NFL organizations have adopted a variety of philosophies in trying to build a Super Bowl winner. But with several notable exceptions during the past decade, most clubs have been committed to the notion that championship teams revolve around a franchise quarterback. And why not? Look at a list of the primary quarterbacks of the past 10 Super Bowl champions: Joe Montana, Phil Simms, Mark Rypien, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Brett Favre, John Elway. Nearly all seem headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"That's where it all starts," said Green Bay Packers General Manager Ron Wolf, who may have engineered the steal of the 1990s when he sent a first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Falcons in 1992 in exchange for Favre, the third quarterback selected in the 1991 draft. "You try to do anything you can to get that kind of player. Sometimes it doesn't work out, but if you find the right guy, he can make you look very good and keep your team in the playoffs and Super Bowls for a long time."
In a year when the college draft pool included several potential franchise players at a variety of positions, the expansion Cleveland Browns decided Tim Couch was "the right guy." They used the No. 1 pick in the draft to get the Kentucky quarterback, and they put together a seven-year, $48 million contract package to sign him.
For club president Carmen Policy, General Manager Dwight Clark and Coach Chris Palmer, drafting Couch was the most important step in constructing the nascent team's foundation.
"We wanted to stay as young as we could," said Policy, who helped build and maintain the San Francisco 49ers' run of championship-caliber teams. "If we brought free agents in, for the most part we wanted them to be players in their prime or just a little before it and give them long-term contracts. We wanted to build a nucleus of players on offense and defense that will be there when we start to go to the next level next year.
"And we wanted to get a franchise quarterback that would be here playing and providing leadership for a long time. I think we got that young man in Tim Couch, and I think he will be the cornerstone for this organization for many years."
The Browns spent a small fortune scouting Couch, who set all kinds of offensive records during his three seasons at Kentucky. Last season alone, he completed 400 of 553 passes (72.3 percent) for 4,275 yards and 36 touchdowns, with 15 interceptions. Browns officials liked everything they saw, except for Couch's unorthodox grip on the ball. When he changed it to their satisfaction during his final workout for team scouts, coaches and executives, they made their decision.
"When we first went down for Tim's first workout, I really came away disappointed with the way Tim threw the ball," Palmer said. "Going into the April 11 workout [the week before the draft], Tim was definitely behind Akili Smith [of Oregon, who ended up being taken by Cincinnati with the draft's third overall pick]. But he came on and threw extremely well. Between the first and second workout, it was like night and day."
Palmer said Clark walked out of that final workout saying, "This is our guy."
In the same draft, the New Orleans Saints went in a different direction, even though they had journeyman Billy Joe Hobert as their starting quarterback. Since Mike Ditka became their coach three years ago, the Saints have been building their offensive line into what is now considered one of the NFL's best. With an average quarterback and mostly mediocre wide receivers, the Saints have been constructed to the run the football.
That's why General Manager Billy Kuharich went along with Ditka's plan to give up all of the team's draft picks in 1999, plus two more in 2000, to move up to the fifth overall spot and take Heisman Trophy-winning running back Ricky Williams of Texas. Few question Williams's ability to gain yards, but some of the NFL's greatest running backs -- including Hall of Famers Gale Sayers, O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson, as well as future inductee Barry Sanders -- never played in a Super Bowl.
The Browns have no illusions about Couch -- or anyone else -- leading them that far this season. But they are trying to create an environment in which Couch and the team can develop in concert. In the expansion draft, they selected 37 players with an average age of 25.6 and an average salary cap figure of $500,000. That left them $39 million to spend on free agents and the college draft.
They focused on building a decent starting offensive line, signing veteran tackles Lomas Brown and Orlando Brown and center Dave Wohlabough to go with the guards they picked in the expansion draft, Jim Pyne and Orlando Bobo. They traded for Ty Detmer, a veteran quarterback who can start until Couch is ready; a good blocking fullback, Marc Edwards; and a quality tight end, Irv Smith. They also signed free agent running back Terry Kirby. All four of those players players came from a winning team -- the 49ers. In addition, they drafted a speedy wide receiver, Kevin Johnson of Syracuse.
On defense, they signed free agent linebacker Jamir Miller (Cardinals), tackles Jerry Ball (Vikings) and John Jurkovic (Jaguars), cornerback Corey Fuller (Vikings), and safety Marquez Pope (49ers). Again, each from a winning team.
Although Palmer and some of his veteran players talk about becoming the first expansion team to make the playoffs in an inaugural season, Policy said it's unreasonable to think the Browns will win more than five to seven games this season. However, he expects them to make a run at the playoffs in 2000 and become a Super Bowl contender within five years, much as the Jacksonville Jaguars have done in their first four seasons, advancing to the AFC championship game in their second season.
"If we're not there in five years," Policy said, "I will personally feel I haven't accomplished a goal that I set for myself before I even knew who the players and coaches and personnel people would be for this team."
Now that the Browns have Couch, they are likely to be even more disappointed if they don't stay on their ambitious schedule.
"He gives you everything he's got every day he's out there," Palmer said. "We're not going to rush him. We'll know when he's ready. But from everything I've seen, he's going to be a productive quarterback in this league for a long time, and a guy who can take this team where we want to go."
12 Pittsburgh, 8:20
19 at Tennessee, 4:15
26 at Baltimore, 1
3 New England, 1
10 Cincinnati, 1
17 at Jacksonville, 1
24 at St. Louis, 1
31 at New Orleans, 1
7 Baltimore, 1
14 at Pittsburgh, 1
21 Carolina, 1
28 Tennessee, 1
5 at San Diego, 4:15
12 at Cincinnati, 1
19 Jacksonville, 1
26 Indianapolis, 1
2 Open date