It's an oft-stated belief that a starting player should never lose his starting position to injury. Once healthy, the thinking goes, the player should regain his spot.
But it's also often stated that you should never remove the hot hand from the lineup even, perhaps, at the expense of the franchise quarterback.
There does not appear to be a serious quarterback controversy in Cleveland, but the ingredients are certainly there to have one.
Those ingredients could begin to boil feverishly in Tennessee this coming Sunday, as Tim Couch likely sees his first action of the regular season. Couch has been sidelined since the preseason game against the Green Bay Packers on August 26th as he has recovered from the tearing of scar tissue in his elbow.
Couch has progressed well over the past two weeks and is throwing the ball with authority. Based on what we've seen, he hasn't been suffering any adverse side-effects in practice. While Couch eagerly offered that he was ready to play against the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday, the time-table established by the team wasn't as aggressive as his own.
Career backup Kelly Holcomb has played exceptionally well in Couch's absence. Holcomb has been effective in leading the Browns to a 1-1 record, which could quite easily have been 2-0 if not for some late heroics from the Kansas City on the opening weekend.
The Middle Tennessee State grad is experienced in the offense installed by former Indianapolis quarterback coach Bruce Arians. While working with Arians in Indianapolis, Holcomb had years to operate within the offensive structure and scheme deployed by Arians. With a quarterback rating of 111.0 through the first two weeks of the season, Holcolmb ranks second in the league, trailing only Jay Fiedler of the Miami Dolphins (123.8). Fiedler, of course, has the advantage of a strong rushing attack created by the acquisition of Ricky Williams.
Over the first two games, Holcomb has kept mistakes to a minimum and displayed a keen sense of pocket awareness. The bottom line is five touchdown passes without a single interception.
What no stat-sheet will show is that Holcomb is a leader in the huddle and takes command on the field.
"Don't worry about Kelly, he knows what he is doing. He lets everybody know that the huddle is his," running back Jamel White recently stated.
At almost the same time, outspoken Cleveland Browns linebacker Jamir Miller told the local Cleveland media that he believes that Couch must assume more of a leadership role within the team, in the locker room and on the playing field.
Another strength that Holcomb has displayed is an ability to spread the ball around the field. He has completed passes to seven different receivers in each of his two starts, while leading a Browns team that has yet to establish an identity running the football.
Holcomb has performed well and is making plays. It can be easily argued that his two game stretch to start the 2002 season is as good or better than any two game stretch during Tim Couch's tenure with the Browns.
Kelly Holcomb has a label, however, and that label says "career backup quarterback". This has been accurate throughout his career. Couch, not Holcomb, is the perceived franchise quarterback in Cleveland, even Holcomb's early numbers have caught the eye of many personnel people in the league.
On Monday, Butch Davis immediately attempted to quash any brewing quarterback controversy when he stated that Couch was the best quarterback. Davis stated without hesitation that Couch will start when he is healthy.
The former University of Kentucky star and number one selection in the 1999 NFL draft may push himself a little quicker after seeing the success enjoyed by the team and Holcomb. Aided by more athleticism and weaponry on the offensive side of the ball, the Browns expect to take advantage as the young stable of receivers and running backs gain valuable experience.
Couch expects to play Sunday and has openly lobbied for the opportunity. Davis has worked hard to reassure the quarterback and the team that there will be no controversy. Couch is Davis' man. Period.
Still, whether or not a quarterback controvery explodes is entirely up to Tim Couch and the offense he will command. If the Browns struggle against the Titans defense, the second-guessing will begin and would be warranted.
With the jury still out on Couch's upside, the worst scenario for Couch personally was to see his backup play at a high level and increase the pressure to perform quickly upon his return.
Browns fans, the media, and Couch himself expect the quarterback to have a breakout year in the 2002 season. Exceptional performance is what will be demanded, and that demand will be even more stingent due to Holcomb's success. As soon as Couch stands under center, and the franchise quarterback will be under the microscope.
With the stakes higher now, there is absolutely no reason to rush Couch.
Always one to watch his words carefully, Browns head coach Butch Davis has said that Couch will not play until he is 100% healthy. With that statement, Davis has given himself and the team an out.
I believe that Davis has a strong rationale to use the wiggle room he has given himself. There is not anything to gain in rushing Couch back. Couch is a multi-million dollar investment, and risking injury would be an unwise decision as the team gears up for what it believes is a 2002 playoff drive.
Battered, beaten, and bruised throughout his short three-year career, Couch has progressed as a quarterback and is anxious for the opportunity to get back on the field. He was having an exceptional preseason, playing to level that the organization anticipated when drafting him as the number one pick in the 1999 NFL draft. He deserves the opportunity to play, he has earned the right to lose his job.
When Couch returns to the lineup, he must perform to the highest level he is capable and must prove to his teammates that he is at least as effective a leader as Holcomb has shown himself to be. If he doesn't, questions will be asked. Not just by the media, which thrives on controversy, but more seriously, they will be asked by his own teammates. The stakes for Couch are higher now than ever before, and the risk is higher as well.
I like Tim Couch as a player, and I am surprised as many are with the success of Kelly Holcomb.
But the 59-points the Browns have scored in their first two games is compelling enough of a story to keep Holcomb on the field Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.