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AIKMAN A SHELL OF SELF IN RETURN AFTER INJURY

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Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman has suffered two concussions, a severely sprained left knee and even a punctured tongue this season.

All of the aches and pains caught up with him Saturday on the slippery turf of Texas Stadium.Returning from a 21/2-game layoff caused by the knee injury, Aikman was a shell of his usual self against an energized Browns defense that made sure the rusty All-Pro remained out of sync all afternoon.

"I didn't throw the ball well at any point in the game," Aikman said stoically after watching the two-time defending Super Bowl champions fall to 11-3 after Cleveland's 19-14 upset victory.

"It was one of my more frustrating games. I had trouble gripping the ball, especially early, and I never got going. I wasn't sharp, but I can't use that as an excuse because we had a chance to win."

Indeed, despite completing just 11-of-22 passes for a mere 91 yards in the first three quarters, Aikman had marched the Cowboys to Cleveland's 6-yard-line with 10 seconds left.

The last drive had been vintage Aikman. He was 4-of-7 for 45 yards to that point, adeptly using a mix of sideline and crossing patterns to Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith and Kevin Williams. Two of the incompletions, meanwhile, were to stop the clock.

But tight end Jay Novacek fell inches short of the end zone on a pass over the middle on the game's final play, providing an agonizing ending to an agonizing day for the Cowboys and Aikman in particular.

"We made some plays when we had to, but we just came up a few inches short," Aikman said. "That's as frustrating as it gets."

The rest of his afternoon wasn't very comforting, either. Aikman finished the day having completed 21-of-36 attempts for just 188 yards, and his lone touchdown pass was overshadowed by two interceptions and a game-deciding fumble.

Trailing 16-14 and facing fourth-and-1 at his own 17 with barely two minutes left, Aikman fumbled away the snap from center Mark Stepnoski. The turnover set up a Matt Stover field goal that forced the Cowboys to go for a touchdown instead of three points on their final drive.

"The fumble happened so fast, I didn't even know what was going on," Aikman said. "I can't remember the last time that had happened to me."

Aikman's stint was made even tougher by a Browns defense that he considers one of the best - if not the best - the Cowboys' high-powered attack has faced all season.

Cleveland sacked Aikman just twice for minus-11 yards, but the Browns used an intelligent, physical style that never allowed him to find his usual passing rhythm.

"With what they were doing, it felt like the Browns were one step ahead of us the whole game," Aikman said. "They were bringing their safeties on the run and doubling our receivers when we tried to throw. They gave us nothing upfield."

That was obvious just by looking at Aikman's numbers. His longest completion was only 18 yards, and deep-threat receiver Alvin Harper was limited to just one catch for 13 yards.

"Was Troy rusty? Don't even ask me that," said Irvin, who led the Cowboys with eight catches for 102 yards. "Troy wasn't the problem. There was nothing to be happy about today. Offense, defense, special teams - nothing."

Still, the loss did little to make Aikman or the Cowboys second-guess themselves about letting him return so soon after spraining his knee Nov. 20 against Washington.

Dallas had won consecutive games with backup quarterbacks Jason Garrett and Rodney Peete, but handing the controls back over to Aikman was a no-brainer in the Cowboys' opinion.