Does it really matter which quarterback is under center for the Cleveland Browns in 2003?
Think back, if you will, to 1988.
On a steaming hot Sunday afternoon in Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, Cleveland demi-god Bernie Kosar was at the controls for the Browns in a clash with the Chiefs. Kosar was coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he'd led the AFC in passing and just missed a Super Bowl berth.
By halftime, Gary Danielson was quarterback of the Cleveland Browns.
In an instant, a safety blitz had sent Kosar to the bench. He suffered a torn ligament in his throwing elbow and was out for six weeks. Danielson didn't even make it through the next game, the home opener against the Jets. He was sidelined with a broken ankle.
Journeyman Mike Pagel filled in until separating his shoulder four weeks later against Seattle. The Browns eventually turned to ancient Don Strock, who had a little gas left in the tank, but he later went down, too.
Kosar was back for a time, but suffered a season-ending knee injury on a Monday Night Football game at Miami.
That, gentle reader, is why it's not important if Couch or Holcomb is the starter this season.
It's vital both are on the team.
Fact is, the odds say they're both going to play. Couch is tough, but injury prone. Holcomb has shown great promise, be he, too, was hurt last year.
Cleveland is fortunate to have two solid passers. Nearly every NFL team would salivate to be in such a position.
When's the last time the Browns had two legitimate starting quarterbacks on the roster?
(Editor's note: Grotesque play disqualifies Mike Phipps and Paul McDonald)
Well, Kosar and Vinny Testaverde were together in 1993, but that year was an unmitigated disaster in team history, perhaps second only to The Move in 1995.
One has to go back to 1968 for a pair of reliable starting quarterbacks … and I'm being charitable here. That was the season the Browns handed the reins over to newly acquired Bill Nelson. The venerable Frank Ryan -- perhaps the least appreciated player in team history -- was eased out that year.
Nelson was the Tim Couch of his time. He was never truly embraced by the fans because he couldn't replicate what Ryan had done -- win the world championship. Ryan was a touchdown machine. Nelson tossed quite a few, too, but it would never be enough. In just a few years, Nelson and his gimpy knees were on the NFL scrap heap in favor of Mike Phipps.
Point is, you can never have enough good quarterbacks on the team.
Is Couch good? Most certainly. Despite his development being slowed by the team's mismanaged birth, he's shown flashes of being something special. Twice he's been lucky with last-second scoring bombs to win games.
How many other NFL quarterbacks in the last couple of years have done that?
I can't recall any offhand, and I track most games on DirecTV. Couch has done it twice. This last time, at Jacksonville, it was a questionable catch … but the beauty was the ball was only where the receiver could catch it. It was a perfect bomb.
But it's other times when Couch has given us a glimpse of what could be. The late-season game at Baltimore in 2002, with a playoff berth hanging by a thread, Couch led the Browns on an improbable long drive into the teeth of the Ravens' tough defense. The march ended with a touchdown pass and a Cleveland victory.
Luck? Not that time. The drive was brilliantly executed.
There's just something about Couch … yes, boneheaded mistakes and slow reads and reactions … but when the chips are down … his gunslinger mentality takes over and he becomes an unthinking machine capable of dicing any defense in front of him. It would be nice if he played that way the whole game, but as a pragmatist, I'll settle for it in the final minute to win.
Couch in those times reminds me of a very young and rough John Elway and Brett Favre … tough, gritty … unafraid to get into a scrap … disdainful.
Will these sparks develop into something more? It took years for Elway to blossom. He was so awful that he was repeatedly benched early in his career. Favre was wild, too.
Then there's Holcomb. A virtual unknown when he signed two years ago, the Middle Tennessee State product was a career backup destined for oblivion.
Now, he owns the third most single-game passing yards in NFL postseason history and he's vying to become the Browns' starting quarterback.
Hollywood, you listening?
Our first glimpse of Holcomb's abilities came in 2001 at Green Bay. In for Couch once Green Bay was comfortably pummeling Cleveland, Holcomb put up solid, safe numbers. He looked crisp. He didn't look lost.
Then came 2002. With Couch suffering an arm injury that's still a mystery, Holcomb looked great in the preseason, and even better once the season began.
After putting up more than 700 yards passing, five scores and no interceptions in the first two games, Holcomb was back on the bench when Couch returned. Couch avoided a QB controversy by helping the team to an improbable victory at Tennessee.
After Couch limped off the field at Cleveland Browns Stadium with a concussion courtesy of the Ravens, Holcomb rallied the team from a deep deficit. He also played on a broken leg, and damn near won the game. Under pressure and in obvious pain, an errant pass in the end zone was picked off. Had it found its target, fans that night -- including your narrator -- would have been on hand to witness one of the great rallies in team history.
