Ever since the day in 1999 when the Browns pinned their future on him by making him the No. 1 pick in their rebirth, Tim Couch has wanted to be the one to lead. Just as Atlas carried the world on his shoulders and Brett Favre carries the Packers and the city of Green Bay on his shoulders, Couch has wanted to do the same for the Browns and the city of Cleveland.
As the wins continue to mount, Couch has proven he can carry the load. Already, the Browns have won more games than they did the first two years combined. A lot of it has to do with Coach Butch Davis and the confidence he has instilled in his players, a lot of the success has to do with a swarming defense, but a lot of it also has to do with the continued maturation of Couch.
In truth, it has not been easy. People expected too much too soon of the Browns and of the young quarterback. Couch left the University of Kentucky after his junior season. The plan with the Browns was to bring him along slowly, not at a snail's pace necessarily, but not at warp speed, either.
There have been many highs and lows already, and Couch is only 24. No one will forget his miracle in New Orleans, when he arched a pass from his own 42 in the Super Dome with no time left to lift the Browns past the Saints, 21-16.
Next came the win in Pittsburgh the first year. It was actually a better effort than what happened in New Orleans. He showed how tough he is when Mike Vrabel whacked him so hard under the chin that Couch's vision blurred. Couch refused to leave the field, though, and put the team in position for Phil Dawson to kick the game-winning field goal.
Likewise, there have been bumps - many bumps. Going winless at home as a rookie might have broken a lesser man. Instead it made Couch's resolve deeper. He came back the second year determined to play better, and it started off that way when the Browns beat Cincinnati and Pittsburgh back-to-back after losing the opener to Jacksonville.
Then, the wheels came off for Couch and the Browns. They lost their next four games. While preparing for the next game, in Pittsburgh, Couch's thumb was fractured on the last play of the Thursday practice. He was out for the season. That one play typified 2000 for the Browns.
"Those were tough seasons, but I think those of us who are still here from the first year grew from them," Couch said. "I think we're all playing better. I like the system we're in because it's more like what I did at Kentucky.
"We've got some good running backs. You need that to make the play-action work, because if the other team doesn't respect the run they'll sit back and wait for passes all day."
Unfortunately for Couch and the rest of the offense, the running game hasn't been as good as hoped. In fact, as the Browns prepared for a playoff dash the last month of the season, it was near the bottom of the league.
Worse yet, it has disappeared at critical times, putting an even bigger burden on Couch and the defense. The Browns beat Cincinnati 18-0 despite averaging 2.0 yards on 39 carries.
Never mind what happened in Chicago last month. There is no need to dredge that up again. Blowing a 21-7 lead with 32 seconds left will haunt them if they fall one game short of their playoff goal.
But the inability to run the ball has been a problem in almost every game, and that means if the Browns are to make a run during the last four games, Couch will have to find a way to do it virtually by himself.
Couch has been very consistent, carrying a quarterback rating around 80.0 most of the year. His status is elevated by an excellent touchdown to interception ratio of almost two to one.
"Tim is playing very well," Coach Butch Davis said. 'Tim is one of the real strong positive parts about our offense. His performances in the second halves of almost every game have been outstanding. He got off to a hot start in the Chicago game but he was a victim of a couple drops.
"If you tried to tell me he'd be playing this well in this offense after only seven games, I would have maybe not really believed you. I think the upside and future for him is enormous."
Couch has thrown a majority of his passes in the second half and in most of the games he had a higher completion percentage in the second half. He has thrown for more yardage in more than 75 percent of his games.
Couch never is totally satisfied with the way he plays. He has yet to have a 300-yard game this season, which is fine with Davis because a quarterback with 300-yard games is often on the losing team. It will be difficult to rack up big numbers against the Patriots or Titans, win or lose, because both those teams have very strong defenses.
"I try to manage the game well, but when you watch the film you always see some throws you can make," Couch said. "I had four or five batted balls in Chicago. It's something you can't control. The defensive linemen are reading eyes instead of trying to pass rush."
