Couch could get start with Holcomb hurting

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 25, 2003

CLEVELAND - Kelly Holcomb stood on the sideline with a broken leg and watched Tim Couch work practice as the Browns' first-team quarterback.

Holcomb may be doing the same thing on Sunday.

Although he played most of last week's win over San Francisco with a hairline fracture to a bone in his right lower leg, Holcomb may not be mobile enough for Cleveland to risk playing him this week against the Cincinnati Bengals.

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Holcomb, though, hasn't given up hope.

''I played on a broken leg last Sunday,'' Holcomb said. ''That's how it goes.''

Early signs point to a change at quarterback.

While Holcomb was the last player to emerge - escorted by two trainers - from the locker room before Wednesday's practice, Couch was the last one to leave the field afterward.

Holcomb didn't appear ready to play Sunday, hobbling around like an old man. But after waiting seven years for a starting gig, he's not about to step aside for Couch until he has to.

''I'm playing,'' Holcomb said. ''I mean, you have to think that way.''

Last Sunday, Holcomb refused to give in to the pain and rallied the Browns to a 13-12 win at San Francisco despite playing with the break and a badly sprained left ankle.

Holcomb is listed as questionable, but coach Butch Davis hasn't ruled him out, saying: ''Let's wait and see.''

If Holcomb can play this week, he knows the Bengals (0-3) won't take it easy on him just because he's hurt.

''It's like chum in the water,'' he said. ''When sharks get around it, they're going to go after it. You're going to take some licks.''

The Browns didn't ask Holcomb to do any running in Wednesday's practice. During the first 20 minutes when reporters are permitted to watch, Holcomb stood to the side and played catch.

Couch, Cleveland's four-year starter who led the Browns to eight wins last season before breaking his leg, took the majority of snaps with the first-team offense.

Davis wants to see how Holcomb responds to treatment over the next few days before deciding on a starter. It's possible he may not know until after pregame warmups Sunday.

''It's important for him to go out and be able to move around, throw and plant and see if he has velocity on the ball,'' Davis said. ''He has to be able to execute. Kelly is no different than anyone else. They have to be able to perform the duties on Sunday.''

After rallying the Browns to their first win, completing 12 of 14 passes on a game-winning, 91-yard TD drive, Holcomb was asked to rate his pain on a scale of 1 to 10. He gave it a 15.

After 2 1/2 days of treatment, Holcomb said the pain had subsided.

''It's down to about a 6,'' he said.

Holcomb acknowledged that he was hurting badly at halftime Sunday when the Browns told Couch to get ready. So how was he was able to manage the pain?

''Adrenaline, tape and prayer,'' he said. ''It's one of those things you've got to block it out. You just got to tape it up, tape it tighter and go.''

Holcomb promises he won't take any unnecessary risks and play if he's not completely ready. That wouldn't be fair to his coaches or teammates, he said.

Holcomb has already shown his toughness. So why would he risk further injury by taking the field?

''To play,'' he said. ''I just want to play. I'm a competitor.''

Couch, who has remained supportive, is certain Holcomb will do the right thing.

''Kelly will do what's best for the team,'' Couch said. ''If he can't go out there and play the way he's capable of, then I'm sure he won't go.''