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On Couch and Character

Forums denizen Aardvark ratchets up the Couch-Holcomb debate as he offers his opinions on Couch's long-term prospects in Cleveland. <I>Commentator opinions may not reflect those of Bernie's Insiders. You can respond to Aardvark in the <A HREF="">Fan Commentary Forum.</A></I>

Our first playoff game, our fourth consecutive "biggest game in the history of our return," and we can't quit beating on the Mule?  Yeah, well, too bad.  At least let me boldly go where few have gone before.


By my watch the Couch Debate has now gone on longer than the Sudanese Civil War and is only slightly less bloody.   I've been a bit skeptical of his play and future prospects. I think we should keep him because I believe in continuity, and I believe he has sufficient talent for the job.  


As an aside, no way do I expect him to become one of the top 10 players in the NFL, even though his contract would deem him otherwise.  Still, I'm optimistic that he will renegotiate his contract in order to remain here. 


By no means am I a card-carrying Basher. I'll freely argue with fans on both sides since a few advocates are not above committing atrocities with the facts in order to win the struggle.  The same goes with Holcomb.  He either "sucks" or he's "just what the doctor ordered", and those judgments are invariably colored by takes on Timmy.


In my mind, Hoolihan has articulated the most realistic assessment of the Mule.  To wit, Couch has not progressed as high and as fast as we'd all like, but he has been forced to endure years with an expansion team and few weapons.  And we will just have to remain patient until he corrects his (correctable) bad habits…. one, as Hoolie might characterize it, is Couch playing James Spader to Kevin Johnson's Rob Lowe in BAD INFLUENCE.  

With continuity in teammates and coaches and an emerging supporting cast, Couch is a year of familiarity and two free agent lineman from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. 


But enough of that.  Let's start…boldly going somewhere.


Where I would disagree with is the conventional wisdom about Couch and his "intangibles."  This is one area where pro and anti- Couch forces do seem to agree upon: Couch is a "class act," "tough as nails," "a fiery competitor," "he has a lotta heart," "he's a leader."  Cue Yul Bryner:  "Et cetera, et cetera, ET CETERA!" 


These are traits we want embodied in our players, the gritty, not flashy, blue-collar Browns. We especially want to see these traits in our most visible franchise player. 


I think Couch is starting to lose even those.


No, Couch is not a thug.  He's not a wuss like Vinny Testaverde.  He doesn't have the heart of a flea like Jeff George.  He's not clueless like Akili.  He's not abusive to teammates to make himself look important like Cade McNown. 


But Couch has taken on enough baggage, and that may keep him from realizing greatness.


Cultivating a quarterback is like raising a kid.  You want to protect them, but not shelter them.  You want them to be worldly wise, which is about half way between jaded and cynical…. and naïve. You hope you've instilled in them enough values that they can successfully negotiate early crises as young adults:  drugs, alcohol, the first failed romance, the first brush with the law (usually in the form of mall guards).  You know they'll face it all just as you did, and hope they have the makeup to come out the other end unscarred.


We hope that rookie quarterbacks with great pedigrees can get over the hump of playing with lousy teams.   We hope that taking their lumps—literally and figuratively—doesn't kill them, and can only make them stronger.  We hope they can survive the 6+ sacks and 30< qb rating games to show us why they were drafted so high.  Mike Phipps was the classic example of the tragic side, like the kid who came from a broken home (a lousy offensive line) got into drugs, then died of an overdose in high school.


Carr and Harrington are the latest works in progress, and it's been a tough rookie year for both.  You think Couch had it bad?  Carr was sacked another 20+ times over Couch's brutal rookie year.  But they still have time to grow.   McNabb made it through with flying colors.  Pennington has turned into a fine one.  Weinke and Redman?   Looks like their grades may force them to forego State U. and enroll into the local community college.  Akili Smith might as well have been the kid who grew up in an abandoned tenement with crack addicted parents.  Had he not been so hyped in the month leading up to the '99 draft, he might have fallen to the mid-late first round, drafted by a good club, and become an entirely different quarterback.  Poor kid never had a chance in the broken home that is the Bengals.  Now he's passing the crack pipe to Cade McNown, who in turn passes it to Ryan Leaf.


