The new Browns coaches plan to make Tim Couch the quarterback he used to be
"Orange Right 90! Set! Hut-hut," Browns quarterback Tim Couch barked at minicamp last Friday. He then shot back from center five steps and spiraled an eight-yard bullet onto the numbers of wideout Lenzie Jackson. Touchdown. So what if it was a simple practice throw with no defense on the field? This is the new Couch. Looks a lot like the old college Couch, actually.
As he takes over in Cleveland, coach Butch Davis will change much about the Browns, who under coach Chris Palmer went 5-27 in the franchise's first two seasons. His primary interest, though, will be the care and feeding of Couch. Anointed the franchise quarterback as the first pick of the 1999 draft, Couch has instead looked like the consummate average NFL Joe (22 games, 22 touchdown passes, 22 interceptions). He has appeared to be no faster afoot man the average tight end, plus he lost a half-season's experience in 2000 after breaking his right thumb in practice. (He says the thumb, which has two permanent screws at its base, is pain-free.) What's more, Palmer employed more of a classic pro-style offense, with the quarterback taking a lot of seven-step drops and the receivers running deeper routes. It's a system that Couch was ill-equipped to run.
Davis and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who was Peyton Manning's quarterbacks coach in Indianapolis the past three years, are giving Couch his best chance to succeed. A 72% passer in his last season directing Kentucky's short-pass, multiple-choice aerial game, Couch will have the chance to reprise that role in Cleveland. On as many as half of the Browns' snaps, he'll be given the option of going to the line and choosing one of three plays called in the huddle. Usually that would be a run right, a run left or a multiple-option pass play, depending on what personnel package and formation Couch sees from the defense.
When it's a pass, he'll throw quickly. Quarterbacks are taught to drop back three, five or seven steps, depending on the play and the length of the pass routes. Cleveland, with an anemic line, will have no seven-step drops in the playbook. None. That's unheard of in the NFL. So Couch, who threw 74% of his passes in his final college season less than 10 yards downfield, will go back to what made him a standout.
"The way I've been taught football," says Couch, "is to control the game with high-percentage throws. Move the chains. No mistakes. Positive plays. In this offense I expect to put up big numbers and win a lot of games. It's the offense that's best suited for me."
In theory that's true. But the Browns have surrounded Couch with probably the worst cast of offensive players in the league. Instead of getting him an outstanding back or go-to receiver with the third choice in last month's draft, Cleveland took a Warren Sapp-type defensive tackle in Gerard Warren of Florida, a year after the club selected defensive end Courtney Brown with the No. 1 pick. "We may never in the history of the franchise have another chance to take two long-term defensive cornerstones like that," says team president Carmen Policy, explaining why Cleveland passed on an offensive game-breaker.
Though the Browns helped themselves at tight end by signing free agents Rickey Dudley of the Raiders and Mike Sellers of the Redskins, they could start Travis Prentice at running back and Kevin Johnson and Quincy Morgan at the wideout positions. Prentice ran for 512 yards as a rookie last year. Johnson has caught 123 passes in his first two NFL seasons, and Morgan was a second-round draft choice last month out of Kansas State. That group might strike fear in the WAC, but not in the AFC Central, in which half of Cleveland's 2001 games will be played against four of the league's top dozen defenses—Tennessee (No. 1), Baltimore (2), Pittsburgh (7) and Jacksonville (12). "Of the top quarterbacks in the game," Arians says, 'Tim's got the fewest Pro Bowl associates around him. We've got to get better there."
Impatience at the top could also be a drawback for Couch. Policy and owner Al Lerner vowed when they hired Palmer in January 1999 to give him time to build a great team from scratch. They gave him 23 months. "If we are not noticeably better this year," Policy said, "you will have to interview me at some sanitarium in Switzerland."
For now, the Browns had better hope Couch can be at least a 65% passer and that they can win a lot of 17-14 games. They know he's doing his part. Most nights before bed, Couch eschews SportsCenter in favor of a couple of hours of studying videotape (on his 120-inch screen in a theater room built into his suburban Westlake home). Sometimes he watches tape of himself, some-times of Manning and other quarterbacks he wants to learn from. If there is skepticism about his NFL future outside his house, there is none inside it. "I still believe I'll be one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and I believe this'll be my breakout year," he says. The odds say no. Couch, however, took Kentucky to a bowl playing pitch-and-catch football with a bunch of unknowns like wideout Craig Yeast. For Cleveland to play football in January, he'll have to do that again.