The Wrong Stuff

In a first round top-heavy with quarterbacks, fledgling Cleveland wagered the No. 1 pick on Tim Couch of Kentucky. Big mistake
April 30, 2006

A FEW DAYS beforethe 1999 NFL draft, the first for the reborn Browns, owner Al Lerner called histhree top football guys into his office, one after the other. He asked each ofthem to name the college player the Browns should take with the No. 1 pick. Theanswers from coach Chris Palmer, player personnel director Joe Collins and vicepresident of football operations Dwight Clark were the same: "TimCouch."

The Clevelandbrain trust dismissed Syracuse scrambler Donovan McNabb, believing he didn'thave a strong enough deep arm or adequate foundation in the passing game. Theyscratched Central Florida's Daunte Culpepper in part because they doubted thata quarterback who played against lightweight competition could become an NFLfranchise cornerstone. They considered taking Texas running back Ricky Williamsuntil a predraft trade with the Bills for quarterback Rob Johnson failed tomaterialize. So the pick came down to Couch, the prolific Kentucky passer, orAkili Smith, the strong-armed but inexperienced quarterback from Oregon--whichnow sounds crazy, because neither has started in the NFL since 2003. (Draftedthird by the Bengals, Smith has played only 22 games.)

"None of theguys we were considering appeared to be the Second Coming," says formerBrowns president Carmen Policy. "But that's how it is with quarterbacks:Everyone in the NFL is afraid of passing on the guy who might be the next greatone." In this case McNabb, picked second by the Eagles, would go on to playin a Super Bowl, and Culpepper, selected 11th by the Vikings, would make threePro Bowls.

There werewarning signs that Couch wasn't No. 1 material: Despite being 6'4", 227, hedidn't have the arm to throw into the winds off Lake Erie. In his last collegeseason 74% of his 553 attempts went for 10 yards or less, and his ballfluttered in a predraft workout. Also, Couch was viewed as shy and immature byat least one club that interviewed him (Philadelphia).

Clevelandoriginally planned to work Couch into the offense gradually, but after just agame with veteran Ty Detmer at quarterback, Palmer made Couch the starter."I love Chris," says Policy, "but when he threw him in after thefirst game I thought it was a mistake." Not surprising for a start-up team,the other skill-position players and the pass protection were suspect. In hisfourth year, feeling the pressure of being booed and beaten up, Couch nearlybroke down in a postgame interview. "He lost the locker room afterthat," says one former front-office staffer. Couch was also getting hurt--abroken finger, a torn shoulder muscle, an elbow strain. The Browns cut him in2004; the Packers gave him a look in training camp that year but he didn't makethe roster. In the past 12 months he has worked out for numerous NFL teams, buthas never caught on. Said one coach who has seen him in the last year,"He's just not an NFL thrower right now."

Says Policy, "Every team is afraid of passing onthe guy who might be the next great one."

PHOTORUSTY KENNEDY/APOUT OF ORDER While Couch (right) floundered in Cleveland, second pick McNabb became a star in Philly.

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Eagle (-2)
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