Browns turn over offense to Couch, ready or not

No. 1 draft pick pressed into starting role early

September 23, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

When the new Cleveland Browns come to Baltimore on Sunday for their first meeting against the old Cleveland Browns, both teams will have quarterbacks making their second NFL start after throwing their first NFL touchdown pass last week.

That's where the similarities end.

While Stoney Case of the Ravens is on his third team in his fifth year and is trying to make a name for himself, Tim Couch already is an NFL name.

The first player selected in this year's draft, he was the sixth quarterback to be selected with the top pick since 1987, following in the footsteps of Vinny Testaverde, Troy Aikman, Jeff George, Drew Bledsoe and Peyton Manning.

It's difficult for Case to relate to Couch's experience.

"He's had everything handed to him, so I definitely can't relate. I wasn't a first-round pick. I wasn't the first quarterback drafted. I didn't have the whole offense handed to me after one game," Case said.

Now Couch has the burden to live up to his billing. His job is to prove he's another Aikman or Bledsoe, not another George.

It's difficult to underestimate the pressure on Couch.

If he makes it big, the new Browns are likely to be a successful franchise if they can surround him with more skill players in the future.

If he doesn't, the Browns figure to be one of those struggling franchises going nowhere and coach Chris Palmer, who is betting his future on Couch, will likely fail.

"People remind me of that all the time," Palmer said.

Palmer handed Couch the starting job after the Browns were drilled, 43-0, by the Pittsburgh Steelers in their ballyhooed Sunday night opener.

In Couch's starting debut at Tennessee on Sunday, the Titans treated him just like a typical rookie quarterback. Especially one who doesn't have a running game to complement the passing game.

Running back Terry Kirby got only five carries in the opener and 10 against Tennessee. That's not the definition of establishing the run.

It's why the Titans were able to tee off on Couch, sacking him seven times, one for a safety, and limited him to 134 yards passing.

The Browns were 16-point underdogs in the game and lost by 17. This week, they're a 12-point underdog against a Ravens team that has won only four games in its history by more than 12 points.

This is more than a game, though, between two 0-2 teams who have the two least productive offenses in the AFC. At least, it is to the Cleveland fans.

They've been waiting three years for a chance to play against the old Browns.

Veteran defensive lineman John Jurkovic said, "We know Cleveland has a hatred for Art Modell. So our fans will be in a frenzy. I don't know if Cleveland hates Baltimore as much as it hates Art Modell. I don't know if people in Baltimore hate Cleveland. But I've heard a lot of fans say they knew we would have a tough season, but as long as we'd beat Baltimore, we'll be in good shape."

Couch, though, is virtually oblivious to all this.

Although he concedes the fans are excited about the game, he said, "I don't feel any added pressure. We just look at it like we're lining up and playing football."

But then Couch, only 22, says he was just a "kid" when the Browns announced they were moving almost four years ago.

"I just barely remember when they left. I remember how the fans were really upset they weren't going to have a team. I just remember it being a weird feeling there wasn't going to be football in Cleveland anymore," he said.

As Couch struggles to improve, the Browns are giving him all the positive reinforcement they can. They know how rookie quarterbacks often struggle.

After all, Aikman went 0-11 in his rookie year and was injured and Manning won just three games last year.

That's why the Browns made a big deal of the fact he called his shot on his first touchdown pass, even comparing him to Babe Ruth.

"He called that touchdown in the huddle," offensive tackle Lomas Brown said. "You don't get too many quarterbacks who go in there like Babe Ruth did and call the shot. He said, `If y'all give me the time, this is a touchdown.' That's how [Arizona's] Jake Plummer was. Jake would get in there and made bold predictions and then produce."

Couch threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to another rookie, Kevin Johnson, on the play.

The Browns hope that is just a sneak preview of the type of quarterback Couch is going to be.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Cleveland Browns

Site: PSINet Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Ravens by 12

Tickets: Sold out

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