Couch likely finished in Cleveland

Likely marking an end to the Tim Couch Era after only five seasons, the Cleveland Browns have reached an agreement in principle with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia.

Garcia, 34, will sign a four-year contract worth $25 million, ESPN.com reported Monday night. The team officially confirmed the deal Tuesday morning and said it was making plans for a news conference.

The stunning move came late in the evening and followed a day in which several print and broadcast reports had Garcia prepared to sign with the Tampa Bay Bucs. Some of the reports, in fact, quoted Garcia's father. But sources told ESPN.com early in the evening that those reports were false and that the quarterback was leaning in another direction.

That direction turned out to be Cleveland. The Browns visited with Garcia last Friday and quickly began their pursuit of the five-year veteran. Acquiring the three-time Pro Bowl performer all but assures that Couch -- the first overall choice in the '99 draft and a player who averaged a dozen starts a year during his Cleveland tenure -- will be released.

There have been whispers for weeks that the Dallas Cowboys might be interested in trading for Couch and, with Cleveland adding Garcia, those rumors will probably be resurrected. In fact, it will not be surprising if the Browns retain Couch at least for a short time, as they attempt to identify possible trade partners.

Were the Browns to release Couch before June 1, or trade him at any time, they would realize a salary cap savings of $5.936 million. If he was released after June 1, the cap savings would rise to $7.6 million, but it is doubtful Cleveland officials will wait another 2½ months before resolving Couch's status.

There are probably a few other teams, like San Diego, also interested in Couch. But those teams likely would prefer to sign him as a free agent as opposed to trading for him.

The Browns are believed to have made Couch two proposals within the past week, with neither successfully addressing his demands. Couch was to have earned a base salary of $7.6 million for the 2004 season, but all parties involved understood that number would have to be adjusted for the former University of Kentucky star to remain in Cleveland.

Even before the news about Garcia's agreement, Couch said he was surprised that the Browns had made an offer to Garcia. Couch said he wanted to remain in Cleveland, but did not want to take a salary cut.

The team's original offer would have cut his salary from $7.6 million to $3 million in 2004 and from $8 million to $3.5 million in 2005. The package also reportedly included $3 million in bonuses and incentives tied to the team's record.

Couch and his agent, Tom Condon rejected the offer. Couch has made more than $30 million in bonuses and salaries since being drafted.

Released by the 49ers last Tuesday afternoon for salary-cap considerations, Garcia quickly became an option for several teams seeking to bolster their quarterback position. In addition to the Browns, Garcia met with Atlanta officials on Saturday and Bucs executives on Sunday and Monday.

In an interview with his hometown newspaper, the Gilroy (Calif.) Dispatch, Bobby Garcia said his son was going to sign a multi-year deal with the Bucs later this week. Bobby Garcia pegged the deal at between $15 million and $20 million, The Dispatch reported.

Garcia's agent told ESPN.com on Monday afternoon that a deal with the Bucs was not imminent.

The deal with the Browns came together after Garcia was assured he was being signed to assume the starting job. It is likely that Cleveland will retain Kelly Holcomb, recovering from recent shoulder surgery, as the main backup. Certainly the deal represents a fairly dramatic change of philosophy by Browns coaches and officials, who said their preference and intent was to strike a new deal with Couch.

There have been suggestions, though, that Couch and head coach Butch Davis did not see eye-to-eye on several non-financial issues. Given the amount of influence Davis has in the Cleveland football operation, he obviously endorsed the addition of Garcia.

Signed as a free agent in 1999 after a successful career in the CFL, Garcia started in 71 of his 74 appearances with the 49ers. He completed 1,449 of 2,360 passes for 16,408 yards, with 113 touchdown passes, 56 interceptions and a passer rating of 88.3.

In three of his seasons, the former San Jose State star threw for more than 3,000 yards; he had a 4,000-yard season in 2000. He twice threw more than 30 touchdown passes.

Garcia earned in excess of $20 million during the past two seasons -- more than any other NFL quarterback. He carried a 2004 salary-cap charge of more than $12 million, and the inability to agree on a reworked contract led to his departure from San Francisco. His contract stipulated that because he achieved predetermined performance and playing time benchmarks, Garcia was to be paid an '04 base salary nearly commensurate to that of the figure for a "franchise" quarterback.

In addition, the contract gave Garcia the right to void the final three years of a San Francisco deal that ran through 2007.

Garcia and the 49ers negotiated on and off for months. But a source said that, in the end, there technically was no offer on the table from San Francisco officials. The club had made what was believed to be its last proposal more than a month ago.

Couch, 26, started in 59 games for the Browns and completed 1,025 of 1,714 passes for 11,131 yards, with 64 touchdown passes and 67 interceptions.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.