Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Couch likely Browns starter again this week

The Associated Press

BEREA, Ohio - On the road, under the lights and before a skeptical national television audience, Tim Couch was reborn as an NFL starter.

Just in time. Couch might have saved the Browns' season, and maybe his embattled career, too.

Oozing confidence from the start, Couch played his best all-around game as a pro Sunday night, leading the Browns to a stunning 33-13 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Tim just wanted to prove to everyone he could play," said wide receiver Kevin Johnson.

He did that, and then some.

Couch, demoted to being Kelly Holcomb's backup only to get his job back temporarily when Holcomb broke his right leg, finished 20-of-25 for 208 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran 9 yards for a TD.

"Tim stepped up," running back William Green said. "I can't say enough about the way he played. He was a general out there."

On Monday, Browns coach Butch Davis said Couch probably will start at home this Sunday against Oakland. Holcomb, who has a hairline fracture in his right fibula, was Cleveland's No. 3 quarterback for the second straight week Sunday.

"It's going to be my assumption that Tim Couch is probably going to be the quarterback again this week," Davis said. "Until Kelly is 100 percent, there's no real reason to make a change."

And there won't be if Couch plays like he did against the Steelers, rescuing the Browns (2-3) from the brink of having their season dissolve into disaster.

Go figure. Nobody could have seen this coming from Couch or Cleveland, which snapped a six-game losing streak to Pittsburgh and Davis' 0-5 start against the Steelers.

It was the Browns' most dominant performance since returning to the league in 1999. It wasn't supposed to happen.

Not after the way they played the week before in home loss to Cincinnati. Not with their patchwork offensive line. Not without a running game. Not without Holcomb, who riddled the Steelers for 429 yards in January.

And especially not in Pittsburgh, where they had lost 11 of 12, most recently in the AFC playoffs in January.

But with Couch leading the way, Cleveland pulled off a 180-degree turnaround.

From the outset, Couch was locked in.

On his first pass, Couch dropped back, spotted his target and hit wide receiver Andre' Davis for a 23-yard gain. At that moment, Couch sensed it was going to be a special night.

"It just felt right," he said. "We got it rolling. That felt nice."

He was nearly flawless in the first half, going 16-of-17 for 169 yards and two TDs. Couch's lone misfire was when he smartly threw the ball away out of the end zone.

Criticized and booed by Browns fans for his indecisiveness the past four years, Couch made another heady play late in the first half to give the Browns a 23-10 lead.

Rolling right, Couch couldn't find an open receiver. But instead of forcing a throw, he tucked the ball and scampered in untouched for Cleveland's first rushing score this season.

Once in the end zone, Couch punctuated the TD with a ferocious spike that dug deep into Heinz Field and seemed to release months of pent up frustration for the former No. 1 overall draft pick.

"He showed great poise," Davis said. "He was in total command. He made the right checks, the right audibles. He made very, very nice throws."

Couch needed the big game. If Holcomb doesn't return soon, the Browns need him more than ever. And in case the Browns decide not to keep both quarterbacks next season, Couch showed the rest of the NFL that he can still win.

He already had an idea of what TV viewers thought of him.

"People probably think I'm a backup, I'm a bust, the No. 1 pick, he's sitting on the bench," Couch said. "I knew it was a national stage, a big audience, and I wanted to come out and play well."

Couch did, and earned something as good as a win. The chance to do it again.

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