Skip to main content

A Bone To Pick Only days before they were to make the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, the reborn Browns were torn between passers Tim Couch and Akili Smith

It's appropriate that the first pick in the last NFL draft of
the 20th century could come down to which of two players will be
easier to sign. Late Sunday afternoon, as a 12-man Cleveland
Browns delegation returned home after being wowed by Kentucky
quarterback Tim Couch at a workout in Lexington, Browns
officials prepared to hunker down for three days of meetings to
decide whether they should take Couch or Oregon quarterback
Akili Smith with the first pick in Saturday's draft.

Once Cleveland decides which player to select, Browns president
Carmen Policy said Sunday night, team capologist Lal Heneghan
will begin informal talks with the quarterback's agent. "If we
feel we can't get a deal pretty much done before noon on
Saturday," says Policy, "we could turn to the other player, or
we could trade down."

Don't be fooled. Though Cleveland will weigh all its
options--including trading the top choice for a rich package of
picks and/or players and taking a final hard look at Texas
running back Ricky Williams--it will almost certainly wind up
selecting Couch or Smith. Will it be Couch, the chalk pick, a
player from the one-stoplight town of Hyden, Ky., who started 24
games in three seasons as a Wildcat and has considered the NFL
his destiny since grammar school? Or will it be Smith, the
yearling closing fast, the San Diegan who going into last season
hadn't even locked up the Ducks' starting job and was hoping
merely to hook up with an NFL team as a free agent in 1999?

Browns rookie coach Chris Palmer was significantly happier after
Couch's Sunday workout than he had been when he walked into the
Kentucky football field house two hours earlier. As he squinted
into the sun on a pristine spring day in thoroughbred country,
he knew he'd be content staking his coaching future on Couch or
Smith: "I guess it's appropriate to say that they're neck and
neck coming down the stretch."

If anything, Couch's impressive 115-pass performance confirmed
to the Browns' delegation--including billionaire owner Al
Lerner--that he has an arm strong enough to slice through the
devilish winds that blow off Lake Erie. Cleveland general
manager Dwight Clark, the former San Francisco 49ers receiver,
found that out first-hand. Early in the workout Couch threw an
intermediate-range bullet that spiraled through Clark's hands
and slammed nose-first into his sternum. "Don't ever let anyone
say you don't have enough arm," Clark told Couch later.

"I think I moved ahead today," Couch said after a postworkout
burger and fries with the Browns' brain trust. "I think they'll
pick me."

News of Couch's impressive show traveled fast to Washington,
D.C., where Smith was watching the Philadelphia 76ers-Washington
Wizards NBA game at the MCI Center. "I guess," Smith said
glumly, "the top pick is Tim's to lose."

That Smith is even in the company of Couch on draft eve is
startling. After throwing for 8,159 yards and 73 touchdowns in
his last two Kentucky seasons, Couch has been painted as this
year's Peyton Manning--polished on and off the field. Smith
could be dismissed as a one-year wonder. But because Couch
directed a variation of the run-and-shoot at Kentucky, it's
difficult to predict how suited his game is to the NFL. At least
half of his collegiate passes were dump-offs, screens, curls or
short crossing routes; last season 74% of his 553 attempts
traveled 10 yards downfield or less. Andre Ware and David
Klingler, the seventh and sixth picks out of Houston in 1990 and
'92, respectively, were run-and-shoot quarterbacks who flopped
in the NFL. Thus the Browns' need to see Couch a second time.
He'd previously worked out for 43 NFL scouts and coaches on
March 11.

On the other hand, Smith played in an orthodox NFL-style offense
in college, and he blew away the competition in '98 with a
32-touchdown, eight-interception season. Last year Smith
averaged an NCAA-high 10.1 yards per attempt, Couch a pedestrian
7.1. Palmer, the former offensive coordinator for the
Jacksonville Jaguars, will use a multiple offense that will rely
more on intermediate and deep throws than most NFL teams use,
maybe making Smith a better fit for the Browns.

If the decision comes down to signability, Smith's agent, Leigh
Steinberg, has always been aggressive about working with teams
to satisfy their cap concerns and is the agent closest to
Policy. But Couch's agent, Tom Condon of Cleveland-based IMG,
knows that Couch's family is dying for him to be the No. 1 pick.
That's the money factor. Here are the football factors:


In the first quarter against Arizona State last fall, Smith
tossed an eye-catching smorgasbord of touchdown passes: a
two-yard bullet to fullback Chris Young, after sprinting to the
right under heavy pressure and waiting for Young to get isolated
on the middle linebacker; a 22-yard strike off a play-action
fake to wideout LaCorey Collins; and a 35-yard pump-fake-and-go
to wideout Damon Griffin, who caught the ball in full stride.
"I've watched film on Tim Couch," Smith says, "and I think he's
a really good player. But I think I've got a stronger arm,
better touch, and I throw a better ball. A lot of times they
label white quarterbacks as pure passers, but I think I'm about
as pure a passer as you'll see."

