Cleveland's Couch throws off thought of possible farewell

Embattled QB just wants `to play well' in perhaps last home game as Brown

December 20, 2003|By Tom Reed | Tom Reed,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CLEVELAND - The Ravens come to a city mourning the loss of its greatest quarterback and debating the future of its current one.

The Cleveland Browns will pay tribute to Pro Football Hall of Famer Otto Graham, who died Wednesday at age 82, during their game tomorrow against the Ravens. The day might also serve as a requiem for Tim Couch, potentially playing his final home game as a member of the Browns.

"It has crossed my mind, it definitely has," Couch said. "But I don't want to get caught up in that kind of situation because then you try to do too much. I just want to play well."

Graham was the first player signed by franchise patriarch Paul Brown. "Automatic Otto" led the Browns to seven titles in a 10-year career from 1946-55.

Couch was the first player drafted by the expansion Browns when they returned to Cleveland in 1999. His production has been less distinguished:

He threw an interception on his first pass as a pro.

He has been ravaged behind a patchwork offensive line and has been the frequent target of fan frustration.

He broke his leg in the final regular-season game a year ago and watched Kelly Holcomb lead the Browns into the playoffs.

He lost his starting job to Holcomb in preseason and has endured a humbling game of musical quarterbacks as the Browns have struggled to a 4-10 record.

Despite his struggles and the rocky relationship with Browns fans, Couch says he wants to remain in Cleveland. The fifth-year quarterback said he is even willing to restructure his contract, which pays him $7.6 million next season and $8 million in 2005.

"It's about a commitment to what you started," said Couch, 26. "Change can be hard, who knows how it will go ... I want to stick it out and see how it goes."

The decision is not his alone to make. Coach Butch Davis and Browns president Carmen Policy must decide whether Couch is the long-term answer or whether he should be released in the offseason.

As it stands, Couch is set to be among the NFL's five highest-paid quarterbacks next season.

Most agreed the organization was prepared to cut its ties with Couch until several weeks ago. Holcomb's inability to prove himself as a starter and Couch's improved play in the past two games has muddled the picture.

Couch looked sharp in relieving Holcomb two weeks ago, throwing a touchdown and providing a spark in a 26-20 loss to St. Louis. He returned to the starting lineup last week, completing eight of 18 passes for 198 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in a 23-20 overtime loss at Denver.

"I think his willingness to [restructure his contract] plus the way he played [the past two games] causes us to look in the mirror and say, `Let's talk about this Tim Couch,'" Policy said after the Denver loss.

"He's come back through all this adversity - including some injuries - and he's played well. He has never weakened in terms of his resolve to be here, to finish something he started. I think you have to place that on the scale and give it a lot of weight."

Couch has started six games this season, completing 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,041 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. The Browns enter today's game ranked 28th in the league in total offense.

His career passer rating is 75.6 with 64 touchdowns and 66 interceptions.

Couch has shown stretches of solid play, glimpses of the franchise player the Browns thought they had selected with the first overall pick in '99. But he has never been able to sustain it and often felt the wrath of fans who have watched their team post an 11-28 home record in five years.

Couch confronted several fans after a 21-14 loss to Cincinnati in Week 4. However, his low point came a year ago in a nationally televised setback to the Ravens. A teary-eyed Couch ripped fans for cheering as he lay groggy after a fourth-quarter concussion.

"The pressure gets to a point where you are just worried about getting people off your back," Couch said. "Now, I'm having fun again, and that's when you play your best."

Couch's resiliency and his recent play seem to be winning back some fans. The question becomes is it too late to repair fractured relations?

Ravens coach Brian Billick said Couch would attract the interest of many teams if the Browns were to release him. Couch might benefit from being cut because it would supply him with not only a fresh start, but a say in where he plays.

Couch said this week that he wouldn't be in favor of another season with himself and Holcomb vying for the starting spot.

"I definitely have a lot of growth," Couch said. "I haven't reached my peak of where I'm going to be. Coming out of [the University of Kentucky] a year early, the coaching changes and the injuries, I'm nowhere near where I'm going to be in the next few years."

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (8-6) vs. Cleveland Browns (4-10)

Site: Cleveland Browns Stadium

When: Tomorrow, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3

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