Sympathy for the Deuce

Tim Couch has money, a Playboy girlfriend, and his own bobblehead doll. What he really needs is wins.

The most remarkable aspect of the 1999 biography Tim Couch: A Passion for the Game is not that it took two authors to think up a title that bad. Or that the subject was just a pup of 22 when it came out. It's the revelation that, in his home state of Kentucky, Tim Couch already had been a household name for almost a decade. By the time the 1995 national prep player of the year enrolled at the University of Kentucky, recalled ex-Wildcats coach Bill Curry, his reputation hovered "somewhere above and beyond Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln."

Whatever that says about Kentucky, the quarterback's status would crest higher still on a wave of NCAA passing records. His success convinced The Deuce -- a nickname inspired by his No. 2 jersey -- to bolt college after his junior year. He left without a degree, but oozed cockiness about his job prospects. Certain that Cleveland would take him with the first pick of the 1999 NFL draft, he said, "I have no doubt that the Browns can build their franchise around me and that we'll win."

His psyche survived a brutal rookie year, in which he went 2-12 as a starter and endured the sort of pounding not seen since 1944 Berlin. After a broken thumb cut short his second year, he posted a 7-9 mark last season. Unfazed by losing five of the last six games and throwing a career-high 21 interceptions, The Deuce still proclaimed himself The One. "I feel in time that I'm going to be [among] the top quarterbacks in this league," he said after a comeback win late in the year. "It's just a matter of time."

Couch, 25, boasts all the trappings of a franchise quarterback: the fat contract, the ex-Playboy Playmate girlfriend, and that truest icon of supreme jockness, his own bobblehead doll. He's the face of the Browns, the guy whose baby-blues peer out from billboards and TV ads, whose jersey is formal wear in the stands.

As the 2002 season neared, hopes swelled that his play finally would match his celebrity. Playoff talk buzzed during training camp. John Madden tagged Cleveland this year's New England Patriots, the Cinderella schlubs who somehow won the Super Bowl last February. Couch stoked the anticipation. "I told myself that I wanted to work hard . . . and be the guy leading a charge at the playoffs," he said early in the summer. "And I feel like we are in position to make a run at it."

By Week 5, he was in tears.

In the infamous October 6 game against Baltimore, Couch suffered a concussion. He'd tossed two interceptions and heard boos from the hometown crowd much of the night. As Couch lay on the turf, backup Kelly Holcomb trotted out to a huge roar; he would nearly pull off a dramatic comeback. In the locker room afterward, The Deuce lashed out, then choked up.

"For [the fans] to turn on me and boo me in my home stadium is a joke. It's a fucking joke to me . . . I think it's bullshit."

It was a dark and stormy Sunday night for the former collegiate Golden Boy once touted as the next Brett Favre. Sports Illustrated football writer Peter King, who says "a night game in a northern, blue-collar city is a recipe for drunken disaster," raps fans for cheering Couch's injury. But he also understands why, halfway through the $60 million man's fourth season, they're screaming for big wins to go along with the big paychecks.

"This incident told him the reality of what happens when you play for pay: In the NFL, it's not good enough to try your hardest," King says. "The people in Cleveland have been extremely patient the past three years. Any fan worth his salt is going to be pissed off at this point."

The pissed-offedness, as it were, rains heaviest on Couch. His 14-30 career record brands him -- there's no nice way to put this -- a proven loser. The reasons for his struggles, this year as in the past, outnumber the theories on the origin of man. He's battled injuries. His offensive line shuffles more than a blackjack dealer. When the Browns returned to Cleveland, somebody forgot to bring the running game.

There's merit to the alibis. Still, with the team stumbling toward a .500 finish, Couch's mediocre play has done nothing to hide a suspicion as ugly and wide as Big Dawg: He may be a franchise quarterback in salary only.

"Pressure? He has to be feeling it, just like we all are," receiver Quincy Morgan says. "He's the No. 1 pick, and he hasn't had a winning season yet. You know it has to be on his mind."

Last year, with Rain Man-like repetition, head coach Butch Davis praised Couch for showing "the heart of a warrior." Toughness aside, the quarterback entered his fourth training camp with the stats of a stiff: 39 touchdowns, 43 interceptions, and a passer rating of 74.

Few jobs, save for day trader and hit man, demand the kind of self-assurance an NFL quarterback must possess. He's either confident or retired. Until this season, Couch's sporadic flashes of greatness were enough to validate his bursts of brashness. No longer, critics say. Now he needs to put up wins or shut up about his potential -- preferably both.

