The Titans walked all over the Browns' Tim Couch in his first start
In room 908 of the Nashville Renaissance Hotel last Saturday night, on the eve of the event he'd dreamed about since the second grade, Tim Couch fell asleep at 10:45 with the TV tuned to a college football game. "Went right out," Couch, the Browns' rookie quarterback, recalled on Sunday in the gathering dusk. "Right after Tennessee went for it on fourth-and-three late and missed it."
Couch's roommate, rookie wideout Kevin Johnson, woke up a bit jittery at 6 a.m. on Sunday and ordered room service breakfast. The sound of silverware clattering on plates awakened Couch for a few minutes, but then he went back to sleep for about two hours, arising for good at 9 a.m. The guy slept nine or 10 hours the night before making his first start in the NFL. No nerves? "Nah," Couch said on Sunday. "You only get nervous when you're unprepared."
Rushed into the starting role in Week 2 by a coach trying to jump-start one of the worst offenses in recent NFL history, the 22-year-old Couch acquitted himself well despite being sacked seven times. His passing numbers were pedestrian (12 completions in 24 attempts for 134 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions), but you had to be in Adelphia Coliseum for the Titans' 26-9 win over the Browns to appreciate how tough it is to be Cleveland's quarterback.
In the days leading up to the game there was locker room grumbling—not to mention quiet questioning from the front office—after Browns coach Chris Palmer benched veteran Ty Detmer in favor of Couch; some thought Palmer had panicked after the opening 43-0 debacle against the Steelers. With just two months of practice Couch was being pressed into service. Here's a snapshot of how his day went.
Facing third-and-nine from the Cleveland seven, Couch threw his first pass into the left flat for wideout Leslie Shepherd—who slipped and fell before the ball got to him. Couch's second throw, on first-and-10 from the Cleveland three, fluttered beyond the slow-footed Shepherd's reach when he couldn't get a step on backup cornerback Dainon Sidney. Two plays later, at the Cleveland five, Couch read a blitz from both sides and audibled to maximum protection, in which running back Terry Kirby and tight end Irv Smith stay in to block. But Kirby didn't see Samari Rolle flying in on a corner blitz, and Rolle and linebacker Eddie Robinson sandwiched Couch for a safety. Welcome to the NFL.
"That's not exactly the way I pictured it as a kid," Couch said of his first two series as a starter.
The game was only 10 minutes old, but already it was looking like Palmer had made a terrible mistake by rushing Couch into the lineup. Last winter the Browns talked Detmer into dropping the no-trade clause in the contract he had with the 49ers so the teams could make a deal and he could play in Cleveland while Couch learned the system. Detmer's tenure as the starter lasted all of one game, from which he was yanked in the fourth quarter. In Palmer's mind the change was a no-brainer.
"It's so hard [to be competitive] now, because players and coaches haven't learned everything they need to know yet," Palmer said. "I showed the players some tape of Jacksonville this week because the Jaguars had some good plays against Tennessee [last year] that we could learn from. So we're watching one of them, a beautiful switch pattern [receivers line up on opposite flanks, crisscross after die snap and blast up the field], and Shepherd says, 'Why can't we do that?' I said, 'Because we're not ready.' A receiver might have six or seven routes he could run on a given play, depending on what defense he's facing. You know how long it'd take for us to learn that to the point where we'd call it in a game? The bottom line is, if Couch comes in and plays well, it'll cover a lot of sins."
Couch knew the 35 passes in the game plan well. But every time he dropped back the Titans turned the dogs loose on him. Four or five times he called the wrong protection scheme for a play, but in the third quarter the Cleveland line started giving him a few seconds. Operating out of the shotgun from the Browns' 22, Couch used a smart run-pass mix to move Cleveland to the Tennessee 39 in six plays. On first-and-10 Palmer called a deep pass play, and Couch then uttered something he'd never before said to his linemen. "Y'all gimme time," he said, "and this is a touchdown."