4 After 4: Tim Couch, The Prodigy
Aaron Rodgers was not the only anointed successor to Brett Favre. The Packers tried at least four other times to find an heir to the Gunslinger's throne. These are their stories.
Brett Favre was homesick. 2002 ended at the hands of Michael Vick and the upstart Atlanta Falcons. The then-33-year-old gunslinger told Peter King in the offseason, “I miss home.” It was the first offseason Packers fans had considered the thought of Favre retiring.
A career year from running back Ahman Green in 2003 took Green Bay to the brink of the NFC Championship Game. Favre, despite a broken thumb midseason, continued his ironman streak of consecutive starts.
Retirement winds swirled around the now-34-year-old Favre. The injuries piled up. The thought of riding a tractor around his Hattiesburg, Mississippi home became more appealing. The Packers’ two previous seasons ended in heartbreaking fashion.
East of Ashwaubenon, former University of Kentucky quarterback and 1999 Heisman Trophy finalist Tim Couch searched for a fresh start.
Before the 1999 NFL Draft, Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman wrote, “I think Tim Couch will be the most successful QB in the next few years because he’ll have the best coaching.”
1999 was a banner year for rookie quarterbacks. Couch headlined a class featuring Oregon’s Akili Smith, Syracuse’s Donovan McNabb, Central Florida’s Daunte Culpepper and UCLA’s Cade McNown. Expectations were sky high for Couch to bring a championship back to Cleveland.
Couch’s time in Cleveland
Couch’s rookie season featured extreme highs and terrifying lows. Division rival Pittsburgh crushed starter Ty Detmer and Cleveland in the opening game, 43-0. Opponents sacked Couch 56 times across his 14 starts. The rookie tossed a last-second Hail Mary touchdown pass to win the Browns' first game.
His career with the Browns hit a crescendo in 2002 when the Browns won nine games behind a strong defense and last minute offensive heroics. Couch led five game-winning drives in the final two minutes that season. A broken leg in the regular season finale held him out of the postseason. The following year, he split time as a starter with Kelly Holcomb.
Fans' jeers after an injury forced Couch out against the Ravens brought Couch to tears. It was Couch's lowest moment in Cleveland.
After his fifth season, Cleveland wished to renegotiate his seven-year, $48 million rookie deal. The initial contract was back-loaded and littered with performance-based incentives. As the losses and interceptions began to pile up, the dollars started disappearing:
Couch was set to make $7.6 million in 2004, more than he had earned in base salary (i.e., game checks) during his five previous years with the Browns. Cleveland offered Couch the starting quarterback job and a modest $3 million salary in 2004 and $3.5 million in 2005 with an opportunity to earn an additional $3 million of incentives.
After rejecting the pay cut, the Browns signed veteran Jeff Garcia to a four-year, $25 million contract. Couch's time in Cleveland was over.
The situation became contentious. The Browns told Couch to stay away from the team’s facilities while they worked out a trade.
Tim Couch and the Players Association filed the first of his two career grievances against the Browns for denying him access to their training facilities.
Couch’s exodus to Green Bay
Cleveland tried to move Couch in exchange for a draft pick. As free agency started, Packers head coach and general manager Mike Sherman offered an undisclosed draft choice to the Browns for Couch.
Green Bay proposed Couch sign a revised two-year contract in exchange for sending the Browns a draft pick. Couch wanted more flexibility and demanded a one-year deal from Green Bay. Trade talks between the Packers and Browns fell through.
The NFL Draft came and went – and Couch was still in Cleveland.
A Frank Underwood-esque power move by Couch had backfired. Instead of remaining the starter with the Browns on a two-year deal worth $6.5 million, he was now holding Brett Favre’s clipboard on a one-year deal worth $1.2 million. Couch left Cleveland having earned less than half of the reported $48 million rookie contract.
Couch found a silver lining in Green Bay. Favre continued to hint at an imminent retirement. The Packers were an appealing destination for a quarterback looking for a starting gig.
When Couch joined the Packers in June of 2004, the Washington Post wrote, "Favre probably will play one to three more seasons, and Couch could re-sign with the Packers if things go well this season and he senses that Favre's retirement is coming sooner rather than later."
Couch’s training camp with Green Bay
Training camp was mere weeks away when Couch signed with the Packers. Mike Sherman’s West Coast offense was not for the faint of heart, and Couch was already at a disadvantage behind veteran backup Doug Pederson, the raw second-year pro Craig Nall and undrafted free agent Scott McBrien from Maryland.
In June’s minicamp, Couch was overused and experienced soreness in his throwing arm. His progress crawled to a halt during training camp.
Railbirds saw a quarterback who either overthrew or under threw his receivers, was not confident in the pocket, and had a troublesome hitch in his delivery.
The Packers preseason started on a Monday night against Mike Holmgren's Seattle Seahawks. Couch was dismal, completing 2-of-11 passes for 18 yards. He was sacked twice, and the Packers lost 21-3.
Much like his time in Cleveland, Packer fans booed Couch. The night’s largest applause came when Pederson replaced Couch in the third quarter.
Coach Sherman had second thoughts after the game about playing Couch.
“He didn’t play very well,” Sherman said. “Part of it is he didn’t practice a whole lot this week. He said his arm felt well enough to go, so I put him in there. I question whether that was the right decision. It wasn’t a good day for him or for us.”
Couch’s last stand
Now fourth on the depth chart, Couch had one last opportunity to prove he deserved a roster spot in Green Bay. The heir apparent needed an excellent performance at home against the New Orleans Saints to save his roster spot.
Couch showed no improvement in his second preseason appearance. He finished the night completing 6-of-17 passes for 64 yards. Shortly after the game, he was released.
“He just wasn’t productive enough,” a resigned Sherman said following the Packers’ second straight home defeat in the preseason. Couch finished his time in Green Bay completing 11-of-34 passes for 96 yards.
Following his release, Couch and the Players Association filed his second career grievance – accusing the Packers of failing to offer an injury settlement prior to his release. The settlement netted Couch a reported $100,000. It was the last substantial check Tim Couch received from an NFL team.
Tim Couch’s career ticked the three major boxes of any NFL Draft quarterback bust: playing college ball as a ‘system quarterback,’ lacking intangibles, and a dreadful offensive line during his time in Cleveland.
Attempting to revamp his career, Couch faced an almost insurmountable challenge in Green Bay. Contract negotiations reduced Couch's ramp-up time in Green Bay; he joined the Packers a full three months after free agency began. Meanwhile Pederson, Nall and McBrien all spent their summers around Lambeau.
The delays in March, April, and May led to overuse in June, as Couch attempted to make up for lost time. And whether it was the rigorous practice schedule or the brutal pounding in Cleveland, the Tim Couch that rode a young fan’s bicycle across the street from Lambeau Field to the Don Hutson Center was physically not the same as the young man who left Kentucky as a Heisman Trophy finalist. His once-lauded “golden arm” failed him in the end.
Green Bay continued its search for Brett Favre’s replacement.