Saturday, November 16, 2002

Healthy Couch shows he can shoulder Browns' offensive load


QB leaves early injury, frustrations behind

By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Everyone is happier when Tim Couch is healthy. Couch, Cleveland coach Butch Davis and Browns fans all feel much better when the quarterback is at full strength and there's no question about his ability to lead the team.

That wasn't always the case this season. Browns fans became enamored with Kelly Holcomb during the first two games of the season when Holcomb filled in for Couch, who was out with an injured right forearm. The Browns went 1-1 and Holcomb threw five touchdown passes and no interceptions in those two games.

Three weeks later against the Ravens, as Couch lay on the Cleveland Browns Stadium field with a concussion, some fans started to cheer, knowing Couch's injury meant Holcomb's return. The incident stung Couch, and he tearfully ripped those fans in the media.

Now, everything has been forgotten. Browns fans, embarrassed by those who booed Couch and cheered when he was down, sent e-mails, flowers and cards in support of the 1999 No. 1 draft pick.

"Ever since the deal happened a few weeks ago, everything has been great since that," Couch said. "I kind of vented a little bit and voiced a little frustration. We're kind of on the same page and it's been great ever since."

After a bye week last week, Couch will be the healthiest he has been all season when the Browns (4-5) travel to sold-out Paul Brown Stadium Sunday for a 1p.m. game against the Bengals. He had been battling a forearm injury and a sore right elbow since the preseason.

"I feel great," Couch said. "I'm finally getting back to where my arm is feeling 100 percent from the injury in the preseason. I'm getting all the strength back in my arm. I feel excellent right now."

That's good, because Couch probably will throw a lot of passes Sunday. In seven games, he has 248 passes, an average of 35 attempts per game. By comparison, Browns running backs Jamel White and William Green average 18 carries a game combined.

White will miss Sunday's game because of a separated right shoulder, putting even more weight on the Browns' passing game, which relies on a talented group of young receivers.

Second-year receiver Quincy Morgan leads the way with 536 yards and four touchdowns. Last year's star, Kevin Johnson, has been blanketed by defenses and has just one touchdown, but the attention paid to him has left others open. Third-year wideout Dennis Northcutt hasn't started but may be the most exciting receiver on the team, as evidenced by his 87-yard punt return for a touchdown two weeks ago against Pittsburgh. But the surprise has been Andre Davis, who leads NFL rookies with six touchdowns - including one on a 95-yard kickoff return Oct. 20 against Houston.

"They have been one of the most solid and consistent over the nine games of all the positional groups maybe on our team," said Butch Davis. "That was part of the plan, to surround Tim Couch with a better array of a supporting cast so that Kevin Johnson didn't have to carry the load. If he didn't have eight catches and 120 yards and two touchdowns last year, there was a real good chance we were going to lose the game.

"His production is down this year, but it's due in part to the production of the other players."

The only thing missing is the rushing game, which averages an NFL-worst 72.3 yards a game. Sunday's starter, Green, has one touchdown and a long carry of 14 yards.

"We're just trying to use some ball control with what we like to call long handoffs - the quick passing game, quick slants, quick outs," Couch said. "It's just as good as a run to pick up 4 or 5 yards."

A running game has to develop if the Browns want to fulfill playoff aspirations. It may sound odd for a 4-5 team to be talking playoffs, but in the AFC North, where the best team, Pittsburgh, is 5-3, the postseason remains a topic everywhere but Cincinnati.

"We're right in the thick of things right now," Couch said. "We've lost some heartbreaking games right at the end on the last play that would have helped us out a lot. But we've just got to win the rest of our games and try to get into the playoffs."

E-mail ddow@enquirer.com




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