We all know the story of the rest of the season … Holcomb coming off the bench for a key scoring toss against Atlanta … the playoff game.
All that's gone now. A new season is here. Butch Davis will pick a quarterback, and he'll likely stick with him. Whichever passer is on the bench will keep his mouth shout.
Because his turn is coming. It's only a Kansas City safety blitz away.
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS …
The 2003 NFL Draft is done and in the books. The consensus outside Northeast Ohio is that the Browns bungled this year's selections. Publication after publication and guru after guru – the same folks who've never got a draft prediction right yet – have graded Cleveland very poorly on this year's draft.
Because they didn't land a big-name offensive player? Didn't need one.
No huge defensive end or stud linebacker? None to be found at the No. 21 spot.
What about Boss Bailey?
Everyone else had a chance to snag him, and no one did until the Lions in the second round (where, coincidentally, he'll team up with ex-Browns Wali Rainer and Earl Holmes).
The Cleveland Browns went into this year's draft with very specific needs, and apart from a starting linebacker, they achieved them.
The Browns didn't have a starting Center prior to last weekend. That's a pretty key position SINCE THEY TOUCH THE BALL ON EVERY PLAY.
Anyone out there comfortable with the anchor of the offensive line being Melvin Fowler or Shaun O'Hara?
Didn't think so.
Now, the Browns have their man, and the experts tell us he'll be snapping long after the Couch-Holcomb debate has faded into memory.
Everyone has freaked out about the fifth-round selection of long-snapper Ryan Pontbriand.
There are certain positions, unglamorous jobs, on a football team that players, coaches, management and fans don't want to have to worry about. Long snapper is one of them. For years, the Browns had arguably the best in the NFL in Ryan Kuehl.
The Browns grotesque handling of his contract allowed Kuehl to slip away in free agency.
Do any of us want to spend a season watching botched punt snaps and screwed up extra points? We all know how critical every single play is to the Browns, so having special teams that operate without getting noticed is the ideal.
If it costs Cleveland a fifth-round pick to ensure stability on routine plays that make up so much of the game, so be it. Let's pay that price.
How many other teams have a starter as of right now out of the fifth round?
The Browns do.
Now, let's talk about the other picks.
Chaun Thompson seems like a project. The Browns need starting linebackers. I trust Cleveland's coaching staff if they say they see something special in this kid from an 0-11 West Texas A&M club. From all I've heard and read, he just needs seasoning and experience at the pro level.
Well, it's time to learn, Chaun. Although I see Jamir Miller being re-signed, and perhaps another free-agent linebacker move by the Browns, I suspect Thompson will start at weakside linebacker for Cleveland.
Every great linebacker in the NFL was a rookie. They only became great by playing.
In the third round, the Browns selected Marshall University defensive back Chris Crocker. All I know about him is that people say he's fast, that he'll play cornerback for Cleveland, and that folks in the BerniesInsiders chats call him Betty Crocker.
The injured Lee Suggs looks like a steal in the fourth round. He's a talented running back who won't play because he's hurt, and even if he wasn't, he is so far down on the depth chart that his name might as well be Mike Oliphant.
Yech. Bad memories there.
Or, Suggs could play a role similar to James Jackson's -- not playing at all.
Suggs' college credentials are great, but he's too much of an enigma right now. Perhaps Butch Davis has a greater plan there than we're seeing. Trades could be out there.
The final pick was oft-injured Boston College defensive end Antonio Garay. Some say had he not been banged up so much during his college career and missed so much time, he would have been a first-round choice.
Well, he was hurt a lot, so he went in the sixth. A project.
Overall, I'm neither ecstatic nor disappointed about this year's crop of new Browns. There's a lot of raw talent that no one can deny, but there's also a bunch of questions to be answered about these players – maybe more so than any other Cleveland draft class since returning to the league.
All we can do now is wait, because only time will bring the answers.
NEXT TIME …
Your hero is mulling a quick trip down Interstate 75 to Louisville … home of this weekend's Kentucky Derby. A man of many vices, especially gambling, Doc Gonzo may bring you two-fisted tales of bad craziness with Dawg Pounders invading the bluegrass infield of fabled Churchill Downs. Or, he may sit home at watch the race on television, a bourbon-soaked drunken sot too lazy to live. Stay tuned …
Former Ohio newspaper editor and reporter Bill Shea writes the Doc Gonzo column for Bernie's Insiders. He now spends his hermit-like days tending his miniature dachshunds deep within the misty forests along the storm-swept Lake Huron shores of Michigan's untamed Thumb. He can be reached at email@example.com.