Couch's rookie season was remarkable.  Many an albatross was tied around his neck:  50+ sacks, and a first year expansion team as the non-supporting cast. And he never uttered a complaint.  The fact that he threw more touchdowns than interceptions was extraordinary.  But the toll was being exacted.  He saw plenty of three and outs.  He faced plenty of taunting, and endured plenty of sacks.


By the second year, greater things were expected, and Couch had a slightly improved though hardly spectacular season before it was cut short in a freak play in practice.  But expectations only continued to mount.  They aren't suspended when you're out of action.  (just look at Courtney Brown).  It was if Couch was sick at home missing a month of school.  He didn't want to be held back or left behind. 


Last year was supposed to be the first in what we've now discovered is a series of three consecutive boasts of "THIS will be his breakout year!" (Combatants grudgingly agree that next year will likely be his last chance to "break out").  That year saw improvement in some areas (accuracy, emergence of clutch fourth quarter play), and not in others (indecision, inconsistency).  We also saw the beginning of cat calls at CBS.  Couch was taking his lumps, but he was keeping his head up.  But as time wore on, impatience grew as the expectations never waivered.  The club and fans were not as protective as before, so the pressure was mounting. 


It started early this year with Jamir Miller's cutting remarks on Couch's need to step it up in the leadership department.   Then Couch mysteriously hurt his arm in pre-season, and the guy who admittedly never had a cannon was now being painted as having a rubber band arm that made Brian Sipe look like Terry Bradshaw.  The season opened with Holcomb doing a fine relief job, and the knife just twisted in Timmy's side.  When a game was deemed "the most important in the history of our return," Couch—and the team—would hurl chunks.  Fan resentment hit the fan at the infamous Ravens game. 


The leader who took so much abuse without complaint early in his career, finally buckled, and fans saw a new and ugly side.  It was like the dutiful eldest son who did whatever was asked, then suddenly went ballistic at his parents.  Harsh exchanges, then apologies, but the bad memories lingered.


The pressure remained.  Couch would play better on the road than at home.  At home he would press and only make things worse.  On the road, Couch would engineer some terrific comebacks, but they were born out of necessity.  The routine seemed to be good opening drives, then going into hibernation for the middle two quarters before coming through in the clutch.  In a way, Couch was like the outfielder fans admire for all the wrong reasons.  A better outfielder anticipates, positions, gets a better jump at the crack of a bat, and makes the catch look humdrum.  The lesser outfielder is out of position, misjudges the same ball, and is forced to bust his ass to make a wild catch.  Looks spectacular, but it's hardly indicative of good defense.


So we get to Sunday's game against the Falcons, and a couple of things really caught my  eye about Couch.  I thought maybe it was just me, but when someone relayed what was said by some ESPN radio announcers,  I thought there might be something to it.


We recover a fumble on the Falcons' 30.  Two plays later, Couch, with very good protection, waits, waits, then throws an interception.  He also hits a Falcon defender's helmet on his follow through.  The crowd moans as we squander a turnover, already in field goal range, and Couch takes some rare great protection to lock on one receiver in traffic.  But Couch shakes his hand as if it were dipped into boiling oil.  It struck me that Couch was playing this to the hilt.   We sometimes see this with little kids in pee wee football or little league make a mistake, then deflect criticism by feigning injury.  Or if there's a problem at school, their "tummy hurts" and they want to stay home.


I'm not saying Couch did not hit his hand on the guy's helmet.  I'm saying that it appeared to me that the contact wasn't all that bad, yet Couch was milking it with exaggerated motions for the fans in Row WW to know that he was hurt, and that this injury was tied to his tossing the interception. 


Later Couch threw an incompletion to William Green.  Green was designated as the outlet receiver.  In past games, Green and White have gone to a spot to stand in just such an event (which is why we often see them catch a pass flatfooted instead of in stride). 


On the replay, Green ran to his spot and curled inside just as Couch threw the ball as if Green was heading downfield.   Then we see Couch look pissed, clearly motioning several times that Green should have kept going downfield, not just stand there. 


Did Couch just throw wide, or did Green not run the needed route?  OTOH I assume  Couch knows the offense better than Green, but I also know from past games that Green ran a typical route on outlets (go to a spot and wait for a possible pass). What we ended up with was Couch visibly chastising Green.  If Green ran the wrong way, then Couch set him straight.  But if Green DID what he was supposed to do, and Couch just threw wide, then it would appear that Couch was trying to transfer blame onto a teammate, and in a very public way.  Those who have tapes of the game, take a look for yourself.


