This tale of two quarterbacks begins with what the Cleveland Browns' Kelly Holcomb and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Tommy Maddox have in common.
Holcomb hopes to make the same meteoric rise from obscurity in the AFC playoffs that Maddox began early in the regular season against, coincidentally, the Browns. Each will make his first playoff start in Sunday's wild-card game in Pittsburgh.
Each has a career dotted with failure at football's highest level and some experience in its minor pro outposts. Holcomb was with the Barcelona Dragons of the World League in 1995 and Maddox with the New Jersey Red Dogs of the Arena League in 2000 and the Los Angeles Xtreme of the short-lived XFL in 2001.
Each became a starter because of misfortune to someone else, Maddox after Kordell Stewart was ineffective and Holbomb twice this season after Tim Couch was hurt. That last time was the second quarter of Sunday's regular season finale, when Couch broke his leg and Holcomb threw a touchdown pass after two interceptions to give the Browns the lead for good during a 24-16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons that lifted them into the playoffs.
"I think when you have a guy like Kelly off the bench I think you're not going to lose a whole lot," Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said this week. "Because I think in his own way he brings a lot of experience and a lot of leadership to the table."
Holcomb has had a lot of experience, but nothing close to what he would have preferred. He was signed as a free agent out of Middle Tennessee State by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1995 and bounced around the Bucs and the Indianapolis Colts practice squads for several years before signing with the Browns in March 2001.
In four of the six seasons prior to this one, Holcomb did not throw a pass. With the Colts in 1997, he completed 45 of 73 passes for 454 yards and one touchdown. But he was intercepted eight times. Last year for the Browns, his one appearance was a 7-for-12, one-touchdown effort in relief of Couch in the fourth quarter of what ended as a 16-point loss to the Tennessee Titans.
An elbow ligament injury to Couch allowed Holcomb to start the first two games of the season. He played well and would have been 2-0 had linebacker Dwayne Rudd not gotten an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for throwing his helmet in premature celebration. That highlighted a bizarre sequence that ended with a 30-yard field goal on the final play of a 40-39 Kansas City Chiefs victory.
Couch returned, and the Browns were spotty the remainder of the season, winning two of six home games with him as the starter. Holbomb nearly pulled out a home victory over the Baltimore Ravens Oct. 6 in a late relief appearance after Couch was injured, but a rally from a 23-0 deficit ended with his being intercepted at the goal line and the Browns losing by five points.
Holcomb hardly was sensational after replacing Couch Sunday and admitted in the clubhouse of those two interceptions: "Bonehead decisions. You can't put your team in those situations."
Immediately after the game, he was heard paraphrasing the lyrics to a song by one of his favorite entertainers, Eminem: "You only get one shot in life, so you better make the most of it."
His teammates quickly started to rally around Holcomb.
"Kelly is pretty much the same quarterback as Tim," said wide receiver Quincy Morgan. "His accuracy is as good. He can read defenses. He's a little rusty, but I'm sure he'll be more polished" against Pittsburgh.
Holcomb hopes to continue to benefit from rookie running back William Green, whose 64-yard run late in the fourth quarter gave the Browns the eight-point lead they maintained with a goal-line stand in the final minute.
The emergence of Green has been as much of a key as anything in the Browns gaining the playoffs for the first time in their fourth season.
After a slow start, Green averaged 24.6 carries and 103 yards in his final seven games and was judged the Browns' player of the year by writers who cover the team.
"I look at Cleveland as a more confident team now, certainly with what William Green's done since he's been inserted as the back," Cowher said.
Holcomb and Maddox also suffered injuries during the season. Holcomb's was a broken leg. Maddox's was more scary, a spinal cord contusion and concussion after being hit by Tennessee linebacker Keith Bullock on the final play of the third quarter during a 31-13 Steelers loss Nov. 17.
Maddox had no feeling in his extremities while being taken from the field to a local hospital by ambulance, but quickly recovered and missed just two games. His ascendance began where Sunday's game takes place, Heinz Field, during the fourth quarter of the Sept. 29 Cleveland game.
The Steelers had lost their first two games of the season and were trailing the Browns when Cowher brought in Maddox. He zipped the team 77 yards in seven plays to tie the score with a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Plaxico Burress with two minutes left. Pittsburgh won in overtime.
With the Denver Broncos in 1993, Maddox made a brief playoff appearance.
"It's taken 10 years to get here," he told a Pittsburgh reporter, "and I'm going to enjoy it and savor every moment I can."