Even though Kentucky's system prevented Couch from showing off
his deep arm, he did air it out against Louisville, completing
29 of 49 passes for 498 yards and seven touchdowns. "When all
these rumors about Tim's arm started, I looked back at last
year's film and found that he'd thrown 15 passes of more than 50
yards," says Kentucky coach Hal Mumme. "I asked scouts, 'How
many times y'all actually throw the long out?' Believe me, he
can throw any pass you want him to throw."

Couch seethes over the rap that he can't throw deep. "Whoever
started that is an idiot," he says. Well, seven of the 62 passes
he threw in the March 11 workout did flutter. That may have been
partly because he had recently changed his grip. Couch had been
holding the ball with the laces at the base of his fingers
rather than at his fingertips. Palmer suggested he switch to the
fingertip grip, a change he would have had to make in the pros
no matter which team drafted him. Mechanics notwithstanding, new
Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid scoffed at reports of
Couch's arm being weak. "He's got plenty of arm to play in the
NFL, as much as most of the great quarterbacks today," Reid
said, "but Akili is tremendously accurate down the field, more
than any of the other guys coming out." EDGE: SMITH.


Smith is an elusive 6'3", 227-pounder who runs a 4.7 40. Couch,
at 6'4" and 225, ran times of 4.88 and 4.92 on Sunday. "As much
as anyone in this draft, Akili has the mobility to make plays on
the move, which is a tremendously important factor for NFL
quarterbacks today," says Reid, whose Eagles have the No. 2
pick. EDGE: SMITH.


As a two-sport star and a Parade All-America quarterback at
Leslie County High who played for his home state university,
Couch has smoothly handled being in the spotlight for much of
the 1990s. "I grew up early," he says. The only blemishes on his
record are multiple speeding tickets and reneging on a promise
to attend Tennessee. Couch lacks spontaneity, and his
conversation sometimes comes off as too rehearsed.

A three-sport star coming out of Lincoln High, Smith didn't have
the grades or the test scores to attend his school of choice,
hometown San Diego State, so he signed with the Pittsburgh
Pirates for $103,000. As an outfielder for the Bradenton Pirates
in the Gulf Coast rookie league in 1994, he hit two homers in
one game. "But I was horrendous, a disaster in the outfield,"
says Smith, who quit after three seasons. He enrolled at
Grossmont, a junior college in El Cajon, Calif., and resumed his
football career, then landed at Oregon in '97. Following an
inconsistent first season, Smith was suspended from the football
program for two months before the '98 season after being
arrested for driving under the influence and getting into a bar
fight--separate incidents within a week of each other. (He was
acquitted of all charges in the bar fight, and the DUI charges
were dropped when he agreed to enter an alcohol diversion
program.) "I thought things would come easy," Smith says. "They
didn't. Getting suspended was the best thing that could have
happened to me, because it forced me to focus. It made me a
better person and a better player." EDGE: COUCH.


Last month, while Couch went through his initial workout for
scouts, construction cranes and bulldozers were making a lot of
noise next door at Commonwealth Stadium. A long-awaited
expansion project--40 luxury boxes and 10,000 seats--was under
way, and sheepishly Couch said, "So many people say I built it."
Long before he awakened the Wildcats' dormant football program,
Couch was getting autograph requests--as an eighth-grader
averaging 16 points a game for the high school varsity
basketball team. "By the time I was a sophomore in high school,
everywhere I went people were pointing at me, whispering about
me," he says. "If the fans in Cleveland are going to be as
intense as people say, I'll be ready for it. I've been dealing
with it in Kentucky for years."

Until he burst onto the scene last season, when he threw for
3,763 yards and led 8-3 Oregon to the Aloha Bowl, Smith lived in
relative obscurity. While jogging with a teammate one day last
September, he spoke with envy about quarterbacks Cade McNown of
UCLA and Brock Huard of Washington being on the cover of a
preseason football magazine. "I hope I get a free-agent shot
after school, or maybe get picked in the sixth or seventh
round," Smith recalls saying. EDGE: COUCH.