Finally there was the knee injury avoiding the rush.  I don't doubt that Couch DID injure himself.  If they actually said it, I don't buy some ESPN Radio personality's notion of Couch dogging it or the Browns planning to take Couch out.  What I DO suspect was that Couch wanted everybody in the stadium to know that he was hurt, and was laying a lot of mustard on it.   Could he have continued?   Very iffy. Holcomb suffered a similar injury against the Ravens, but managed to gut it out because the game was on the line, he was moving the offense, and leaving it up to a cold Booty would have been risky.  To Couch, the injury seemed to be his ticket out of a game whose passing attack seemed to be going downhill after the opening drive.


It seems that Couch has become so apprehensive about pressing in big games, in big home games and drawing the wrath of fans… that it has come to this.  He's like the kid who's expected to get outstanding grades and go on to med school… then he can't get over being jilted by his first serious girl friend, and now his college grades are taking a nosedive.  And the traits we admired him for have been chipping away.


 "Tough as nails"?  Maybe all those sacks may have taken a toll.  He's been knocked out in three of his four seasons.  And the freak arm injury in preseason?  The Mule may not be the work horse we expected.


"A fiery competitor"?    Such a quarterback relishes the big games, the games that matter.  Visiting fans don't phase them, much less fickle home fans.  In several games, Couch has a bad stretch and starts to get down on himself.  He doesn't remember that he has to be the leader to ten other guys on the field.  And for every comeback, we saw many a listless performance that led up to needing those comebacks.  It's not entirely Couch's fault by any stretch.  But when Verba or Tucker commits one of their maddening penalties, that seems to affect Couch and a drive stalls.  I don't think that's looking for the bad in everything he does. That's simply a situation we don't want to put ourselves in, but we consistently do it anyway.  The Kardiac Kids of '80 are all well and good, but look what happened to them the next year.  We've lost more close games than we've won.    A good team simply doesn't put themselves in a position of having so many close games.  They either protect their lead, or not have to claw back from a touchdown in the fourth quarter so many times.


"The leader"?   Jamir says one thing, Fuller says another.  Couch is considered a leader as most quarterbacks are—it's really part of their job duties.  But I just don't get the sense that players hold him in as high esteem as we think they do.  It's not that teammates don't like him or respect him or don't pull for him.  But it was curious to me that when Holcomb filled in, the leadership word came up from teammates and coaches (and invariably on a positive note).  With Couch, leadership seems to be the word used more by fans and less by coaches and teammates.  I've nothing to base this on but a hunch, but I think doubts about Couch have been murmured in the locker room.  And if they weren't before, they were after the Falcons game.


"A class act"?   Couch has been taunting opposition fans.  He now plays the role of the obnoxious winner.  And laying into the home fans?  Even if the home fans were wrong in cheering his injury, a class act keeps his mouth shut.


If Holcomb plays Sunday like the Doug Pedersen of backups and we lose big to the Steelers, then we will have an entire off season to put Couch's baggage into cold storage.  After six months, it will be back to business as usual.  And improved play will bury any concerns.


But if Holcomb becomes a sparkplug, this year's Tom Brady, then another suitcase is added to Tim's baggage.  Even if Holcomb is merely adequate, but inspires the Browns to beat the Steelers WITHOUT TIM, when they lost twice to Pittsburgh WITH HIM, then another suitcase is added to Tim's baggage, and it will take more than an off season to get rid of it.  It won't be that the Browns front office and coaching staff will think that Holcomb is the answer, but it may get them seriously thinking for the first time that Couch may not be it either… that when it becomes a pressure game at home, Couch can't handle it. 


Couch may have been the kid with promise, but just didn't get enough support at home.  Fans were exasperated over why the Browns drafted a quarterback to lead an expansion team, then not give him enough support.  That support has been slow in coming, but much has now arrived in the form of emerging receivers and William Green.  But maybe the less than mediocre offensive lines set the stage for too many pass plays where too quick a decision had to be made, and Couch wasn't yet good enough to thrive under the handicaps.  It's as if the kid with promise hit a drug problem or an estrangement from his family that left him the broken man who sits at the corner bar every night.  We may not have given Couch enough help in his first few years, and he hasn't sufficiently survived getting over the hump by the time we had built ourselves up to be contenders.


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