Tim Couch wasn’t supposed to be here.
Growing up in Hyden, Kentucky, Couch was surrounded by a population with goals that didn’t extend beyond the borders of the seat of Leslie County. Most ended up graduating high school and either becoming teachers or going to work in the coal mine.
Neither was suitable for Couch.
“I always just felt like I always was going to make it,” Couch said. “Looking back at it now, it was probably my way of ‘I’ve got to do this, because I’m not working in a coal mine.’ I’ve got to do something bigger for myself. … Me personally, I just wanted something more for myself, and sports was kind of my way of making it.”
Couch didn’t come from a family with an athletic background. In fact, he came from a coal mining background, as his grandparents spent their working lives in the mine. But Couch was blessed with something different: advanced athleticism.
He grew to 6-foot-3 before he reached high school and became a local athletic standout, but he didn’t know he had what it took to truly ride an athletic career out of Hyden until he started competing in camps against top prospects from across the country.
That’s when it became apparent that an athletic college scholarship was a possibility. But it wasn’t certain that the multi-sport standout who averaged 37 points per game as a junior was going to follow a football path.
“Honestly, not until I got to college, because I was getting recruited very heavily in basketball,” Couch said. “A lot of Division I offers. Notre Dame, USC, Tennessee, all kinds of places for basketball. But for me, my senior year of football is when I kind of started a little bit leaning towards football. But still at that point, I considered myself a basketball player who played football.” … I wanted to play both sports, I really did, in college. A lot of schools were absolutely no. … So Kentucky kind of convinced me that they would let me do both.”
Couch had aspirations of playing both sports in college, and while many who recruited him wouldn’t allow such a thought to even exist, Kentucky acquiesced. That convinced Couch to become a Wildcat — but only after first decommitting from Tennessee — where he left behind a record book-stuffing high school career that included a USA Today All-American selection to join a Kentucky team that hadn’t really won much of anything on the football field.
And at first, it wasn’t smooth sailing for Couch. He was placed into an option-run offense, where his talents as a passer were discarded and he was asked to run the ball much more than he ever should have. His first year was such a nightmare, he was ready to transfer to Tennessee.
Former Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton was able to get in Couch’s ear, though, and convinced him that the program’s new football coach would be the right fit for Couch’s strengths. The quarterback relented and remained at Kentucky, where he ran Hal Mumme’s and Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense so well, he set a multitude of records: the NCAA mark for completion percentage in one game (83 percent), completions per game (36.4), completions in a season, completions in a two-year period and career completion percentage. He also set the SEC record for most offensive yards in a season (4,151), which stood until Florida’s Tim Tebow broke it in 2007, and the conference mark for passing yards (4,275), which still stands today.
“The Air Raid system that we created in 1997 with Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, people still run it all over,” Couch said. “Kliff Kingsbury just got a job in the NFL running the system. We started that in 1997. I’m really proud of what we were able to accomplish at Kentucky, and other than a few little things about playing in the big games and those kind of things, I don’t regret anything. It was an unbelievable experience.”
During that time, Couch also broke a streak that lasted for three quarters of a century: Alabama’s win streak over Kentucky. He faced off with a familiar face to Browns fans, Freddie Kitchens, who was Alabama’s starting quarterback. The two went back and forth in a game that Couch said “as a college quarterback you dream about” and went to overtime. Kentucky forced a fumble in the overtime period, and Couch teamed up with his top receiver, finding Craig Yeast for a third-down completion that went for the game-winning touchdown.
“I hit Craig on this pass and I’m just thinking first down, right, let’s get a first down,” Couch recalled. “And he catches it, breaks a tackle, runs into the end zone and before I knew what was going on, the whole stadium was on the field. They’re carrying me off, they rip down the goal post and it was just, it was one of those moments that you really live for as a college quarterback, to beat Alabama on a last-second touchdown pass in overtime. It was an unbelievable experience.”
It wasn’t the last memorable moment for Couch’s career. The quarterback ended up skyrocketing up prospect rankings in the 1998 season and was selected first overall by the reborn Cleveland Browns in 1999. But it wasn’t a certainty heading into the draft.
Couch felt like he’d be selected in the top three of the draft. That’s fine, sure, but it wasn’t guaranteed. He’d first have to go through the pre-draft process, which included plenty of work on his fundamentals and arm strength. Eventually, the Browns had seen enough to go from negotiating with Oregon standout quarterback Akili Smith to working on a deal with Couch.
