of 128 yards per game on the ground in its first five games.
ORANGE CRUSH ... The Browns wore orange jerseyes for the first time in a regular season game Sunday, and while they are now 1-0 in that look, Butch Davis seamed less than interested in making a unfirorm change.
The orange third jersey was part of an NFL marketing plan to have teams wear different colors in one game this season and hopefully encourage a market for some new team apparel.
"I saw stuff on TV with people in green pants and blue pants," said Davis. "It's up to the fans, the marketing people and Reebok, and everybody else who makes these (decisions. It's not a coaching decision. I'm just going to try to show up and whatever color we are in, let's go try to win that game.
SECONDARY HURTING ... The Browns found itself in some serious injury trouble after cornerback Corey Fuller re-strained his hamstring and left the game in the second quarter. The secondary was already without starting cornerback Daylon McCutcheon (elbow) and strong safety Robert Griffith (shoulder), who were sidelined injuries.
"I can't run and I can't cover, but I thought I was going to have to cover in the secondary," said Davis. "We were frighteningly thin ... Guys got hurt. Guys went down. It was a struggle. It took away some of the packages we wanted to try to use."
Free safety Devin Bush also appeared to aggravate a shoulder injury that plagued him earlier in the season. The Browns came into the game with just seven active defensive backs.
"We didn't have any substitutions and so many of those guys play on special teams, too," said Davis.
The Browns also lost defensive end Courtney Brown when he left the game with a hyperextended right elbow in the third quarter.
PALMER RETURNS ... Texans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer met with some old friends in his first visit to Cleveland Browns Stadium since being fired as the Browns head coach after the 2000 season.
"It was good to see so many friends," said Palmer, who posted a 5-27 record in two seasons with the Browns. "Cleveland was a special place to me and I hold it close to my heart. When you walk in, players, fans and people who work here gave me encouragement, and that has a very favorable impression on me. I think Cleveland is a special place with special fans, and it was a good reunion as far as I am concerned."