Inside The NFL

Sept. 27, 1999
Sept. 27, 1999

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Sept. 27, 1999

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Inside The NFL

Welcome Mat
The Titans walked all over the Browns' Tim Couch in his first

This is an article from the Sept. 27, 1999 issue Original Layout

In room 908 of the Nashville Renaissance Hotel last Saturday
night, on the eve of the event he'd dreamed about since the
second grade, Tim Couch fell asleep at 10:45 with the TV tuned
to a college football game. "Went right out," Couch, the Browns'
rookie quarterback, recalled on Sunday in the gathering dusk.
"Right after Tennessee went for it on fourth-and-three late and
missed it."

Couch's roommate, rookie wideout Kevin Johnson, woke up a bit
jittery at 6 a.m. on Sunday and ordered room service breakfast.
The sound of silverware clattering on plates awakened Couch for
a few minutes, but then he went back to sleep for about two
hours, arising for good at 9 a.m. The guy slept nine or 10 hours
the night before making his first start in the NFL. No nerves?
"Nah," Couch said on Sunday. "You only get nervous when you're

Rushed into the starting role in Week 2 by a coach trying to
jump-start one of the worst offenses in recent NFL history, the
22-year-old Couch acquitted himself well despite being sacked
seven times. His passing numbers were pedestrian (12 completions
in 24 attempts for 134 yards, one touchdown and no
interceptions), but you had to be in Adelphia Coliseum for the
Titans' 26-9 win over the Browns to appreciate how tough it is
to be Cleveland's quarterback.

In the days leading up to the game there was locker room
grumbling--not to mention quiet questioning from the front
office--after Browns coach Chris Palmer benched veteran Ty
Detmer in favor of Couch; some thought Palmer had panicked after
the opening 43-0 debacle against the Steelers. With just two
months of practice Couch was being pressed into service. Here's
a snapshot of how his day went.

Facing third-and-nine from the Cleveland seven, Couch threw his
first pass into the left flat for wideout Leslie Shepherd--who
slipped and fell before the ball got to him. Couch's second
throw, on first-and-10 from the Cleveland three, fluttered
beyond the slow-footed Shepherd's reach when he couldn't get a
step on backup cornerback Dainon Sidney. Two plays later, at the
Cleveland five, Couch read a blitz from both sides and audibled
to maximum protection, in which running back Terry Kirby and
tight end Irv Smith stay in to block. But Kirby didn't see
Samari Rolle flying in on a corner blitz, and Rolle and
linebacker Eddie Robinson sandwiched Couch for a safety. Welcome
to the NFL.

"That's not exactly the way I pictured it as a kid," Couch said
of his first two series as a starter.

The game was only 10 minutes old, but already it was looking
like Palmer had made a terrible mistake by rushing Couch into
the lineup. Last winter the Browns talked Detmer into dropping
the no-trade clause in the contract he had with the 49ers so the
teams could make a deal and he could play in Cleveland while
Couch learned the system. Detmer's tenure as the starter lasted
all of one game, from which he was yanked in the fourth quarter.
In Palmer's mind the change was a no-brainer.

"It's so hard [to be competitive] now, because players and
coaches haven't learned everything they need to know yet,"
Palmer said. "I showed the players some tape of Jacksonville
this week because the Jaguars had some good plays against
Tennessee [last year] that we could learn from. So we're
watching one of them, a beautiful switch pattern [receivers line
up on opposite flanks, crisscross after the snap and blast up
the field], and Shepherd says, 'Why can't we do that?' I said,
'Because we're not ready.' A receiver might have six or seven
routes he could run on a given play, depending on what defense
he's facing. You know how long it'd take for us to learn that to
the point where we'd call it in a game? The bottom line is, if
Couch comes in and plays well, it'll cover a lot of sins."

Couch knew the 35 passes in the game plan well. But every time
he dropped back the Titans turned the dogs loose on him. Four or
five times he called the wrong protection scheme for a play, but
in the third quarter the Cleveland line started giving him a few
seconds. Operating out of the shotgun from the Browns' 22, Couch
used a smart run-pass mix to move Cleveland to the Tennessee 39
in six plays. On first-and-10 Palmer called a deep pass play,
and Couch then uttered something he'd never before said to his
linemen. "Y'all gimme time," he said, "and this is a touchdown."

"Right then," said left tackle Lomas Brown, a free-agent signee
from the Cardinals, "he reminded me so much of [Arizona
quarterback] Jake Plummer."