Couch has had much better success keeping balls from being batted recently, but even with all the knockdowns he did make one of his second half comebacks against the Bears. He broke through a 7-7 tie with two touchdown passes in the second half and then threw the fatal interception in overtime.
Couch put 10 points on the board in the fourth quarter when the Browns fought back from a 16-10 deficit to beat the Chargers 20-16 and he led a comeback against the Jaguars. He tagged two third-quarter touchdowns on the scoreboard in the third quarter of the Ravens game.
"Maybe he has a better read on the defense by the second half," said H-back Aaron Shea, Couch's closest friend on the team. "It could be that he's just a second half player. Some people take a little it to get going. I'd rather have a second half quarterback than a first half quarterback, someone who's going to come back and lead you to victory."
Shea said Couch is as intense in the first half as he is in the second. It's just that with the game on the line, Couch becomes a better player.
Couch is more careful with the ball as triple zeroes on the clock nears. Thought November, he had not thrown an interception in the fourth quarter, and his reaction after the deflected pass that was intercepted against the Bears showed how he hates to lose.
"Tim has an unbelievable quarterback personality," Davis said. "You see him be as ecstatic as a kid who won the lottery when he throws a touchdown pass. You think, 'How are we ever going to get this guy calmed down for the next possession?' The next possession, he looks like he's getting ready to play in the World Series of Poker - straight-faced, serious.
"When something bad happens, a sack, somebody blows a protection or he throws an interception, you don't see him go in the tank and carry over play after play and possession after possession. I just have to believe that in years to come, that kind of personality is going to give him a chance to do great things."
Teammate Ross Verba, the left guard, compares Couch to Favre. Verba should know. He played four years with the Packers, seeing and hearing how Favre lifts a team beyond its abilities.
"Brett Favre has a love for football and winning, and that's what I see in Tim," Verba said. "Tim hates to lose. He never quits. That's what makes Brett a winner. How far Tim takes it is up to him, but he has that passion that makes everybody around him better. When you see him get knocked down and you know he's hurt but he gets back up, or when you see him get in the face of a cornerback who roughed up one of his receivers - there's more to being a quarterback than throwing the ball at a target, and Tim and Brett have it."
Favre himself was Brett Favre in name only the first two seasons. Favre, traded to Green Bay from Atlanta after his rookie year, had 476 attempts and 302 completions for 3,227 yards, 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 1991 and '92. All but five incompletions and two interceptions were registered in 1992, his first year with the Packers.
Couch attempted 614 passes his first two seasons, completing 360 for 3,930 yards, 22 touchdowns and 22 interceptions while playing in 22 games.
Ironically, it was Ravens coach Brian Billick who needled Couch on the Wednesday before the first game against the Ravens by saying Couch wasn't in the class of Favre. Favre was fresh on Billick's mind because Favre torched the Ravens for 337 yards and three touchdowns on the Sunday before the Browns beat them.
It's ironic because Couch and the Browns beat Billick and the Ravens twice this season. Couch stunned the Ravens with two quick third quarter touchdowns the first game. He threw three interceptions and no touchdowns in the second one, but he did a very Favre-like thing to win the game.
With the Browns nursing a 20-17 lead, Couch led a 12play, 68-yard touchdown drive, knocking 5:51 off the clock and leaving the Ravens less than four minutes to rally. This time the prevent defense wasn't used, so the ending was much happier than the Chicago shocker.
"I kept hearing the Packers beat Baltimore because of Brett Favre and this and that," Couch said. "I agree. He played great. It was one of the best games I've seen a quarterback play, watching it on film.
"I might not be Brett Favre yet, but I know I could go out and make plays in this league. I want to go out and do my thing. We were able to make enough plays to win the game."
And the best is yet to come.
This article originally appeared in the premiere issue of Bernies Insiders Magazine on 12/3/2001.