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Next few days are critical for Couch#039;s future with Browns

BEREA - Tim Couch understands the stakes. In the next few days he'll find out if he kept his job, and if he's part of the Browns' future.

Since training camp opened last month, Couch has been locked in a heated quarterback competition with Kelly Holcomb for Cleveland's starting job. With coach Butch Davis' deadline approaching, it's still too close to pick a clear winner.

On Wednesday, Couch said he believes Davis' decision will have far greater implications than who will take the first snap in the Sept. 7 opener against Indianapolis.

''I think this will decide whether I'm going to be here for a long time or not,'' Couch said.

He could be right.

Browns president Carmen Policy restated this week that the gigantic gap in salaries between Couch ($6.2 million) and Holcomb ($825,000) will have no relevance on Davis' decision. At least not this year.

But that will certainly change if Holcomb wins the No. 1 job, leaving Couch and his huge salary - $7.6 million next season - on the bench in 2004.

Davis expects to announce his decision by next Monday.

Couch said regardless of Davis' choice, he doesn't expect both he and Holcomb to be wearing orange helmets next year. One of them will have to go.

''I think it's a pretty high possibility,'' Couch said. ''But this year is what we're really focused on, and we want to make the best of this year. At the end of the year, I'm sure something is going to happen with one of us.''

Until then, Couch can only wait and hope things go his way. But he knows they may not.

''If I'm not the guy, I'll be the best backup I can for Kelly,'' he said.

The Browns closed training camp Wednesday with their quarterback battle still open and possibly hinging on this Friday's exhibition game at home against Green Bay.

Asked if he was still undecided, Davis said, ''Absolutely.''

Davis said the game won't make or break either of his QBs, and that his decision will be based on a fairly simple criteria.

''The deciding factor is, who is going to give us the best chance to win right now?'' Davis said. ''I have very little regard for the future in 2005, 6, 7 and 8. They may have a different coach in those years.

''Right now, it's a gut feeling, and performance, and how is the team going to play against Indianapolis.''

Holcomb will start against the Packers, a final chance for the 30-year-old career backup to make an impression on his coach. For three weeks, everyone of Holcomb's passes has been scrutinized as he tries to unseat Couch.

And there aren't many he wants back.

''I think I've gone out there and competed every day and that's what you play the game for, play as good as you can when they call your name,'' he said.

Hearing Holcomb introduced with Friday's starters is sure to be popular with a vocal contingent of Cleveland fans. Chants of ''Kel-ly, Kel-ly'' broke out during a recent scrimmage against the Buffalo Bills at Browns Stadium.

Holcomb, like most backup QBs in the NFL, has always been popular. And his reputation skyrocketed after he threw for 429 yards in a playoff loss to Pittsburgh.

Couch, on the other hand, has never been a fan favorite. At times, the former No. 1 overall draft pick in 1999 has been targeted more than opposing players.

Last year, Couch's relationship with Cleveland fans hit a lowpoint when they cheered after he suffered a concussion against Baltimore.

Couch still isn't sure why he has been treated so poorly by some of the hometown fans.

''I don't know, really,'' he said. ''I try to bring the same thing to the table each week. I've been a little inconsistent at times. But I've gone out and played hard and tried to win games.

''That's all I'm going to try and do now, whether they're with me or not. I'm still going to go out and do my stuff, be myself and try to win as many games as I can.''

But right now, all he wants to win is a job.