Tim Couch isn’t afraid to look back. He might not always like what he sees, but he’s not afraid to look back and wonder — at the craziness, difficulty and challenges he faced in a brief four-year career with the Cleveland Browns.
That career seems to symbolize the post-1999 Browns. Drafted first overall, Couch never lived up to the expectations he had for himself and the team. He came amidst much hoopla, but dealt with injury, defeat and wavering confidence during a four-year career that probably seemed like 40.
Couch now lives in Lexington with his wife Heather Kozar (the pride of Green, Ohio) and his two sons. He does TV work for FOX Sports South, and is still involved in the community. His most recent effort: Being placed on the bottle of a special edition of Maker’s Mark, with all proceeds going to the Gill Heart Institute in Kentucky.
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As the first overall pick in the 1999 draft, and as the first overall pick of the expansion Browns, Couch was a good guy placed in bad situation. “I wanted to go to to Cleveland,” Couch said recently in a wide-ranging phone interview. “I knew it would be tough. But I didn’t know it was gonna be that tough.”
Couch was done in by expansion, his own struggles (to which he readily admits) and the impatience of the Browns. A team trying to find a quarterback spent his tenure trying to decide if he was the quarterback.
“When you’re in it, you think completely different,” Couch said. “But when you get removed from it you realize. That was almost an impossible situation to be successful in. It really was. We just didn’t have a lot of talent. Every week was a struggle. Then I had my problems. I kept getting hurt. It was one thing after another.”
Three of several tough moments illustrate Couch’s struggles.
He led the Browns to the playoffs in 2002, but broke his leg in the playoff-clinching finale and missed the only playoff game of the post-1999 era.
“That summed up a lot,” Couch said. “I worked my butt off and took a beating and finally got us to where we wanted to be and in the game I break my leg. When something great would happen … ”
Early in that season, Couch got hit in the head in a night-game loss to Baltimore, then bristled when he heard fans cheering as Kelly Holcomb was warming up because he thought they were cheering his injury. The Browns mistakenly let him talk to the media and could not contain the damage when he spoke through the wooziness.
“I shouldn’t have been speaking,” Couch said. “I had a concussion. If I’d have waited until the next day none of that would have happened.”
Finally, late in his last season in Cleveland, then-coach Butch Davis called him into his office and told Couch he was the quarterback for the future, that he could lead the Browns to the playoffs.
“Next thing I know they’re signing Jeff Garcia to a $25 million contract,” Couch said.
Davis spoke to Couch after a Monday night game when Holcomb threw two interceptions because receivers ran the wrong route. Both quarterbacks were pretty confused at that point.
“Kelly’s still a good friend,” Couch said. “Everything that happened in Cleveland, none of it was personal between he and I. Butch was the one jerking both of us around. We were just frustrated.”
Couch pointed out he was able to go start to finish in a season healthy only once, a sign of the beating he took. He was sacked a league-high 56 times as a rookie. He never played with a Pro Bowler or 1,000-yard rusher (the list of starters included Karim Abdul-Jabbar, Travis Prentice, Ben Gay, Errict Rhett and James Jackson) and had one 1,000-yard receiver (Kevin Johnson).
“A lot of guys have been placed in tough situations,” Couch said, “but I don’t think anyone’s been placed in a tougher one than I was placed in. It was an expansion team and there were a lot of expectations. I embraced that. That’s what I loved about the fans, and why I wanted to play there. But when it wasn’t happening as fast as people wanted, things got a little tough.”
Couch left college a much celebrated player. He was a high school phenom in football and basketball in Hyden, a town of 400 or so in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky (that now has a road called Tim Couch Pass). He stayed home to play for UK in Lexington, where he set every school passing record before leaving after his junior season.
He wanted to come to Cleveland, but the Browns debated right up until the last week about whether to take him or Akili Smith. They even went to the unusual point of loading a private plane with the owner, general manager, coach and nine other members of the organization to give Couch a rare, second private workout in Kentucky.
“I just thought it was part of the process,” Couch said of the exhausting workout when then-coach Chris Palmer admitted he tried to break Couch — sort of like a racehorse. Couch passed, and became the No. 1 pick — a reality that thrilled him.
“I just always wanted to go to Cleveland,” he said.
When he arrived, the town was off its rocker with excitement over the Browns return. Art Modell had moved his team three years earlier, and fans looked at the team’s return and its new stadium as a personal victory. The team spent lavishly on free agents, and cornerback Corey Fuller predicted the team would be the first expansion team to make the playoffs. Nobody argued.
The Browns plan called for Couch to sit and learn behind Ty Detmer, who started the opener on national television amidst Super Bowl-like fanfare. Pittsburgh used that celebration as motivation and humiliated the Browns 43-0. The next week coach Chris Palmer turned to Couch.
The Browns won two games that season — the first on a Hail Mary pass in New Orleans, the second on a last-second field goal in Pittsburgh. Couch lost 359 yards in sacks while the team’s leading rusher gained 452. He finished the season watching the final game with an ankle injury.