"For the last two years," wrote's Len Pasquarelli in his preseason report, "it's been chic to justify Couch's uneven performances by chalking them up to the offense in general. In his fourth season, it's time to quit making excuses."

Frank Derry punches harder. "This is a make-or-break season for Couch," says the editor of Bernie's Insiders, a newspaper published by Bernie Kosar. "Not only could he be in for a change, but the coaching staff could be also if things don't go well."

An elbow injury sidelined Couch for the season's first two games. In going 1-1 in his absence, Holcomb uncorked the best back-to-back performances by a Cleveland quarterback since the team's rebirth. He threw for 524 yards, five touchdowns, and no pickoffs -- despite an offensive line missing two regulars and the usual AWOL rushing attack. His play got gums flapping across Browns Town.

Couch struck an I'm-in-charge-here pose amid the chatter. He backhanded props to Holcomb by saying he was "real grateful . . . that I don't have to come back to an 0-2 team." He then responded by tossing three scores in an overtime win against Tennessee that he called "the biggest moment of my NFL career."

On that Sunday, Couch summoned the Kardiac Karma of Brian Sipe. Over the next three games -- all losses -- he was the second coming of Vinny Testaverde. He threw five interceptions, one touchdown, and a locker-room fit. A ho-hum effort against Houston followed, then he scorched the New York Jets for 307 yards and two touchdowns; on a crucial two-point conversion, he completed a blind, over-the-shoulder heave that was as beautifully ugly as any Kosar ever chucked. Last weekend, Couch reverted to just plain ugly, committing three turnovers and wearing the lost look of a stray dog in a 23-20 loss to Pittsburgh.

Such bipolar tendencies leave Couch's skeptics hip-deep in fodder. One week, he plays as though ready to join Peyton Manning and Rich Gannon among NFL quarterback royalty. The next two or three, he writhes in the slop with Jon Kitna.

"He can be successful with a good supporting cast, but he can't carry a team," Derry says. "He's part of the equation; he's not the final answer."

"I would have expected more from him at this stage," adds Dan Arkush, executive editor of Pro Football Weekly. "People talked about him being a franchise quarterback when he came out of college, and I think they're still waiting."

Couch has worked with three offensive coordinators in his four years -- turnover that's sometimes blamed for his erratic play. He's in his second season under Bruce Arians, who helped mold Manning in Indianapolis before joining the Browns last year. Arians's system relies on short passes and the run to set up throws downfield. There are only two problems: The Browns average an NFL-worst 71 yards rushing per game, and Couch goes deep as well as a Polish submarine.

Pro scouts who watched Couch work out before the '99 draft did not speak of a young Zeus flinging thunderbolts. Whispers of a soft arm stung the would-be gunslinger. "Whoever started that," he huffed to Sports Illustrated, "is an idiot." Or maybe prophetic.

Sore elbow or no, Couch is averaging 5.92 yards per pass attempt this season, fifth-lowest in the league. He's hit exactly one pass of more than 50 yards, evoking memories of the Charmin-armed Paul McDonald. A year ago, his longest completion came on a 4-yard slant that Morgan turned into a 78-yard romp.

Against the Texans, Couch looked like a Punt, Pass, and Kick contestant next to Houston's rookie quarterback David Carr. Couch, slinging short-range hash most of the day, finished 21 of 31 for a paltry 148 yards. On a half-dozen deep throws, his passes hung in the air longer than the autumn sun, allowing defenders to swat them away -- and Houston to stay close until the final minutes. The cannon-armed Carr, meanwhile, launched 50-yard fastballs; despite several dropped passes, he racked up 267 yards on 22 completions. After the game, it was the rookie being talked up as the next Favre.

"I think everyone expected more out of Tim when he came here," says a reporter who covers the Browns. Like other beat reporters, he asks not to be named, lest players make his life a hazing hell. "He's not a disappointment necessarily, but there was a lot of talk that he'd be another Peyton Manning. That isn't happening."

The Browns' PR staff, citing Couch's jammed practice and publicity schedule, seldom makes him available for one-on-one interviews. That leaves postgame press conferences and locker-room reporter orgies, in which once a week after practice he sits at his locker and speaks fluent cliché. A few days before the Houston game, he faces the cameras wearing a sweat-soaked T-shirt and a cordial blandness.