When Couch took his drop, he saw one of the safeties cheating
toward Shepherd, the primary receiver, on the right. "I knew I'd
have a chance with Kevin on the left," Couch said. Johnson, a
second-round draft pick, was flying down the left side, half a
step ahead of Rolle. From the Titans' 46, Couch threw an arcing,
55-yard spiral. A yard from the end line, with Rolle blanketing
him, Johnson caught the perfectly thrown pass in stride.

The nurturing of a young quarterback is tricky. Will his
confidence suffer if he is thrown into the game too soon and
gets pounded? Will he get rusty if he stands on the line holding
a clipboard too long? Couch's football I.Q. is high enough for
him to play now. Even though he's stuck with the worst
collection of skill players an NFL team has seen in years, he
can learn much more by playing than by sitting.

Titans running back Eddie George hugged Couch after Sunday's
game. "Keep your head up," George said. "You're going to be a
great player in this league." But only if Couch can stay on his
feet and his bosses can surround him with better players.

Money Player
Colts Cash In With Bratzke

These days Chad Bratzke can't go to his beloved Little Italy to
grab a plate of pasta after practice, as he did regularly during
the five seasons he played for the Giants. That's O.K. There are
benefits to being in Indianapolis instead of New York. With the
Giants, the workaholic Bratzke played in the shadows of
defensive end Michael Strahan, linebacker Jessie Armstead and
cornerback Jason Sehorn; with the Colts, no defender is
Bratzke's superior. With the Giants, he was never going to be
paid market value; after an 11-sack season in '98, Indianapolis
lured Bratzke with a $9 million signing bonus as part of a
six-year, $30 million package.

Bratzke, a 6'5", 275-pound defensive end, followed a three-sack
opener against the Bills with a four-tackle encore on Sunday in
a 31-28 loss to the Patriots. He's one of four new
starters--along with end Shawn King, linebacker Cornelius
Bennett and strong safety Chad Cota--who have transformed the
Colts' defense from a passive group, 29th in the league last
year, to an attacking unit under new coordinator Vic Fangio.
"Different team, different philosophy," says Bratzke, a '94
fifth-round pick out of Eastern Kentucky. "This is a defense
that will come and get you."

Other than a decline in the quality of the penne, Bratzke has no
complaints about relocating. "I love those guys, but I felt
overshadowed by Michael and Jessie," he says. "The thing that
killed me in New York was that those guys were considered great
players, but I was always the overachiever. For a while that was
O.K. By the end of my five years, it was an insult. Why can't I
be known as a great player?"

Stephen Davis Hits Stride
Skins Back Fights Back

He is the unlikely centerpiece of the league's most surprisingly
potent offense, but Redskins running back Stephen Davis was in
no mood for the abundance of compliments that followed his
126-yard, three-touchdown rushing performance in a 50-21
dismantling of the Giants on Sunday. He was quick to laud his
line, which dominated New York's front seven all afternoon, and
quarterback Brad Johnson, whose eight consecutive completions at
the game's outset kept the defense from keying on the Washington
running game. Davis humbly countered the effusive praise of both
teammates and coach Norv Turner by saying, "I've got a lot of
room to get better." While this may be true--and god help the
other four teams in the NFC East if it is--what is also apparent
two weeks into the season is this: Davis is invaluable to the
NFL's highest-scoring offense.

Perhaps his ambivalence about fame stems from his first brush
with it, in August 1997, when television cameras captured the
gruesome beating that Davis took at the hands of teammate
Michael Westbrook during a training camp practice. Davis, lying
prone on the practice field, took repeated blows to his head and
ultimately needed stitches. Though he recovered to rush for 567
yards as Terry Allen's backup that season, stardom as a feature
back seemed unlikely for Davis, a 1996 fourth-round draft pick
out of Auburn. Indeed, after fullback Larry Bowie was lost for
the season in last year's fifth game, Davis volunteered to take
his place and watched his rushing totals plummet. But his
selflessness and work ethic impressed Turner, who also liked
Davis's pass-catching ability so much that he chose him over
incumbent starter Skip Hicks to open at tailback in '99. "He
fought his ass off to win the job," says Turner. "He deserves it."

