DENVER - Just a few months ago, it looked like a sure bet Tim Couch would be headed out the door at the end of the 2003 season.
Now he is starting to make the decision makers in the Cleveland Browns organization pause to think during what amounts to a three-week audition for the team's starting quarterback job.
"I want to go out and play, and when these next three weeks are up, I know there is going to be a decision made by coach, and I just want to make it as hard on him as I can," said Couch, the former No. 1 draft pick who lost his starting job to Kelly Holcomb, regained it when Holcomb suffered an injury, lost it again, then had it handed back due to Holcomb's ineffectiveness, all in the span of a little more than three months.
In the first start of his end-of-the-year audition, Couch completed just 8-of-18 passes, but every connection he made was a key to the Browns hanging with the Broncos for four quarters before ultimately losing 23-20 in overtime.
Add his strong second half in relief of Holcomb Monday night against St. Louis, and all of a sudden Couch doesn't look too bad.
"Tim has kind of shown us a lot over five years," said Browns president Carmen Policy. "He's been there, he's stood up, he's handled himself like a man through some very tough times, through some rather difficult times with the fans. And he's never wavered in terms of his resolve to be here, to finish what he's started.
"We have to give that a lot of weight, because that is character. I think character is a big part of this game, and I think character is a foundation stone in terms of leadership. Secondly, coming back through all this adversity, including some injuries, he's played well."
Another item for Policy and Browns coach Butch Davis to consider is Couch's statement this week that he would be willing to re-work his hefty contract for the opportunity to stay in Cleveland.
"What that does is it says ‘I want to be here. I want to be a part of this. I'm willing to do what has to be done to make it work," said Policy. "When I hear a player say that, it causes me to say this is somebody we have to really seriously consider keeping. I think his willingness to do that, plus the way he played ... causes us to look in the mirror and say, ‘OK, let's talk about this."
Any decision on keeping or giving up on Couch will be left until after the season, and, according to Policy, it will depend "on health, continued play, our own ability to sit down and analyze this and talk to Tim about contractual matters."
"Assuming Tim keeps the attitude he has and wants to stay here, I think that will keep us focused on working towards seeing if there is a way we can keep him here."
According to Policy, part of the reason Davis took the Browns job was the fact that Couch was already in place at quarterback.
"He felt Tim could be a quarterback to get us to the Super Bowl, with a very strong and effective defense," said Policy.
Somewhere in his first two seasons, that opinion changed, leading to an open competition in training camp and his "gut feeling" to go with Holcomb as the new starting quarterback to open this season.
Holcomb didn't exactly work out the way Davis and the Browns front office hoped. Still, Policy believes the decision to go with Holcomb at the start of the year was not a mistake. In fact, he thinks losing his job may have been just the push Couch needed and just the opportunity Browns fans needed to gain a new appreciation for their fallen star.
"I honestly don't believe it was a mistake, and if for no other reason than the fact that I don't think Tim would have had any chance of being able to run out onto the field at Cleveland Browns Stadium as the starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns against the Indianapolis Colts (on opening day) without some kind of rebellion," said Policy. "He would have had to have a 450-yard game, no interceptions and seven touchdowns.
"I think the coach did a smart thing because Tim had to be rehabilitated in terms of not only his role, but in terms of the vision and view that the fans had of him. I don't think he would have had a chance to have a decent start."
And along the way, Davis appears to have gained a new appreciation for Couch, according to Policy.
"I think Butch feels very good about Tim," said Policy. "I think he feels very good about the fact that he came in and did what he did against St. Louis Monday. Who is going to fault what he did (Sunday in Denver)?
"I hope we see a repetition of that. Then we have to sit down and really give some thought and tell ourselves ‘let's try to help this guy become what all of us thought he was and could be, and is starting to show that he is capable of being."