"We still have a lot of season left. We just need to go out and get our season turned around. It starts this week. We can't let this win get away from us. It's going to be a tough battle. These guys aren't your typical expansion team. They have a great defense. We are going to have to play our best game . . ."

It's pure vanilla, the quarterback sounding as programmed as PlayStation football. Yet ex-Brown Doug Dieken says that he's as plain-spoken away from the microphones. "He's pretty much what you see in the locker room," says Dieken, a radio announcer for the team. "He's just a good ol' Kentucky boy playing a game. If he wasn't playing in the NFL, he'd probably be playing in some touch-football league. He's a throwback."

Dieken compares Couch to his old teammate Sipe, "a tough SOB who just went out there and played. He took a hit, got up, and didn't point a finger." Rather than jaw at guys, Couch leads by example -- and with his shoulder.

Most quarterbacks fear contact, fluttering away from defenders as if auditioning for Lord of the Dance. Chris Palmer, Davis's predecessor, threatened to bench Couch unless he began sliding when he scrambled. Several times on reverses and broken plays this season, the 6-foot-4, 227-pound Couch has blocked for his running backs -- against Tampa Bay, he got a knee to the head for his efforts. If it seems obvious that a quarterback earning $4.4 million this year should be better known for throwing touchdowns instead of blocks, his teammates love his sandlot attitude.

"He's my guy," says Kevin Johnson.

The receiver recalls a scrimmage against Indianapolis last season when a linebacker took a cheap shot at him. An enraged Couch rushed to Johnson's side and went mask-to-mask with the player. "We're always saying that we're our brother's keeper. I got his back, he's got mine."

Couch, often critical of his own play -- "[Pittsburgh] forced me into some bad throws and some bad decisions," he said last Sunday -- never blasts his linemen. It's an old-school biting of tongue that's earned their respect. "People are always nagging him about one thing or another," tackle Ross Verba says. "It's always 'Tim this, Tim that.' Give the guy a break."

Which sounds noble, but would go against Clevelanders' rich, beer-soaked tradition of booing quarterbacks. It's a wrath from which none escape, be they puny mortals like McDonald and Testaverde or the gods Sipe and Kosar. "Every one of 'em gets booed," Dieken says. "The fans don't want to wait till next year to win; they want to win now."

Early in the season, when Browns faithful wondered if Holcomb should remain the starter, Couch put on his best Mount Rushmore face. His ability to ignore the controversy led The Plain Dealer to dub him "Teflon Tim." Less than two weeks later, after getting knocked out of the Baltimore game and serenaded with boos, tears were the only thing sliding off his thin skin.

Former cornerback Deion Sanders, now a CBS football analyst, chided Couch on national TV, saying, "Ain't no crying in football, man." The quarterback, dry-eyed and composed since his outburst, appears to have reapplied the Teflon. This time, Pro Football Weekly's Arkush says, it better stick. "If he's The Man, then he has to act like it."

Adds CBS commentator and Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf: "I don't think that's the first time he's been booed, and I can guarantee it won't be the last. But how he reacts in the future will be important, because it'll either make him stronger or it'll destroy him."

To his credit, Couch isn't a shower hibernator, ducking the press until the locker room clears when he plays poorly. (Defensive end Courtney Brown -- a fellow No. 1 pick who has absorbed his share of arrows -- is harder to find than Kafka's ghost.) On the night of his concussion, staying out of sight might have been the wise choice. But even that emotional display -- the kind that can tar a player as a Nancy boy for life -- rallied his teammates: Days later, they elected him one of their captains.

"What happened just shows how much he cares," says tight end Aaron Shea. "Players have emotions, too. He plays his guts out every week."

Years of losing can reduce a pro athlete to a high-paid factory worker: show up and collect a paycheck, then go home and forget about the job. Couch has yet to turn numb. "He's a guy who still gets mad if he loses a game of pool," says Detroit quarterback Ty Detmer, an ex-Brown. So while Couch hears the rabid barking from the stands, it's his Inner Dawg Pounder that jeers him loudest.

"He feels pressure," running back Jamel White says. "He's not feeling it as much from the fans as from himself. He just wants to be a great quarterback, and you're always your own worst critic."

Apart from Jamir Miller, that is. In September, the injured linebacker kicked up a dust devil when he wondered if Couch could take the Browns to the playoffs. He suggested on ESPN radio that Couch might need to become "more vocal" -- read: more of an ass-chewer. The quarterback, asked by reporters about Miller's comments, refused to bite, saying he'd let coaches handle the reamings.