He signed his contract with the Browns in the men’s room of Madison Square Garden, right before he was officially selected first overall by Cleveland.
“That’s one of those days that when you know as it’s happening that you’re never going to forget,” Couch said.
Couch entered the 1999 season with the understanding that he’d sit in his first season behind veteran Ty Detmer. He was told he wouldn’t be thrown “to the wolves” as part of an inexperienced expansion team.
That ended in Week 1.
“We’re playing the Steelers and I think we’re down about 35-0 in the game and Coach (Chris) Palmer looks at me and goes ‘you’re in’ and I’m like ‘thanks,’” Couch said. “So I get in and it’s just a disaster. I throw an interception on the first pass ever, just threw it right into double coverage. Just awful. And I ended up starting the next week on the road against Tennessee and I was the starter from that point on. So it lasted all of three quarters, the plan.”
The Browns’ 1999 season followed suit, resulting in plenty of losses and frustration and a coaching staff that was working under extreme pressure as a result of the return of a beloved franchise with a near-empty cupboard. Couch was indeed thrown to the wolves, getting sacked 56 times, which was an NFL record at the time. He was constantly under duress and throwing to a group of pass-catchers led by a rookie in Kevin Johnson with not much else of professional-level talent to speak of.
“It was just one of those years where it was just like, man, everything felt so difficult,” Couch remembered. “Just to complete a pass at times felt so difficult.”
The rookie-year experience left an indelible mark on Couch for the rest of his career, sapping him of the sky-high confidence that had propelled him out of Hyden to Kentucky and to the No. 1 overall pick of the draft. Cleveland’s inability to assemble large quantities of talent as a reborn franchise did him no favors, something he looks back on now as a monumental influence on how his career eventually panned out.
“Well, I really wish that’s what would have happened,” Couch said of the prospect of sitting out his rookie season. “When they came to me and said ‘do you feel like you’re ready to play’ of course I said yes. I’m a competitor. I want to be on the field. But looking back at it now, it was such a rough year mentally and physically for me because I got sacked, I think at the time that was an NFL record, I got sacked 56 times that season. It was just hard.
“We weren’t winning games and for me, personally, I just wasn’t used to failure. Everything I’d done in high school, everything I’d done at Kentucky, I was used to going out and breaking records and winning games and being considered the best if not one of the best. And that year it was just like, I don’t know, is it me? What’s going on? We’re not winning, I’m not playing well — I had games where I played well, it was up and down — but nothing was consistent.
“So yeah, I lost a lot of confidence that year. It just kind of was like popping the balloon. You come in with all this hope and optimism and it’s all of a sudden like ‘golly, what’s wrong with us?’ So it was tough from that standpoint.”
There was one bright spot in that 1999 season, though, and it came indoors.
The Browns traveled to New Orleans to face the Mike Ditka-coached Saints at the Superdome in Week 8 of the campaign. Cleveland played well, owning a late lead that was erased by a 46-yard Doug Brien field goal with 21 seconds left in the game. Couch and the Browns were staring 0-8 in the face when he returned to the field, where he was thinking “here we go again, we’re going to lose another close game.”
Couch connected with Leslie Shepherd for a 19-yard gain to start the drive, where the Browns burned a timeout with 2 seconds left. There was time for one more play.
"So I'm like, all right, this is all we can do, just throw it up and hope and um, so I catch it and I was going to sit in the pocket and I got pressure up the left side," Couch remembered. "So if you've ever seen that play, you can see me. As soon as I catch it, I kinda look back and the guy got around the left tackle, so I just rolled out and just basically running for my life.
Couch scrambled, keeping his eyes downfield before he stepped up and heaved the ball toward the end zone.
"I had to throw the ball before my receivers were down there and all I could do was hang it as high as I could to give them time to run under it," Couch recalled. "And if you watch that play, that's probably the best throw that I've ever made in my life. As far as like the way the ball came off my hand.
"And I mean it was, that ball was launched, I mean it was 60 yards probably in the air, but I had to throw it so high. When it came down, it was down at the receivers and that's why, you know, when the ball came, it was coming like straight down and it got tipped, tipped up and KJ (Johnson) caught it, you know, in the corner."
