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Holcomb ready for his biggest game

| Friday, Jan. 3, 2003

CLEVELAND — He is an unassuming guy who speaks in a quiet, southern drawl, but Kelly Holcomb sure can cause trouble.

Cleveland talk-show callers, for example, have long been demanding that Holcomb replace Tim Couch as the Browns' starting quarterback. Their wish comes true Sunday, when Holcomb subs for an injured Couch and leads the Browns into Heinz Field for a wild-card playoff game.

Holcomb hasn't started a game since Week 2 and has started only three times in his incredibly non-descript, seven-year NFL career. Not surprisingly, the former Middle Tennessee State star calls this the biggest game of his life. It's certainly bigger than he any he played with the Barcelona Dragons of the World League seven years ago.

“You're trying to do something that a lot of people don't get to do,” Holcomb said. “We're one of 12 teams that get to try to go win a Super Bowl. So, hey, it's different. There's a lot at stake.”

Which means that cameras and microphones will follow Holcomb everywhere he goes. He could do without that.

“I just like to go out and play,” he said. “I wish I could go out and just play and not worry about all that.”

Holcomb was a hot topic in both locker rooms Thursday. Steelers safety Lee Flowers lit the fuse — as he often does — during a conference call with Cleveland reporters. Flowers said it's just as well Holcomb is playing, since “most of the (Cleveland) fans and players” prefer Holcomb to Couch, whom the Browns drafted first overall in 1999.

When asked to compare the two, Flowers said, “I think (Holcomb) really goes through his reads a little better. Sometimes, Tim tends to panic. … Holcomb is going to be patient, go through his reads and not turn the ball over.”

Needless to say, that quote was relayed to several Browns players. Wide receiver Kevin Johnson pointed out that Holcomb is well-versed in Cleveland's offense because he worked under Browns offensive coordinator Bruce Arians when both men were with the Indianapolis Colts.

In fact, Johnson said, Holcomb knows the offense better than Couch.

“Kelly just has a little better understanding of what this offense is capable of doing,” Johnson said. “(And with a stronger arm), he can afford to throw it a little later.”

Holcomb had a 92.9 passer rating this season, compared to Couch's rating of 76.8. Overall, Holcomb completed 64 of 106 passes for 790 yards and eight touchdowns with four interceptions. Couch completed 273 of his 443 passes for 2,842 yards and 18 touchdowns with 18 interceptions.

Browns coach Butch Davis said that his team runs the exact same offense with Holcomb as it did with Couch. Flowers saw the same thing on film, and despite the differences he perceives, he said Couch and Holcomb mostly are similar. Neither is much of a scrambler. Couch has a better touch. Holcomb has a stronger arm.

The Steelers would love for Holcomb to play the way Couch has played against them lately. Couch is 0-4 with six interceptions and two touchdowns in his past four games against the Steelers. He was sacked 18 times.

Holcomb opened everyone's eyes in the Browns' season opener, when he completed 27 of 39 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-39 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The next week, he completed 17 of 30 passes for two touchdowns in a 20-7 victory over Cincinnati.

Couch returned to the lineup the next week and started the final 14 games, although Holcomb relieved him Oct. 6 against Baltimore and threw two late touchdown passes in a 26-21 loss.

On Sunday, Couch suffered a broken leg in a 24-16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Holcomb struggled, even though he threw the winning touchdown pass to Johnson.

“You all been riding Couch all year long,'' Browns defensive back Corey Fuller said Sunday. “You ought to be careful what you wish for when you want to run the franchise quarterback out of here.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement. And when Davis was asked yesterday about Holcomb's progress this week in practice, he gave a less-than-enthusiastic response.

“I think he's done OK,” Davis said. “It's a rush to try to catch up … but he's a smart guy. He understands this offense about as well as anybody, including the coaches. It' a matter of going out and getting the rust off.”

About seven years worth, to be exact.

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