Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
In the Browns’ 20th season of their expansion era, Tim Couch, their very first draft pick and franchise quarterback hopeful, is back in the house.
Couch was surveying the emerald fields at Browns training camp on Sunday, his first extended visit since the spring of 2004.
That’s when out-of-control Browns coach and de facto GM Butch Davis made the decision to replace Couch, who was beat to a pulp by then, for 49ers free agent Jeff Garcia – a square peg outside the Bill Walsh West Coast offense. Davis’ greater sin, of course – a franchise-killer -- was forsaking Findlay, OH-native Ben Roethlisberger in that year’s draft as Couch’s successor.
On Sunday, Couch was awestruck by what he saw – a vibrant team filled with energy fueled by an enthusiastic turnout of win-starved fans.
“It’s just amazing how different things are,” said Couch. “Even the fields are different. This atmosphere at training camp is totally different than what we had in ‘99. It’s awesome. It’s almost like a party, a big event.”
Couch made his first appearance at camp to prepare for his new role as analyst on Browns’ pre-game telecasts on WEWS Channel 5. Couch turns 41 on Tuesday and is the father of sons aged 12 and 9. Since his playing days ended prematurely due to injuries, he has been a successful businessman in Kentucky and stayed close to Kentucky and SEC football in various broadcasting roles.
He has been partnered with new play-by-play announcer Jay Crawford, the former ESPN personality who is a Sandusky, OH- native and lifetime Browns fan with a long history with Couch. Crawford’s 30-year broadcasting career started in Hazard, KY, when Couch was rewriting record books as an 8th-grade sensation in basketball and football in Leslie County (KY).
Crawford and Couch will be the TV hosts for three of the four Browns preseason games. The other game, against the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, will be broadcast nationally by FOX.
Couch’s return to the Browns is long overdue and comes at a pivotal point in the franchise’s history. It is also rather astounding how Couch is directly linked to Baker Mayfield, the only quarterback other than Couch to be drafted No. 1 overall by the Browns in the expansion era.
The Air Raid connection: Couch’s record-shattering career at Kentucky coincided with the arrival of Hal Mumme as Kentucky coach in 1997. Mumme instituted the Air Raid, spread offense, which was the direct descendant to what Mayfield thrived in under coach Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma.
“We started all of it in 1997,” Couch said. “Hal was the head coach, and Mike Leach was my offensive coordinator. They came from Valdosta State. They introduced the Air Raid into major college football in 1997 at Kentucky. Then Mike Leach went on to become the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma when they won the national championship [in 1999], and then he becomes the head coach at Texas Tech. That’s where he got Lincoln Riley. He played for [Leach], and then Lincoln coached Baker. It’s just the whole Air Raid tree.”
So Couch is uniquely qualified to comment on Mayfield – on his challenges both as a No. 1 pick and quarterback for the Browns and as he transitions from the Air Raid to the confines of the NFL.
“We didn’t have a playbook in the Air Raid offense,” Couch said. “Just coming in and having to understand a thick playbook in the NFL, and all the verbiage in the huddle, so many things you have to do at the line of scrimmage that you didn’t do in that offense.
“It was all hard signals. Baker did the same thing. It did take a while [for me]. I was very uncomfortable with it the first few weeks of camp. It was probably half the season or so when I felt truly confident of hearing a play in my helmet and spitting it out. It’s a little overwhelming at first.”
Couch believes the Browns’ intention to ease in Mayfield slowly is a shrewd plan.
“I would tell him to not to expect too much too soon,” Couch said. “Because I made that mistake. Just having so much success in high school and college, I just thought I would walk into the NFL and I would be the same player as at both of those levels.
“The NFL is right time, right place. You have to be in a really good situation and have a lot of talent around you to have success. This team didn’t win a football game last year. They’re rebuilding. There’s certainly a lot of talent on this roster, I think they can make a huge jump. But for Baker, it’s just to come in and learn the game.
“I would say to be patient. He has an excellent veteran in front of him in Tyrod Taylor to learn from. I had that in Ty Detmer as well. So I think you can really take advantage of those guys, get in their head, find out why they do what they do, and why they’ve been in the league so long.”
Regrets, he’s had a few: Couch’s NFL incubation lasted one half. He was rushed in for Detmer in the second half of the very first game against Pittsburgh, a 43-0 shellacking, and then was named the starter in Game 2.
“I think you can throw a young guy in a bad situation and you can do a lot to break his confidence early on,” Couch said. “I think that’s kind of what happened to me that first year because being on an expansion team, we weren’t very talented, we couldn’t really run the ball, we couldn’t do a whole lot of things, and it kind of broke my confidence a little bit.
“It took me that offseason to kind of to get my confidence because I was used to having success and winning games and putting up big numbers and it wasn’t happening for me that first year. So I think you can break a young guy’s confidence. That’s why I think it’s important they bring Baker along and put him in spots where he can have success and kind of build his confidence.”
Couch might be the most under-appreciated player in Browns expansion history.
He fought through the trauma of that first expansion season and led the Browns to the playoffs in the 2002 season, their fourth year of existence – winning eight of 14 starts -- only to miss the playoff game in Pittsburgh after he broke his leg in the playoff-clinching victory in the 16th game against the Atlanta Falcons.
“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten through that,” Couch said. “That really changed the whole projection of my career.
“So I don’t get to play in that and then there’s a quarterback controversy [with Kelly Holcomb] and I just never recovered from it. I just felt where I started with this team to where we were [in 2002], I thought we were totally on the right track. I just couldn’t stay healthy enough to do it consistently. That part, really, I’ve never been able to get over.”
Couch lost his biggest advocate when Davis fired offensive coordinator Bruce Arians after the 2003 season. Arians, who went on to coach Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer, and win two NFL coach-of-the-year awards, always considered Couch an “underrated” player who was “not a bust … his arm was just so torn up he couldn’t play anymore. He would have been a real good one.”
Couch lamented, “His system was perfect for me. He was really building the offense around what I could do.”
Couch is excited to be back with the team that he led to its only playoff appearance in 19 years. His five seasons were bittersweet -- the rollicking 2002 season, two career walk-off Hail Mary TD wins (no NFL QB can match that, by the way), injuries in four of his five years, an ugly incident when he was “cheered” by the hometown crowd while being knocked out with a concussion.
He said he remembers his time here as “kind of the way my career went, a lot of ups and downs.”
“I’m more frustrated because I didn’t play up to my potential consistently,” Couch said. “There were glimpses of it, certainly … games I really played good football. There were times and stretches, and then I would take a step back or get an injury.
“The inconsistency -- just like it did the fans -- that’s something that I can’t really deal with that well because I didn’t have control over it. I got hurt every year except one and I played all 16 games that year. It was just really frustrating. I wish I could have stayed healthy. I think I would’ve had a 10- to 12-year career.”
Listen to the full interview with Tim Couch on #100YearsPod at thelandondemand.com.