Akili is Swahili for "intellectual power." However, he was a
Prop 48 casualty coming out of high school, and the first time
he took the Wonderlic test, the NFL's 50-question intelligence
exam, he got only 13 right. (Sample question: Gas costs 15 cents
a gallon. How many gallons can you buy for $1?) Steinberg,
Smith's agent, arranged for Smith to see a tutor, with whom he
worked for one night. Then, Smith says, he studied several times
in an Oregon library with fellow Ducks quarterback Jason Maas.
When he took the test a second time, at the scouting combine, he
got 37 right--better than all but three of the other 309 players
tested there.

Smith seemed angry when pressed for details about the dramatic
rise in his test score. "Do they think I cheated?" he says. No
Cleveland executive goes that far, but Clark says, "The jump in
the test score is a concern." The Browns were further perplexed
when, at Cleveland's request, Smith took the test a third time,
and he scored a 27. "I'm a smart kid," Smith says, "and no NFL
team's going to give you a Wonderlic test before a game."

Couch, who scored a 22 on the Wonderlic, has been a starting
quarterback for all or part of seven years in high school and
college, and many scouts have equated his football headiness
with that of his All-America and All-SEC predecessor, Manning.
"When we interviewed both guys at the combine," New Orleans
Saints president Bill Kuharich said of Couch and Smith, "we had
no concerns whatsoever about their ability to learn an NFL
offense. They both have a very good understanding of NFL
defenses and seem communicative, outgoing and mature."

"Both are plenty football smart," says Palmer, who was satisfied
when each player was asked to diagram plays on a chalkboard. In
fact, Smith flawlessly sketched out a play that Palmer had
mentioned to him a month earlier. What will really matter in the
NFL is being able to read and react quicker than a wink, and
Couch's experience here is key. "The best thing I do is read
coverages and make decisions fast," Couch says. "What makes the
great ones great? Reading coverages." EDGE: COUCH.

As the New England Patriots' wide receivers coach in 1993,
Palmer strongly recommended to coach Bill Parcells that the team
use the No. 1 choice to select Drew Bledsoe, not Rick Mirer. The
Patriots did choose Bledsoe, who has thrown for more than 21,000
yards in six seasons and guided New England to Super Bowl XXXI.
Mirer, chosen second by the Seattle Seahawks, turned out to be a
lemon who is with his third team. Palmer concedes that had he
been in the same position last year, he would have favored Ryan
Leaf over Manning. The No. 1 pick, of the Indianapolis Colts,
Manning established one NFL rookie record after another. Leaf,
selected next by the San Diego Chargers, struggled on and off
the field and was benched. "What I have to do," says Palmer, "is
find the guy who for the next 10 years I can sit across a table
from and build a championship team with."

When he studies videotape of both quarterbacks one last time,
Palmer says, one game, even one play, might solidify his
decision. Perhaps it will be this play from last fall: Kentucky
at Florida, the Wildcats have the ball at their 24,
third-and-six. Couch takes a five-step drop, wiggles free from
one Gator, moves to his left and raises his arm to throw. He's
hit from the blind side, and another defender is coming up fast
from his right. Nevertheless, Couch flicks a sidearm strike to
wideout Craig Yeast for a first down at the Kentucky 43.

I say it's Couch, by a whisker, though I love Smith's arm and
his potential and his moxie. "Bring Al Lerner and Carmen Policy
to see me a second time, like the chance they gave Tim, and I'll
put on a show they'll never forget," Smith said on Sunday.

Couch, however, has had too much success under pressure and
showed too many signs of greatness at Kentucky to pass him over.
There's so much more to playing quarterback in the NFL than
athletic ability. "I've worked my whole life to be the Number 1
pick in the draft," he says. "Where I came from, I didn't have
anything to do all day but throw a football. I have no doubt
that the Browns can build their franchise around me and that
we'll win."

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER COVER NFL DRAFT Who's Going Where? Is This the Best Quarterback Class Since '83? Pick of the Litter The reborn Browns have the No. 1 choice. Do they take Kentucky's Tim Couch, Oregon's Akili Smith or...?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BART NAGEL Top dogs Browns fans expect to be barking for Couch (top) or Smith. If they only knew which one.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO A call to arms Couch put up big numbers at Kentucky, but questions surfaced about whether he can throw downfield.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Mighty Duck Smith had only one big year at Oregon, leading to doubts that he can take his game to the next level.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Don't forget me If the Browns determine that they won't be able to sign a quarterback, Williams could jump back into the picture.

Palmer says he has to "find the guy who for the next 10 years I
can build a championship team with."