Before Ryan assumes draft's throne, recall sinking Couch

Tim Couch was the rifleman at Kentucky (far left) whom Cleveland made the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft. Several injury and surgery-riddled seasons later, Couch drifted out of the league after a failed fling with Jacksonville in 2007. Getty Images/US Presswire

This is for Matt Ryan.

You're a fine football player, but you don't need me to tell you that. The rest of the world is shouting it in unison. You did all kinds of remarkable things at Boston College. You've dazzled pro scouts ever since.

Everyone is predicting greatness for you in the National Football League, starting Saturday, when you will hear your name called as the first quarterback taken in the draft. You hardly can find a soul who isn't sold on your future in the league.

Hopefully, it all works out. But please keep in mind, there's no such thing as can't-miss. Not at quarterback. Not in the NFL. Too many things can go wrong, above and beyond your control, even for guys who make stardom appear inevitable.

If you don't think so, let me introduce you to Tim Couch.

"I've seen every side of it," Couch said. "I've been on top of the game, on top of college football and high school, and I've been the first pick of the NFL draft and had some success there.

"Then, I've seen it all fall apart."

Respect that, Matt. If it can fall apart on this guy, it can fall apart on anyone.

The talk of Kentucky

With Tim Couch, it was love at first spiral.

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, 1994. A buddy and I made the arduous, four-hour drive from Louisville to Hyden, deep in the Appalachians of Eastern Kentucky, to see this junior at Leslie County High School. Everyone was raving about him.

We had our doubts. It seemed implausible that an isolated hamlet with scant football heritage could produce a quarterback worthy of talk nationwide.

The serpentine mountain roads made us late, and we had to park far away from the packed stadium. Walking toward it early in the first quarter, we saw a kid in a maroon No. 2 jersey roll away from a bunch of white jerseys and loft a perfect parabola through the chilly night, into the stomach of a receiver about 40 yards away for a touchdown. It was as pretty a football play as you'll see under the dim lights of a high school stadium.

Before we even got in the gates, my buddy and I were believers. We never did see anything to change our minds.

Not that night, even though undefeated Leslie County lost that state semifinal game to Covington Catholic, a traditional power from suburban Cincinnati that would win the Class 3A title a week later. Couch threw the ball with ridiculous accuracy, rarely forcing his receivers to even extend their arms away from their bodies to catch his passes. Afterward, he shed tears, hugged his mom and answered questions with a country twang, looking and sounding more like a kid from a mountain town of 375 than the larger-than-life football hero he had been a few minutes before.

Not the next year, when Couch won several national player of the year awards and set national records for career passing yardage, completions and touchdowns. His marks in those categories still stand in Kentucky, a state that has been churning out NFL talent at that position: Chris Redman of the Atlanta Falcons, Jared Lorenzen of the New York Giants and now draftees Brian Brohm and Andre Woodson.

Not at the University of Kentucky, where Couch accomplished the unimaginable -- he became the most popular athlete on campus, bigger than any basketball star. The day he announced he was turning down the rest of America to play for the in-state school, at a news conference in Rupp Arena, also happened to be a day Kentucky basketball played Louisville. For the first and only time in the history of that insanely passionate rivalry, the game was not the biggest sports news in the state.

The coach who signed him to Kentucky, Bill Curry, called Couch "the most recruited athlete in history." Not in Kentucky history. In human history.

Yet, in a monumental example of misguided thinking, Curry did not significantly alter his run-based offense to accommodate Couch's lavish talents. He had his gifted passer run the option against Florida, and Couch was devoured.

Kentucky had a new coach, Hal Mumme, by Couch's sophomore season. Mumme let Couch throw the ball all over the place, resulting in two pyrotechnic seasons of passing, which earned Kentucky its first bowl bid in 13 years, turned The Deuce into an SEC record holder and made him a Heisman Trophy finalist.

And, ultimately, it made him the No. 1 pick in the 1999 NFL draft.

That April day, holding a white Cleveland Browns jersey and with a $48 million contract -- that was the athletic apex for Tim Couch. He was tall, handsome, rich, healthy and talented. He was a sure thing.

Nine years later, after five seasons in Cleveland, Couch has resigned himself to retirement. He hasn't played in a regular-season football game in four seasons, after multiple comeback attempts failed.

The moment he held up that jersey, he began an incremental decline. What was supposed to be the beginning became the beginning of the end.

