Inside The NFL

May 13, 2001

Reupholstered
The new Browns coaches plan to make Tim Couch the quarterback he
used to be

"Orange right 90! Set! Hut-hut," Browns quarterback Tim Couch
barked at minicamp last Friday. He then shot back from center
five steps and spiraled an eight-yard bullet onto the numbers of
wideout Lenzie Jackson. Touchdown. So what if it was a simple
practice throw with no defense on the field? This is the new
Couch. Looks a lot like the old college Couch, actually.

As he takes over in Cleveland, coach Butch Davis will change
much about the Browns, who under coach Chris Palmer went 5-27 in
the franchise's first two seasons. His primary interest, though,
will be the care and feeding of Couch. Anointed the franchise
quarterback as the first pick of the 1999 draft, Couch has
instead looked like the consummate average NFL Joe (22 games, 22
touchdown passes, 22 interceptions). He has appeared to be no
faster afoot than the average tight end, plus he lost a
half-season's experience in 2000 after breaking his right thumb
in practice. (He says the thumb, which has two permanent screws
at its base, is pain-free.) What's more, Palmer employed more of
a classic pro-style offense, with the quarterback taking a lot
of seven-step drops and the receivers running deeper routes.
It's a system that Couch was ill-equipped to run.

Davis and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who was Peyton
Manning's quarterbacks coach in Indianapolis the past three
years, are giving Couch his best chance to succeed. A 72% passer
in his last season directing Kentucky's short-pass,
multiple-choice aerial game, Couch will have the chance to
reprise that role in Cleveland. On as many as half of the
Browns' snaps, he'll be given the option of going to the line
and choosing one of three plays called in the huddle. Usually
that would be a run right, a run left or a multiple-option pass
play, depending on what personnel package and formation Couch
sees from the defense.

When it's a pass, he'll throw quickly. Quarterbacks are taught to
drop back three, five or seven steps, depending on the play and
the length of the pass routes. Cleveland, with an anemic line,
will have no seven-step drops in the playbook. None. That's
unheard of in the NFL. So Couch, who threw 74% of his passes in
his final college season less than 10 yards downfield, will go
back to what made him a standout.

"The way I've been taught football," says Couch, "is to control
the game with high-percentage throws. Move the chains. No
mistakes. Positive plays. In this offense I expect to put up big
numbers and win a lot of games. It's the offense that's best
suited for me."

In theory that's true. But the Browns have surrounded Couch with
probably the worst cast of offensive players in the league.
Instead of getting him an outstanding back or go-to receiver with
the third choice in last month's draft, Cleveland took a Warren
Sapp-type defensive tackle in Gerard Warren of Florida, a year
after the club selected defensive end Courtney Brown with the No.
1 pick. "We may never in the history of the franchise have
another chance to take two long-term defensive cornerstones like
that," says team president Carmen Policy, explaining why
Cleveland passed on an offensive game-breaker.

Though the Browns helped themselves at tight end by signing free
agents Rickey Dudley of the Raiders and Mike Sellers of the
Redskins, they could start Travis Prentice at running back and
Kevin Johnson and Quincy Morgan at the wideout positions.
Prentice ran for 512 yards as a rookie last year. Johnson has
caught 123 passes in his first two NFL seasons, and Morgan was a
second-round draft choice last month out of Kansas State. That
group might strike fear in the WAC, but not in the AFC Central,
in which half of Cleveland's 2001 games will be played against
four of the league's top dozen defenses--Tennessee (No. 1),
Baltimore (2), Pittsburgh (7) and Jacksonville (12). "Of the top
quarterbacks in the game," Arians says, "Tim's got the fewest
Pro Bowl associates around him. We've got to get better there."

Impatience at the top could also be a drawback for Couch. Policy
and owner Al Lerner vowed when they hired Palmer in January 1999
to give him time to build a great team from scratch. They gave
him 23 months. "If we are not noticeably better this year,"
Policy said, "you will have to interview me at some sanitarium in
Switzerland."

For now, the Browns had better hope Couch can be at least a 65%
passer and that they can win a lot of 17-14 games. They know
he's doing his part. Most nights before bed, Couch eschews
SportsCenter in favor of a couple of hours of studying videotape
(on his 120-inch screen in a theater room built into his
suburban Westlake home). Sometimes he watches tape of himself,
sometimes of Manning and other quarterbacks he wants to learn
from. If there is skepticism about his NFL future outside his
house, there is none inside it. "I still believe I'll be one of
the best quarterbacks in the league, and I believe this'll be my
breakout year," he says. The odds say no. Couch, however, took
Kentucky to a bowl playing pitch-and-catch football with a bunch
of unknowns like wideout Craig Yeast. For Cleveland to play
football in January, he'll have to do that again.

