The list is 24 names long now, and as each new one is etched at the bottom, its status as the most depressing document in sports is reaffirmed. It’s been growing for 16 years and includes four first-round picks, an average of one new hope every election cycle. There’s a Couch, two McCowns and, for a single game in 2000, a Spergon Wynn. Since the franchise returned in 1999, Cleveland has been where quarterbacks come to crumble, but this year, picking behind only a team with its signal-calling savior already in the fold, the Browns are hoping it’s finally time to tie that list of failed starting quarterbacks to a rock and drop it to the bottom of Lake Erie.
Cleveland’s signing of Robert Griffin III clouds the Browns’ QB future but doesn’t seal it. Only $6.75 million of Griffin’s contract is guaranteed, and that total isn’t enough to preclude them from dealing Josh McCown and pulling a trigger on a quarterback with the second overall pick. By now, the upper tier of prospects has been solidified. North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz and Cal’s Jared Goff are in a dead heat to be the first quarterback taken. Wentz’s appeal is plain to see. He’s built like a professional quarterback, had a nearly spotless track record—albeit against Division I-AA competition—and at times looks like Cam Newton when he’s taking off with the ball.
For most of the season, though, Goff appeared to have the inside track—and with good reason. He was the first true freshman to start under center for Cal in the school’s history, and by the start of his junior season he’d developed into the most complete quarterback in the country. As a thrower, his accuracy down the field and outside the numbers might be his greatest strength. Goff’s favorite throw of last season came in Cal’s win against Texas in mid-September. On a 4th-and-3 in Longhorns territory, he dropped back to the 25, turned his head to the left to hold the free safety and finally whipped back to the right and floated a throw to Kenny Lawler just inside the pylon. There’s a reason Goff was First Team All Pac 12. He can put the ball wherever he wants to. He’ll make it rain out there.
Great arms come along all the time, but by the end of his time at Cal, Goff’s control—of both his surroundings and the Cal offense—is what put distance between him and the rest of the country’s prospects. His pocket presence seems preternatural. Goff navigated traffic with what seemed like a sixth sense during his final year at Cal, side-stepping rushers and finding throwing lanes while never fixating on those chasing him. He says he never sees actual rushers, only “flashes of color” in his peripheral vision, and it shows. Last season was also the first in which Goff was given complete audible power at the line of scrimmage. When he felt the need to change a play, there was a green light to do it.
It’s all enough to make Goff the type of quarterback worth taking with the No. 2 overall pick, and for the Browns, worth pegging as their new quarterback of the future. But what truly has Goff prepared for the quarterback grinder and rebuilding phase that await him in Cleveland is that he’s already been there. Unlike Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, or even Carson Wentz, Goff didn’t win from the time he hit the field at Cal. His freshman season, the Bears squeaked out a home victory against Portland State in their second game, and from there lost 10 straight to finish 1-11.
That season was the first time Goff felt the sting of consistently losing, but in a way, it’s made him more prepared for life at the top of the draft than most college stars. Throughout the draft process, teams have asked him if he feels comfortable at the helm of a rebuilding project, and to each he’s been adamant that he is. He’s done it before.
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Bruce Arians didn’t become Cleveland’s offensive coordinator until Tim Couch’s third season, but by the time he did, he could already see the beating Couch had taken during his time with the Browns. “He was probably too tough for his own good,” Arians told The MMQB. “I got him his third year, and he had already been sacked a lot. [Couch led the league in sacks as a rookie in ’99, with 56; his second season was cut short by injury.] He was getting hit hard.” Goff is no stranger to those days. He says the worst was his sophomore year against BYU, when he was only sacked once but took plenty of hits. The one from 260-pound Bronson Kaufusi, with whom Goff now shares an agent, stung the most. Still, in three seasons, Goff never missed a start.
Arians wasn’t sure how long Couch had been having labrum problems, but by then the issue had also started to affect his elbow. That wasn’t enough to keep Couch from leading the Browns to a 9-7 record and the playoffs the following year, though Couch was injured in the season finale and Kelly Holcomb quarterbacked Cleveland in their wild-card loss. Arians is convinced that the pounding Couch took in his early Browns years stifled his career. As a thrower, he had ability that the Cardinals’ coach hasn’t seen much since. “He was as accurate from 15 to 25 as anybody I’ve had,” Arians said. “I’ve always said he was like a three-point shooter. He just had great touch and could just drop balls in over the top of players at that range as good as anybody.” That sounds a lot like a certain quarterback in this year’s draft.
If Goff does land with the Browns, it won’t take long before the dots between him and Couch are connected. Before last season, when the Goff hype was beginning to build, Michael Weinreb of Bleacher Report asked Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin if his new quarterback reminded him of any he’d come across in the past. Franklin, months before he could have known that Cleveland was a very real possible landing spot for Goff, named one quarterback: Tim Couch.
Tracing that lineage isn’t hard. Now, pay attention. Couch’s head coach at Kentucky was Hal Mumme, considered the godfather of the famed Air Raid offense. For Couch’s final two seasons at Kentucky, the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator was a young, enigmatic coach named Mike Leach. In 2000, Leach left Kentucky to take the head-coaching job at Texas Tech. His eventual co-offensive coordinator in Lubbock was a then 30-year-old Sonny Dykes, who—wait for it—spent the past three seasons as the head coach at the University of California.
There’s no doubt that if Goff lands in Cleveland, there will be tin-hat-wearing Browns fans weaving lines of string together all over their basements and using the connection as a way to further prove that through either a grand conspiracy or some divine plan, Cleveland’s quarterback history is doomed to repeat itself.
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For his part, Goff says he isn’t afraid of whatever has haunted the Browns these past 16 years. He’s a sports fan, he says, so he’s obviously heard the noise about Cleveland’s old dysfunction, but he also knows that the combination of Sashi Brown and Hue Jackson gives the Browns a chance to turn over a new leaf.
Goff isn’t just a casual sports fan, either. He’s a Bay Area die-hard, spending his youth soaking in the 49ers, Cal and the Warriors. He says his favorite memory as a fan is something of a tie—between him snagging a ground-rule double at AT&T Park last summer and taking in a game at Oracle Arena during the Warriors’ title run last season. It wasn’t too long ago that the Warriors were among the most tortured franchises in sports. Four years ago, owner Joe Lacob was getting booed in his own arena. Now, his team is on the brink of the best regular season in NBA history.
The transformation wasn’t as pronounced at Cal, but in three seasons, Goff took the Bears from 1-11 in his first year to an 8-5 finish and a bowl win over Air Force, in which he capped off his college career with 467 yards and six touchdowns. Taking Cal from the dregs of the Pac 12 to bowl eligible is one thing. Bringing the Browns back to life is another. But from his own career and from watching Steph Curry transform an entire franchise, Goff knows just how sweet it would be.
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