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Couch deals with demotion to No. 2

CLEVELAND -- No injury hurt Tim Couch as much. No loss has been as tough for him to forget.

When Couch was stripped of his job as the Cleveland Browns' starting quarterback a few weeks ago, his world briefly crumbled. He had not been a backup since his first game as a rookie, and the former No. 1 overall draft pick did not handle the demotion very well.

But time has helped, and Couch has finally come to terms with his new role as Kelly Holcomb's backup.

''It's never an easy thing,'' he said. ''But this is where I am and I'm going to do the best I can with it. I just realized there is no reason to go through this season miserable,'' he said. ''Even though it's a tough time, you've to be upbeat and you have to be positive and you have to do what's best for the team.

''This team isn't about how I feel.''

Instead of practicing with the first-team offense, Couch is on the sideline watching as Holcomb hands off to William Green and fires passes to Kevin Johnson as the Browns prepare for their season opener Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.

Couch isn't in this week's game plan. The Browns are Holcomb's team now. They have been since Cleveland coach Butch Davis decided to go with his ''gut feeling'' by naming Holcomb as his starter to begin the year.

Last week, Couch admitted that Davis' decision was a blow he never expected. He struggled to accept it, trying to figure out what he had done wrong to lose his job.

He acknowledged that he allowed the decision to affect his preparation for an exhibition game in Detroit. Couch replaced Holcomb in the third quarter and fumbled his first snap. On Cleveland's next possession, he threw an ugly interception.

Couch's body language that night at Ford Field said it all. His shoulders drooped, and his chin was down.

''I wasn't into the game emotionally,'' he said. ''I just felt like I was going through the motions, and that's not something that I was trying to do. It was just a tough week for me.''

If Couch was going to survive this season, he knew he had to change his outlook. Teammates helped with words of encouragement, and Davis gave Couch a huge boost when he said the Browns would probably need him at some point this season if Holcomb gets hurt.

''That was a wakeup call for sure,'' Couch said. ''I think everyone in this league realizes you have to have two good quarterbacks to get through a season. Even though it's tough standing over there and waiting your turn, you have to be ready when it happens.''

Couch played much better in last week's preseason finale against Atlanta, completing 7-of-8 passes for 144 yards, including a 57-yard TD to Dennis Northcutt.

As Northcutt tiptoed into the end zone, Couch raised his index finger in the air and sprinted the length of the field to celebrate with his teammates.

It was as if nothing had changed.

''I really needed that, to get back on the football field and have fun again,'' he said. ''That's what I missed the most, it hadn't been fun for me for a while.''

Couch isn't worrying about next year. Depending on how this season unfolds, he knows it's likely that he or Holcomb will be playing elsewhere in 2004.

However, until then, or until the Browns need him, he'll be the highest-paid backup ($6.2 million salary in 2003) in the league. Couch has taken enough hits in four seasons to know that Holcomb probably won't make it through all 16 games.

''I have to be ready,'' he said. ''If something happens to Kelly, I'm going to come in and we're going to win football games. Right now, I have a positive attitude about everything. I'm working hard at practice, and I'm just trying to get better and get myself ready.

''If something happens and I go in. I don't want to be the reason why we lose. I want to be the reason why we win.''