It was only one play in the middle of another 2 1/2-hour training camp workout: The second-team offense directed by 22-year-old rookie Tim Couch played 11 on 11 against the first-team defense at the Cleveland Browns' facility in Berea.
But this was no ordinary quarterback throwing an extraordinary pass out of a shotgun formation. With a flick of the wrist, Couch arched a tight spiral 50 yards through the air, just over the outstretched arm of starting safety Marlon Forbes. The ball landed softly in the hands of free agent rookie tight end Mark Campbell, in full stride.
When Campbell clutched the ball to his chest and dashed another 10 yards until the whistle blew, surely Couch's teammates, coaches and several hundred fans in the nearby bleachers had to be heartened by the vision of the expansion Browns' future.
That future is not exactly now, however. Though Couch, the first player selected in the April draft, has already been the recipient of a seven-year, $48 million deal that includes a $12 million signing bonus, he won't be the starting quarterback Monday night when the Browns face the Dallas Cowboys in the nationally televised Hall of Fame game here.
That task has been given to journeyman Ty Detmer, acquired for a fourth- and fifth-round draft choice from the San Francisco 49ers last February. Detmer, with his fourth team in eight years, likely will handle 12 to 15 plays with the first unit, with Couch scheduled to appear late in the first period and stay until early in the third. Likewise, Detmer is expected to be the starter for the Browns' regular season opener Sept. 12 against Pittsburgh.
"We have a great deal invested in Tim Couch," Browns Coach Chris Palmer said recently. "The worst thing we could do would be to throw him to the wolves and have him lose his confidence. Once you lose that, it's very difficult to regain it."
Palmer, who schooled rookie Drew Bledsoe in New England and helped Mark Brunell develop into an elite quarterback in Jacksonville, has insisted he has no timetable for the talented rookie from the University of Kentucky. He's simply not going to force him into the lineup the instant Detmer falters, despite what he knows will be enormous pressure from his team's passionate and football-starved fans.
"In New England, it was clear Bledsoe was the best player at the position in the middle of training camp," Palmer said. "With rookies, the light just goes on. Whenever that is, it's determined by the player. How long will that be? We'll know it when we see it."
For now, Couch admits that the light is still a touch dim, but gaining more wattage each day.
The experience has been quite different from his days growing up in Hyden, Ky., a tiny town nestled in the Cumberland Mountains. It was there that Couch, 6 feet 4, 230 pounds and always the best athlete on any team he ever played for, became the most highly sought high school quarterback in the country.
Couch eventually decided on Kentucky, if only because it was home and he wanted to play right away. He broke every significant school passing record and was a talented enough athlete to have Rick Pitino ask him to play on the Wildcats' NCAA championship basketball team.
But life is considerably more complicated now for Couch. At Kentucky, he said he never even had a formal playbook.
"Coach [Hal] Mumme drew half the plays in the dirt on the sidelines," he said. "We just kind of played sandlot ball. The first day [Mumme] got there, he drew up a couple of plays on the board and we went out and learned them in practice. The next practice, he'd draw a couple more."
Even back when Palmer was coaching at the University of New Haven, he always had a playbook. By the time he got to Cleveland, it had grown into a huge volume, and Couch acknowledged he has had typical rookie problems getting all those X's to jibe with all those O's, both in his head and on the practice field.
There are times when he will throw a short route to a receiver who has long since gone deep, or vice versa. He is getting better at picking up blitzes, learning where his teammates are supposed to be, understanding that his arm can not always get the ball past talented defenders and out of harm's way.
"The biggest thing has been adjusting to the speed of the game," Couch said, echoing countless rookie quarterbacks through the ages. "The first day of training camp, guys were just flying around out there. It took a little getting used to. It's slowed down a little now, but they tell me once we start playing games, it gets even faster than what I see in practice every day.
"You hand the ball off, and when you look back you can see a big hole opening up. But the time it takes for that same hole to close is just amazing."
Couch knew all about that from Day One. He and Peyton Manning, who set a number of league rookie passing records last year with the Indianapolis Colts, were friends in high school and have stayed in touch over the last few years.
"I talked to him right before camp," Couch said. "He just told me the game was a lot faster than college, and you learn that very quickly. He also told me there will be some tough times, and that I've got to work my way through them and try to stay patient."
Like his coach, Couch insisted he has no timetable for taking over the team. He knows he is being counted on as a franchise quarterback, but he's also realistic enough to realize it will take some time to develop the skills necessary to fulfill those expectations--from the fans, his coaches and teammates, and himself.
"There's no exact date where I'm saying I have to start," he said. "I just have to be patient about it. As a player, you want to be playing all the time. I don't know if it will be this year, next year, whenever. I know everyone has to go through a learning process, and that's all I'm trying to do. My expectations are a lot higher than anyone's, but you can't do it all at once."
Detmer is helping to teach him, and Couch has made no secret of his gratitude.
"Everyone knows Tim's the guy for the future," Detmer said. "He's made a lot of strides. He's starting to get real comfortable with the system. He's the type of guy who works hard at everything he does. There's no question about his talent."
Couch's teammates also have been impressed with the way the rookie has handled himself.
"He's making progress in leaps and bounds," said veteran tackle Lomas Brown, who came to the Browns as a free agent after spending the last two seasons watching Jake Plummer develop into a star in Arizona. "The one thing [Couch] seems to have in common with Plummer is that they are both very, very calm. Jake may be running around for his life, but nothing seemed to rattle him. I get the same feeling with this kid. He has the whole package."
Wide receiver Leslie Shepherd, who left the Washington Redskins as a free agent and now is a starter, also was complimentary.
"He has a knack for finding people open in tight places," Shepherd said. "He's got a very quick and very powerful release on the ball, but it's not a difficult ball to catch. He's picking up blitzes and starting to read coverages. The game Monday will give him a feel for the speed of the defenses, and I think he'll do fine with that, too."
What Palmer sees occasionally amazes him.
"The other day, he drops back and falls flat on his rear end," Palmer said. "He's sitting on the ground, and in one smooth motion, he throws a hitch, and gets it right to the receiver. As a coach, you're saying, 'Whoa, you just can't do that in the NFL.' But I'd have to say, that was a pretty good throw.
"He's farther along than I thought he'd be, still not where he needs to be. But he makes plays that have surprised the whole staff. He's such an honest kid, too. The other day, he comes to the line, puts us in the right protection but throws to the wrong guy. He comes back to me and I said to him, 'Didn't you see the Z [receiver]?' And he says, 'Coach, I forgot the play.' I thought that was great. I had to laugh. That's the kind of kid he is. And he's just going to get better."