“When I look back at that season now, I think the best thing would have been if I had sat for the year behind Ty and just learned,” Couch said. “It’s one thing if you’re a young Ben Roethlisberger who goes to such a veteran team. You can put a young quarterback in that situation. As an expansion team … it’s very similar to what happened with David Carr in Houston. It’s almost impossible for a guy to go in and start right away.
“I wish I had the opportunity to sit and learn that first year.”
Couch said every player believes he’s ready. He now knows he wasn’t.
“As I look back I certainly should not have played,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to handle the situation.”
Especially since he had had nothing but success through grade school, high school and college. When he and the team struggled, he started to doubt himself.
He started the first seven games of 2000, a season when the Browns began 2-1 but fell to 2-7. But in a Thursday practice a back missed a block on a pass-rush drill and a linebacker got too close to Couch. His follow through took his hand into the linebacker’s helmet. A broken thumb and surgery ended a season he thought was progressing fairly well.
“I was second in the league in completion percentage and playing well (1,483 yards, seven TDs),” he said. “Then I missed all those reps and games, and that set me back.”
Detmer had torn his achilles tendon in preseason, so the Browns were left with Doug Pederson and Spergon Wynn at quarterback. They staggered to the end with a 3-13 record, and after the season Carmen Policy fired Palmer and hired Davis.
“It was certainly unfair,” Couch said. “(Palmer) didn’t have a chance. He had all those rookies, and he was a rookie coach. Everybody panicked a little bit, but they never stopped to think Chris was in a bad situation too. I hated to see him go.”
Couch started 16 games for Davis in 2001, and the Browns started 6-4. But a late difficult schedule did them in, and they finished 7-9. Still, Couch looked on that season as a big positive, as he completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,040 yards with 17 touchdowns.
“That was the year I made it start to finish healthy,” he said. “I gained a lot. I believe that experience was the reason we ended up making the playoffs the next year.”
Couch missed the first three games of 2002 with an elbow injury. Holcomb stepped in and threw for 359 yards and four touchdowns in the “Dwayne Rudd” helmet-game loss to the Chiefs. The Browns won the next two, but Davis turned to Couch in week four. He threw two interceptions in a 16-13 loss to the Steelers.
After dropping to 2-4, the Browns and Couch rebounded to win seven of the final 11, including three of the last four, to reach the playoffs.
“I was just proud to make the playoffs with that team,” he said. “We really had no business making it.”
But in the finale against Atlanta, he broke his tibia.
“If that didn’t happen,” he said, “if that one play didn’t happen, I think I would still be playing with the Browns.”
He missed the playoff game, and Holcomb threw for 429 yards in a loss in Pittsburgh, a game the Browns gave away with several fourth-quarter gaffes — by players and the coach. Davis let Couch and Holcomb compete the next training camp, and gave the job to Holcomb based on a “gut feeling.”
“I didn’t agree with the decision,” Couch said. “Kelly had a great game and I have a lot of respect for the way he played. But I felt it was still my job. Butch got a little influenced by the fans, because fans were loving Kelly after that 400-yard game. I didn’t feel I had done anything to lose (the job).”
Neither played well that season. Each started eight games, and the Browns went 5-11.
“We were both frustrated with that situation to be honest,” Couch said. “If one of us had a bad series or a bad game, he’d pull us out. You couldn’t get into any kind of rhythm.”
Despite that, Davis told Couch in December he was Davis’ guy for the future. But Davis then signed Garcia and released Couch. He caught on with Green Bay, but because he was with a new team he never admitted that he had arm and elbow pain. At one point he rolled over in bed and wasn’t able to pull up the covers. He eventually had to visit famed surgeon James Andrews, who found almost every serious injury he could — a torn labrum. torn rotator cuff and a torn bicep. Basically Couch’s arm was shot.
Couch had reconstructive surgery, and tried but could not come back.
When he sees himself listed as one of the alltime draft busts, he shakes his head at being included with Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell. Couch knows he struggled, but he also knows there wasn’t much of a team in place either. He remains the Browns alltime leader in completion percentage (minimum 600 attempts), an oddity given he was oft-criticized for being inaccurate.
“None of those busts took their team to the playoffs,” he said. “If people say it was a disappointment, I can understand that. I was hurt every year. I was on a bad team. I didn’t feel like I could show Cleveland what I was capable of boing. I wanted nothing more than to bring that city a championship, and that still burns.”
Disappointment is the one word Couch said he’d use to summarize his tenure in Cleveland.
Couch was drafted in a first round that saw five quarterbacks go in the first round. Donovan McNabb had a successful career with Philadelphia that included a Super Bowl appearance, Smith was a bust in Cincinnati, Cade McNown a bust in Chicago. But Daunte Culpepper took the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game. Couch’s one chance at a career was with Cleveland, where the misery index was almost as high as the losses and where the team is still trying to solve the quarterback situation.
“I do look at that sometimes, but it’s hard for me to get into that because it eats me up,” he said. “If I had been the 11th pick, I’d have gone to Minnesota where they had Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Robert Smith. You can’t tell me my career wouldn’t have been different. Or if I had been with Andy Reid and that offense, you can’t tell me it wouldn’t have been different.
“But I wouldn’t change it. I was at fault with the way things went too. I thought I could make it work there. I loved my time in Cleveland, I was proud to be a Brown and I still pull for them.”