Bernie: Browns Still Paying for 1999 Mistake

Our namesake offers some of his thoughts on the Browns quarterback situation, and how the team went about making the selection of Tim Couch back in 1999. Bernie also reveals, for the first time, his advice to late Browns owner Al Lerner prior to that draft. This article is an exclusive for Bernie's Insiders subscribers, and can also be found in the upcoming December issue of <I>Bernie's Insiders Magazine</I>.

If you want to play meaningful games in December; you must win in November.  It is that simple in the NFL.

The Browns are hoping this is a November to remember.   Quarterback Jeff Garcia was signed by the team last March and was immediately handed the responsibility of making that playoff goal happen.  When Kellen Winslow Jr. was lost for the season to injury, the weight on Garcia's shoulders became even heavier.

The Browns were absolutely right when they cut their losses with Tim Couch and put their faith in Garcia.  They were in an awful spot, thanks to a poor decision five years ago, but made the best of it by signing Garcia, a tough, competitive, proven winner.

That said…

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts it would be Christmas every day.  If the Browns would have drafted Donovan McNabb or Daunte Culpepper in 1999, instead of Couch, it might be Christmas every day for Browns fans right now.

I know it is easy to sit back and say, with knowledge of how it has all played out, that the Browns erred five years ago in the 1999 NFL draft.  However, five years ago, when asked to give my opinion, I told the Browns they should target McNabb and Culpepper as their top pick and not Couch and Akili Smith.

Here's the story.

Dwight Clark, then director of football operations for the Browns loved Couch.  So, Carmen Policy, then the team president, supported the pursuit of Couch.  Coach Palmer was high on Smith early and then liked Couch after the Browns worked out the quarterback.  Carmen supported the decision to go with Couch because he was the quarterback the head coach and the director of football liked.  Out of respect to Carmen at that time, I did not offer my opinion and Carmen never asked for it.  I did not want to embarrass anyone.  I felt I would only offer my thoughts if Al Lerner, the Browns' owner at the time, asked me to do so and he did.  Mr. Lerner mandated that I be specific and direct in my opinion on what quarterback to draft and I was specific.

I told Carmen and Mr. Lerner if they were going to keep the top pick, then they should select McNabb.  I had had many conversations with people from Syracuse, none that some members of the Browns front office were interested in hearing, and I also felt McNabb was the best because Gary Danielson, my former teammate, mentor and a man very close to the college game said McNabb was the top quarterback available.

I have a lot of faith in Gary Danielson when it comes to football.  Gary, along with Marc Trestman, gave me the support and confidence to be very vocal in my opinions on the direction of the Browns offense when I was a player.  Thank goodness for guys like Danielson and Trestman in my career.  It is interesting to note that Jeff Garcia is not afraid to tell everyone his thoughts on the Browns offense either.  That is rare and that characteristic is one of the reasons I like Garcia as the team leader.  He told everyone willing to listen, thanks to lack of playing time in the preseason, the Browns first-team offense was not ready to start the season and he was right.

Back to the 1999 draft.

One month before the draft, I told Mr. Lerner and Carmen if they were going to keep the top pick they should no doubt take McNabb.  I also told them I really thought the best way to go was to trade down.  I felt that if the Browns could trade down to somewhere around the 10th pick in the first round, they could then stock pile more picks and save a ton of money by not having to pay the top pick in the draft.

Why do I say that? 

I felt Browns could get Daunte Culpepper with the 10th or 11th pick in the draft.  I told the Browns that and also said I felt Culpepper had a better upside than Couch.  I got good reports on Culpepper from Mike Kruczek at the University of Central Florida.  Kruczek convinced me that Culpepper was going to be an impact quarterback in the NFL.

I knew, everyone knew, that McNabb would never be around for the 10th or 11th pick but we also knew Culpepper would be available.  When asked by Mr. Lerner, I told the Browns they should trade down and pick Culpepper.  Obviously, they did not and the decision to draft Tim Couch was a mistake the organization is still trying to recover from.

What would have happened if the Browns would have taken McNabb with the top pick?  What would have happened if they would have traded down and taken Culpepper?

McNabb has led the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that had won only three games the year before they drafted him, to three straight NFC Championship games.  Culpepper is on pace this season to break NFL single-season passing records in completions, completion percentage, yards, touchdowns and efficiency rating.  So, chances are pretty good the Browns would not be in the situation they are in today; which is scrambling to get a veteran pro-bowler like Garcia to fill a gap in the position while they search for the next young signal-caller that can lead this franchise in the future.

Maybe he is on the roster right now.  I do like Luke McCown.  The point is this though; it didn't have to be like this.


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