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Published: Tuesday, 1/7/2003

Are Browns ready for a QB controversy?

Reflections on the Cleveland Browns and Sunday's 36-33 playoff loss in Pittsburgh:

Since making him the No.1 overall draft pick upon their expansion return to the NFL in 1999, the Cleveland Browns have handed the starting quarterback job to Tim Couch.

They made a tremendous investment in Couch as the future of the franchise, and could be excused for living with him, sink or swim.

Now, though, Couch should be made to earn the job. At the very least he should be made to prove that his development as a quarterback is equal to the Browns' development as a team.

Kelly Holcomb gives Cleveland a viable alternative - some would say a more attractive one - and he has to be given an equal opportunity to win the starting job in training camp next summer.

His 429-yard passing day in the loss at Heinz Field in the AFC wild-card round makes it clear that Couch, who was out with a broken bone in his right leg, should not automatically be considered the No.1 man.

Holcomb started three times and played extensively in five games this season. He finished with 90 completions in 149 attempts for 1,219 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. His regular-season passer rating of 92.9 was bumped to 107.6 in Sunday's game. Couch's rating for the season was 76.8.

“Kelly did a fantastic job,” said receiver Kevin Johnson, a loyal, longtime member of the Couch camp in what must now be a quickly-dividing clubhouse. “He spread the ball around, he was accurate, and he hung in there against some big shots from the defense. He left it all on the field.”

And earned every right to win or lose the starting job next season in a fair and square competition against Couch.

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Don't you sometimes wonder what in the world coaches are thinking?

The Browns were leading 14-7 and going in for the kill in the waning seconds of the first half. They had a first-and-goal on the Pittsburgh 1-yard-line before William Green was predictably stuffed for a three-yard loss.

Then, on second down, Butch Davis and his offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, called for a flanker reverse pass back to Holcomb. Kevin Johnson took the handoff, sprinted right and turned to look back toward Holcomb before being smothered by hard-charging Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter for a 15-yard loss.

First of all, it was a stupid call because there is hardly enough room on such a short field for that type of play to develop, and it's too easy for a defender to react and cover the quarterback.

Secondly, what if the pass had been completed, and Holcomb was subjected, like any other receiver, to a hard shot or a brutal tackle that had resulted in an unnecessary injury.

Remove Holcomb from the equation and the Browns would have had to make a Josh Booty call and play the rest of the game with their third-string quarterback.

Remove that play and perhaps the Browns score seven instead of three. If memory serves, they could have used four more points when the final gun sounded.

Stupid call.

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Should the Browns' stunning loss in Pittsburgh be excused because of youth and the belief that the team was ahead of schedule in qualifying for the playoffs in Davis' second season as coach?

The Steelers had 41 players with a combined 133 games of postseason experience on their roster Sunday.

The Browns, on the other hand, sported 14 players with a combined 73 playoff games under their belts. Far more than half of Cleveland's active roster owned four or fewer seasons of NFL experience.

“The hardest thing for a team that was down as far as we were is staying focused,” said Steeler defensive end Kimo vonOelhoffen. “You have to stay responsible and focused and not panic. We were able to do that because we're a tough team and a veteran team.”

It's arguable whether the two are mutually inclusive, but there's no question the younger, less-experienced Browns lost their focus and toughness, especially on defense, and turned their hold on the game into a choke hold.



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