No one on the team seconded Miller's sentiments in public -- a sign that, if nothing else, the Browns dry their dirty laundry indoors. Two months later, as fans split their loyalties among Couch, Holcomb, and -- depending on how much they drink -- third-stringer Josh Booty, players describe the locker room as Deuce territory. "In our minds, there's no quarterback controversy," guard Shaun O'Hara says. "That's between the fans. Tim Couch is our quarterback."

Adds Morgan: "We have three good quarterbacks on this team. But without a doubt, Tim's the guy."

Butch Davis strides into a Monday press conference, head up and chin out. There's a bit of Douglas MacArthur to his swagger, if MacArthur had carried a bottle of Aquafina. The coach fires up his Oklahoma twang to talk about the Houston game, lauding half his roster by name. The list goes on long enough that one expects him to praise the guys who manned the first-down markers: Boy, I tell you what, they sure stretched the heck out of that chain! He's chatty right up until a reporter asks about Couch.

"On the whole," Davis says, "if you don't turn the ball over and your team wins, it's a pretty good day."

It's a surprising response -- less so for what he says than for his brevity. Since arriving in Cleveland last year, Davis has raved about his quarterback's poise and talent, his willingness to peel himself off the turf after 134 career sacks. He offered a typical riff in January, when the Browns paid an $8.75 million bonus on Couch's contract.

"Clearly, he is the future of this franchise," the coach told The Plain Dealer. "He's an extraordinary young man. Not only is he a great player, but he's a great person, and he's the kind of guy you want to build a team around."

Four other first-round quarterbacks were drafted along with Couch in '99. Comparing their fortunes is an NFL parlor game of sorts. Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb holds stud status, with his Pro Bowls and Chunky Soup commercials. Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper rode pine his rookie year, enjoyed a boffo second season, and has since floundered. San Francisco's Cade McNown and Cincinnati's Akili Smith spend their Sunday afternoons holding clipboards.

But Davis prefers that Couch trace the career arc of another quarterback: Troy Aikman, the retired Dallas Cowboy and future Hall of Famer. In 1989, Aikman went 1-15 as a rookie; in 1992, he won the first of his three Super Bowl titles. Davis went along for the ride as an assistant coach.

Ah, to dream.

Forget, for the moment, whether Couch could carry Aikman's hair gel. In Dallas, Aikman played with Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, and Pro Bowl receiver Michael Irvin. They were known as "The Triplets," a moniker that's popular in Indianapolis these days. Like Aikman, Manning benefits from a pair of All-Pros, running back Edgerrin James and receiver Marvin Harrison.

Couch, on the other hand, could be excused for sometimes feeling like an only child. Rookie running back William Green appears cryogenically frozen; White has an oversized heart, but an undersized body. While Johnson gained over 1,000 yards receiving last year, young wideouts Morgan and Andre Davis still have their training cleats on.

"When you look at what Couch has around him, the guy has played like a franchise quarterback," says football writer John Clayton. "The Browns' roster hasn't exactly been well stocked."

Except here's the thing: Holcomb smoked the Kansas City and Cincy defenses with the same modest talent around him. "When he was in there, things were crisper," says a Browns beat writer. "Everything picked up at a faster pace. It was obvious."

Six weeks ago, Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher benched struggling starter Kordell Stewart, who made the Pro Bowl last season, but was 0-2 this year. Behind Tommy Maddox, a journeyman who, like Holcomb, bore the label of career backup, the once-stalled Steelers offense has steamrolled, going 5-1 as fans hail Cowher's balls of steel.

Critics doubt Davis would dare make a similar move, in part because -- as Palmer did before him -- he's devoted so much breath to selling the Coach 'n' Couch Show. If the quarterback matches his numbers from the season's first half -- nine touchdowns, eight pickoffs, a 3-4 record -- in the second, King says, "There's absolutely no way they'll demote him."

Fans may hope otherwise, as Holcomb returns from an injury and Couch's Jekyll-and-Hyde play continues. But barring a major injury or meltdown, Couch is apt to remain the starter this season and into next. Because no matter how wildly 73,000 voices at Browns Stadium might yell for the backup, there's $60 million rolling on The Deuce.

"For all the money he's making, he has to be in there," Derry says. "A contract that size can't really be on the bench."

So he'd best be ready for the boos.