Couch and Green are among the keys as the Browns approach training camp
The bottom line in the NFL? It comes down to individuals performing well. At least once in the 2003 season, it is safe to say, Butch Davis and the 31 other coaches in the NFL will describe failure by saying, "Ten guys are doing the right thing and one isn't where he's supposed to be. The problem is, it's a different player breaking down on different plays." Starting today and every Tuesday through the balance of training camp and the preseason, The News-Herald will focus on one key player from each segment of the Browns. Today, a look at the player at his position who is being scrutinized more than any other: QUARTERBACK Tim Couch Everyone has an opinion about who should start at quarterback for the Browns. Most fans - at least the vocal ones - seem convinced now the Browns made a mistake using the first pick in the 1999 draft on Couch. The Browns, though, were not the only team convinced Couch had star quality. Were all those other teams wrong, too, or is Couch being unfairly condemned because he was with a rotten team for two years and didn't have a running game worth spit until the final seven games of 2002? We're about to find out. There can be no more excuses, no more coddling Couch by the coaches. He is under tremendous pressure from fans. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said Kelly Holcomb will have to "knock out Couch" to win the starting job. Public perception, though, is Couch will have to knock out Holcomb. Couch will have the best season of his career and the Browns will have their best season since returning to the NFL in 1999 if he rises to the challenge. RUNNING BACK William Green Green rushed for 726 yards the last seven games of the regular season, yet he can still be stopped if a defense puts its mind to the task, as the Steelers proved in their playoff win over the Browns in January. Green was a no-show early in the offseason program. He had legitimate personal reasons for not being in Berea, though, and he was trim and fast during minicamp last month. He has chosen Westlake as his permanent home rather than living in New Jersey in the offseason, and that's a good sign. Yes, Green improved as a runner the second half of the season, but he still must improve as a receiver to be a complete player, and he can get better as a blocker. These are things he will continue to work on in training camp. It would be a surprise if Green has a sophomore jinx. Running backs coach Todd McNair got to Green at midseason last year and won't let him coast in 2003. WIDE RECEIVER Dennis Northcutt Northcutt went from no touchdowns his first two seasons to eight last season. Now he is in his contract year and does not apologize for wanting another big season. Northcutt doesn't have anything to prove in training camp. The key for him is staying healthy for 16 games. He is strong enough, but his slender build makes him susceptible to injuries. The Browns were 5-2 after the bye week last season. Northcutt missed most of one of those losses (Carolina) and also the Indianapolis game with a knee injury. Receiver is the deepest position on the roster, yet that could change quickly if Northcutt doesn't duplicate 2002. TIGHT END Darnell Sanders Mark Campbell was the Browns' leading receiver among tight ends last season and he was shipped to Buffalo for a conditional draft choice. Davis is counting heavily on Sanders, who is in his second season out of Ohio State. Sanders did not do much last season to merit all the optimism, catching just three passes and playing only 11 of 17 games. According to the coaches, though, he worked very hard in the offseason program. He is a big target at 6-foot-6 and 267 pounds for whoever plays quarterback. The time in the offseason program should have been enough for Sanders to digest the offense. OFFENSIVE LINE Ross Verba Davis did not praise Verba last season as often as he did in 2001, and according to two sources, that was no oversight. Verba is not fighting to hold on to his starting job, as teams are fortunate to have one good starting left tackle. But if the Browns are to become the dominant running team they hope to be, Verba must become more forceful. To that end, he got bigger and stronger in the offseason program. Plus, strength coach Buddy Morris used explosion drills to make Verba and other players quicker. As the left tackle, Verba protects the quarterback's blind side. DEFENSIVE LINE Gerard Warren Warren said all the right things last month when he confessed his carousing "three or four nights a week" has to stop. Now he has to show a difference on the field. Unlike Couch, who has the crutch of an inferior supporting cast for his early failure, good players have surrounded Warren on the defensive line. Defensive tackle is not a glamour position, but a dominant one can change a game. Warren played that way the last seven games of 2001, but not last season. In March, Butch Davis said Warren is the key to improving the run defense. If he is slow, the blockers will brush by him and take out the linebackers. Too many times last season, Orpheus Roye was double-teamed and Warren was blocked one-on-one. The first clue as to whether Warren is serious about his new dedication will be his weight when veterans report Thursday. Sometimes, linemen carry a little extra weight at the start of training camp because they sweat it off in two-a-days, but last season Warren reported about 20 pounds heavy, and that was too much. LINEBACKERS Kevin Bentley Bentley was an effervescent rookie last season. A graduate of Northwestern, he had no problem learning his duties as weakside linebacker. He leveled off in October, but was still close to taking Dwayne Rudd's job before Bentley's hand was broken and his elbow injured against the Steelers on Nov. 3. Linebacker is the mystery segment of the team, if not the weakest segment. Defensive coordinator Dave Campo will have an easier time finding three starters if Bentley plays the same way he did last summer. There is no reason he shouldn't, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with Bentley's dedication or desire. That means it comes down to his physical ability. If Bentley proves he should start at weakside linebacker, Campo can select from Andra Davis, Ben Taylor and Barry Gardner to fill the other two positions. SECONDARY Anthony Henry Henry is the left cornerback until someone takes the job from him. Left cornerbacks have nowhere to hide in man-to-man coverage. Henry intercepted 10 passes as a rookie, mostly as the nickelback, but sometimes interceptions can be deceiving - a quarterback isn't going to test a corner he can't beat. Henry does not want his nickname changed from "Hank" to "Toast." Henry intentionally reported to training camp about 10 pounds heavy last summer, figuring he would get more work and the extra weight would help. As it turns out, the weight made him slower. He tried to lose the pounds, and that did not work out. Lewis Sanders will press Henry and could end up with the job. SPECIAL TEAMS Chris Gardocki Gardocki has punted about a million times in the NFL and never had a punt blocked (actually, 906 times in 12 years), but he showed signs of a tired leg last season. His average of 41.8 yards per punt was his lowest in his four seasons with the Browns, although that doesn't mean everything. He also landed 27 punts inside the 20, his most since 28 in 1993 while with the Bears. This is the final year of Gardocki's contract. He should be watched closely in preseason, because Tampa Bay has two punters, veteran Tom Tupa and rookie Andy Groom from Ohio State. One of them won't make it to September.