Deion Sanders's Contract
A Bad Deal That Gets Worse

If, as expected, the Redskins release cornerback Deion Sanders
next month, they would still be out $1.14 million in prorated
signing-bonus cap charges this year and an outrageous $5.71
million in 2002, making Sanders's one season with Washington one
of the worst signings in the eight-year history of free agency.
Even though there were no significant competitors for the
flighty Sanders's services, the Redskins' director of player
personnel, Vinny Cerrato, and their glitz-hungry owner, Dan
Snyder, ponied up an $8 million signing bonus for a player
coming off two injury-plagued seasons with Dallas.

In return Sanders played a leaky cornerback last year (one rival
NFC East coach told SI that two other Washington corners, Champ
Bailey and Darrell Green, graded higher than Sanders in his
team's 2000 scouting reports) and now has used a contract
loophole to return to the Cincinnati Reds after a three-year
hiatus from baseball. Sanders hasn't even spoken to new Redskins
coach Marty Schottenheimer.

Moral of the story: Jock-sniffing hero worship, the kind
displayed by Cerrato and Snyder last year, can undermine a
franchise for years. In this case Sanders would be two years
removed from the team in 2002 yet still count for nearly a 10th
of Washington's salary cap.

Education of Michael Vick
Rookie Tries to Fix His Flaws

At his first rookie minicamp with the Falcons last week, Michael
Vick showed why he has tantalized scouts since declaring for the
NFL draft after his sophomore season. He ran a 4.36 in the 40,
fastest among the players on hand. He made some gorgeous deep
throws, from the pocket and on the run. However, he also missed
more than his share of easy, intermediate passes, displaying the
flaw that made the quarterback-hungry Chargers trade the chance
to draft him.

After the final workout last Saturday, Vick said he knew he had
to get better at throwing the short routes. "I agree with the
people who say I've got to work on my accuracy," he said. "I was
inconsistent on the crossing routes last year at Virginia Tech. I
was better my first year, and I don't know what happened last
year."

Quarterbacks coach Jack Burns remembers Steve Young's early days
in the USFL, when Young "sprayed it everywhere," Burns says. "But
his last four, five years in the NFL, Steve was like a Swiss
watch. Michael's 20--he can do plenty to improve his accuracy. The
key is to work on every throw in the playbook, and throw it over
and over again until it becomes automatic. Michael will get that
chance here. We're going to work him. We'll rub his nose in
it."

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Cleveland, still weak on the offensive line, will have Couch throw short, as he did in college.

Dispatches

After Bill Walsh stepped down as the 49ers' general manager last
week, club co-owner John York told him that he'll be earning
every cent of his consultant's salary. Terry Donahue takes over
as general manager, but Walsh is expected to become a sounding
board for York and a key voice in the long-term structuring of
the team....

Embarrassment of the Week: The Browns employ the former director
of the Secret Service, Lew Merletti, and still got stung by
their fifth-round draft pick, Washington linebacker Jeremiah
Pharms, who was arrested last week for his alleged involvement
in a drug-related robbery near campus in March 2000. "I'm
convinced that even his college coach [Rick Neuheisel] didn't
know about it," Cleveland coach Butch Davis says. Pharms says he
will plead not guilty....

Look for wideout Herman Moore, who is scheduled to be paid $5
million this year, to reject Detroit's request to slash his
salary to $1 million. If he does, the team will almost certainly
cut him. And if that happens, expect Jerry Rice to take the same
deal and finish his career in Detroit....

As of Monday 19 teams had less than $1.5 million in salary-cap
space, meaning they'll need to clear money to sign their recent
draft picks. That means the overstocked free-agent pool will be
even more crowded with veterans come June....

Fatsos of Spring Department: At a recent minicamp new Bears
nosetackle Ted Washington checked in at more than 380 pounds,
50-plus pounds over his listed playing weight of last year....

The Dolphins had been trying for three years to replace tackle
Richmond Webb, 34, and when he finally left as a free agent, the
Bengals gave him a three-year, $9 million deal. What in the
world was Cincinnati thinking?

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