Davis's play in the first two weeks certainly attests to that.
In a 41-35 overtime loss to the Cowboys, he carried 24 times for
109 yards and two touchdowns. When he wasn't charging through
New York's vaunted interior run stoppers, Davis was repeatedly
turning the corner with impressive bursts. It was with his third
touchdown run of the first quarter that Davis flashed his
budding star power. Stopped for an apparent no gain by Giants
linebacker Corey Widmer at the New York 19, Davis broke free of
the tackle as other players slowed, anticipating a whistle. It
never blew, and Davis flew around left end and down the
sideline--with none other than Westbrook running
interference--for the touchdown that gave Washington a 21-0
lead. Just as the Giants' day was coming to a premature close,
Davis had unmistakably arrived. --Josh Elliott

Unsportsmanlike Conduct?
Flagging a Talking Zebra

The NFL is apoplectic over eighth-year umpire Chad Brown's book
about life as an NFL official during the 1998 season, Inside the
Meat Grinder (St. Martin's Press). The league will probably
discipline Brown for talking out of school, but here's one
harmless anecdote that should draw no sanctions:

Green Bay's 345-pound nosetackle, Gilbert Brown, sidled up to
Chad Brown during a Packers-Vikings game to talk about Aunt
Kizzy's Back Porch, a Southern-food restaurant in Marina Del
Ray, Calif., that Chad had recommended. Gilbert liked the place
so much he now was asking Chad, a Carson, Calif., resident, to
get him some more chicken.

Chad: "How the hell am I gonna send you fried chicken from Aunt

Gilbert: "Don't they do takeout?"

Chad: "Sure they do takeout, but...."

Gilbert: "Air-freight me, baby."

The Bucs Know Defense

How good is Tampa Bay's defense? Linemen Tyoka Jackson and Regan
Upshaw and linebacker Jeff Gooch, who started a combined 44
games in '98 for the league's second-ranked unit, were inactive
for Sunday's game against the Eagles. Yet the Bucs' defense did
not give up a touchdown for the second week in a row, and Tampa
Bay cruised to a 19-5 win....

The Chargers, who committed a league-high 51 turnovers last
season, didn't have any against the Bengals, and they forced
five en route to a 34-7 win....

NFL owners will make a serious mistake if they try to gouge the
prospective buyer of an expansion franchise in Houston. Should
the league demand more than $620 million from front-runner Bob
McNair--that's $90 million more than Al Lerner paid for the
Browns--he would probably try to buy and relocate an existing
franchise instead, perhaps a stadium-needy team such as the
Vikings. The NFL's expansion committee could recommend a city
when it meets on Oct. 6, and McNair might start shopping around
if Houston doesn't get the nod.

The End Zone
Sign Language

Tammy Reid, the wife of Eagles coach Andy Reid, and Jeannie
Pederson, the wife of the team's starting quarterback, Doug
Pederson, are good friends. Doug's early struggles on the field
inspired the following sign for the Eagles' game against the
Bucs at Veterans Stadium: MRS. REID AND MRS. PEDERSON: NEXT TIME

COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Linebacker Joe Bowden registered one of the Titans' seven sacks of the besieged Couch. COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY George ran for 97 yards against an overmatched Browns defense.COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Davis had a 5.0-yard average and five scores in his first two games.

the buzz

1. Straight from the Lion's Mouth
The agents for Barry Sanders naively push for the Lions to
release or trade the reclusive running back. "I've talked to
Barry several times since he retired," says team security
director and family friend Allen Hughes. "He told me he's
through. He said, 'I'm tired. I played football for a long time,
and the records mean nothing to me.' This is the agents talking,
not Barry." It sure would be nice to hear that from Barry.

2. Deadskins No More
With coach Norv Turner hanging by a thread, and new owner Daniel
Snyder scratching the itchiest trigger finger of any boss south
of Steinbrenner, the Redskins hang a 50-spot on one of the
league's best defenses. After the 50-21 thrashing of the Giants,
Washington leads all NFL offenses, with 899 yards and 85 points
in two games. Quarterback Brad Johnson's intergalactic 125.9
passer rating is tops also.

3. Best Behavior
The Chiefs drop the two-time Super Bowl-champion Broncos to 0-2
with a 26-10 defeat, and Kansas City linebacker Derrick Thomas
shines. Thomas, suspended one game for his deplorable antics
during last year's meeting between the two teams at Arrowhead
Stadium, finishes with eight tackles, a sack, a forced fumble
and a fumble recovery. Afterward he presents a game ball to new
coach Gunther Cunningham. "This was special for me," says
Thomas, "because it was Gunther's first win."

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