"When things go bad, they're bad"

Nobody saw it coming at the time, of course. Not Cleveland, which had the top pick and its choice of five touted quarterbacks: Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Daunte Culpepper and Cade McNown. Not the media, which was largely in agreement that Couch was the best of an outstanding bunch.

"He stands out the way lobster distinguishes itself from a quarter-pounder," Mike Freeman wrote in The New York Times prior to that draft. "Nothing against the other passers available, but few of them can run an offense the way Couch does."

The problem was the offense Couch took over in Cleveland. It was an expansion team with a first-year head coach (Chris Palmer), a dearth of skill-position talent and a rickety offensive line. Yet the Browns imprudently threw Couch into the fray immediately, naming him the starter two games into his NFL career. He was barely 22 years old at the time and had played just three years of college ball.

So the Browns got their franchise cornerstone battered from the beginning. He was sacked 56 times his rookie year and 3.1 times per game his first three seasons. For comparison's sake, the famous beating David Carr took his first three years with the Houston Texans was only slightly worse -- he was sacked 3.2 times per game.

But in that third year, Couch led Cleveland to a surprising wild-card playoffs berth.

"Looking back on it, we had no business being in the playoffs," Couch said. "We weren't a very good team, but we overachieved that year."

Just Couch's luck, he broke his leg at the end of the regular season and had to watch backup Kelly Holcomb throw for 400 yards in a playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. After that, Couch lost his grip on the starting job and spent his last two years in Cleveland sharing the position with Holcomb. His final record as a starter: 22-37.

That was far better than anything Smith or McNown did as a pro. But Couch paled in comparison to the charismatic force McNabb became with the Philadelphia Eagles and some of the pyrotechnics Culpepper produced with the Minnesota Vikings (with the help of Randy Moss). And Couch was the only guy out of that quarterback class of '99 with the "No. 1 Overall" tag hanging around his neck.

"He had some really good times in the NFL," said Couch's older brother, Greg. "But when things go bad, they're bad."

Still, Cleveland was only the end of the stat line, not the end of the journey.

After refusing to take a pay cut from the Browns, he tried to catch on with the Green Bay Packers in 2004, but his right arm was a wreck.

"In training camp in the dorm, I was waking up and couldn't lift the covers," Couch said.

The Packers cut Couch, and he sought out renowned surgeon James Andrews. In February 2005, Andrews repaired just about everything above the elbow: torn labrum, torn rotator cuff, torn biceps.

Couch rehabbed the shoulder, but it began to wear down again in tryouts for several NFL teams that fall. There were no takers.

He had another surgery in 2006 after tearing the rotator cuff again. According to Yahoo! Sports, that also was the year he began working with a controversial South Florida nutritionist named Brian Yusem. Yahoo! reported in August 2007 that it had been given documents detailing steroid and human growth hormone regimens for Couch under Yusem's direction.

Couch denies ever taking steroids but said he used HGH briefly to aid his shoulder recovery. Greg also adamantly denies that Couch ever took steroids.

"That's absolutely false," Greg said. "You can't go through that stuff and be in an NFL camp and pass drug tests. There was so much false in [the stories]. That was just someone with an agenda."

By whatever means Couch tried to mount a comeback, nothing worked. When his final attempt this past summer with the Jacksonville Jaguars fell short, it was time to face reality. The only thing Tim Couch ever wanted to do was be a football player, and he was done at age 30.

"That was definitely tough," he said. "I struggled with it. I spent three years trying to rehab my arm.

"Accepting it definitely took a while. I was pretty upset and frustrated. I'd been so successful at every level -- growing up, in high school, in college. I definitely thought it would be that way at the next level."

Everyone did.

"I'll take the hand I was dealt"

Today, Tim Couch, his wife, Heather, and their 2-year-old son, Chase, spend most of their time in Lexington, Ky. They still have a home in Florida, but it's time to gravitate to their roots -- his in Kentucky, Heather's in Ohio. Tim has a few business interests and plays some golf, now that his shoulder and schedule allow it.

"He's doing really well with it," Greg Couch said. "He's got that little boy, and that makes the transition a lot easier. He seems as happy as he's been in a long time."

You can hear regret in Tim Couch's voice, but not bitterness. He knows life could be a whole lot worse. Not many country boys from the hills of Appalachia ever sign $48 million contracts.

"I look at the positives," he said. "One good thing, I'm really secure financially. I realize it could've worked out better athletically, but I'll take the hand I was dealt."

That hand looked like a royal flush nine years ago. Today, Matt Ryan is staring at a similar set of cards. Here's hoping he understands not just the rewards of being a high NFL draft pick, but the risks as well.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.