The Hail Mary completion secured the Browns' first win since their return to the league and cemented Couch in Browns history.
Three seasons later, Couch replicated the feat in Week 14 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Sitting at 6-6, firmly in the playoff race, the Browns desperately needed a win. They trailed 20-14 with time for just one more play.
Couch channeled his inner gridiron hero once again.
The quarterback received the snap with 10 seconds left to play, dropped back, faded left, stepped up into the pocket and fired another prayer to the front right corner of the end zone.
CBS broadcaster Don Criqui wondered aloud as the ball traveled through the air "is this like New Orleans?"
Wide receiver Quincy Morgan caught the pass while falling over a defender, scoring a game-tying touchdown that might not have survived today's review process.
"Caught! Touchdown!" Criqui exclaimed. "It is like New Orleans! The unbelievable has happened!"
"I don't know how we made that one happen," Couch said. "But I remember there was a safety, somehow they left one on one with Quincy cause I had three receivers here and Quincy was over here by himself and the safety was kinda over the top, but he thought I was gonna throw it to the three-receiver side and I just kept looking over there kind of with my head like this.
"But I was looking at the safety here and he started running toward the three-receiver side and I kind of gave it a little fake and got Quincy one-on-one and just throw it up to him. Man. He made an unbelievable catch, which if they reviewed it now, it was a little dicey, but we'll take it though. And then Phil Dawson comes in and kicks the extra point and we win the game."
Those were largely the highlights for Couch's career with the Browns and in the NFL, as that 2002 team remains the only Browns team to make the playoffs -- via a Wild Card berth -- since 1999. A broken leg relegated him to the role of disappointed sideline spectator by the time the postseason arrived, left to watch teammate Kelly Holcomb engage in a shootout with the Pittsburgh Steelers that ultimately ended in a crushing loss for the Browns.
"Every game felt like a big game because we were in it," Couch said. “That year, I felt like we were really starting to turn the corner and had a good football team."
That was the high-water mark for Couch's Browns, though, as Holcomb won a training camp battle for the starting job but the team failed to meet expectations in 2003, resulting in a back-and-forth swapping of starting quarterbacks between Holcomb and Couch. Each started eight games in 2003 and eventually the losses became too much, resulting in the departure of Couch after he refused to take a pay cut before the 2004 season.
Head coach Butch Davis was fired after 11 games in 2004, while Couch left for Green Bay, where he suffered a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum and torn biceps tendon on his throwing arm, requiring season-ending surgery. The injuries resurfaced when he worked out for other NFL teams, and after a second surgery, it became clear the end was near for Couch.
"After the second surgery, I end up in Jacksonville (in 2007) for training camp," Couch said. "Man I'm telling you, I felt like I was throwing left handed or something. After the first surgery, I felt like I was getting close to being back. After the second one, I knew it was over. I had no chance. Never felt right again."
Couch retired and transitioned to a television career, where he calls SEC football games and also serves as color commentator for Browns preseason games.
Couch is fond of the franchise and its fans today and sees a bright future for the Browns. He's happy to see young quarterback Baker Mayfield is surrounded by talent, a situation that's much better than the one Couch was dropped into back in 1999.
"Looking back at it, I'm like, it sounds like a fairy tale, you know, like, it doesn't even sound like I actually lived it, you know, it seems like a whole lifetime ago," Couch said. "But, you know, I wish things would've went differently for me in Cleveland, obviously. When I say differently, I mean longer. I wish I could have done it for 10 years, not five. Sure. You know, because I did love it. I love playing for the Browns and I'm still a huge Browns fan and this to this day, I just wish I could've done it over a longer period of time, but that's really the only regret I have is once I got to the NFL, the injuries started to pile up and just couldn't stay healthy for a long period of time.
“And you know, there were times when I was with the Browns, but I was playing really well. I had some really, really good games and I couldn't do it for a consistent period of time. And that's what it's all about as far as making it in the league. You have to do it every Sunday."
Couch has moved on but is happy to be welcomed back by Browns fans as the team's preseason broadcaster. And above all, he still feels fortunate to this day.
"NFL athletes don't come from Eastern Kentucky and, you know, they just don't," Couch said. "For me to be the one that made it and became a, you know, a starting quarterback for an NFL franchise for five years is truly a blessing."