BEREA - Deciding this Browns quarterback battle between Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb will be a long, slow, tedious process. Things will ebb and flow back and forth for over three weeks.
So the best way to win it? With quickness, according to Couch.
That was the theme of his offseason preparation as he got ready for a training camp that rolled on with two more practices Monday.
"After last season, I did some self-evaluation and I realized there were some areas where I needed some work," Couch said after the morning practice. "I knew that with this quarterback competition, I had to be quicker with everything. I knew I had to speed up everything."
He started with his body. Couch looks like he's trying to get ready to join his former Playboy Playmate of the Year girlfriend, Heather Kozar, as one of the couples to be photographed together in next year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
Couch is buffed. Really. He worked out like a fiend in the offseason, and it shows.
The slight stomach he had last year as he beefed up to take the physical pounding better is gone. He's down to a very slim-, yet muscular-looking 220 pounds.
Couch's body fat content is a scant 9 percent, down from as much as 14 percent the last couple of years.
"When I played at about 225 to 230 last
year, I just felt like I was too heavy," Couch said. "I knew I needed to lose a little weight. Now, I'm lighter than I was a year ago and as a result I'm also quicker. But with the weight work with the dumbbells, I'm stronger, too.
"I feel like I've added another dimension to my game with the quickness. Now when it's third and 7 or third and 8, I can take off and run for the first down. It just gives the defense another thing to worry about."
Couch admits, "I'm never going to be Michael Vick or anything like that," but in the short time that camp has been conducted thus far, he has been much more willing to tuck the ball under his arm and take off when a pass play breaks down.
He looks a lot more like the guy who, as a rookie in 1999, was really the team's most reliable rusher with 40 carries for 267 yards (6.7), including a 40-yarder.
That rushing average - and length of the long-gainer - have gradually dropped the last three years, to 3.8 and 31, respectively in 2000, 3.4 and 15 in 2001 and 3.3 and 14 last year.
And Couch has not had a rushing TD since 1999. In fact, more than half of his 519 career rushing yards were gained in that rookie season.
But there was more to Couch's offseason personal improvement plan than just his body makeup.
"I also wanted to get quicker in the pocket with my reads and my release," he said. "I watched tape in the offseason of guys like (Dan) Marino who had real quick releases to see if I could pick up anything. I also worked with Carl Smith (Browns quarterbacks coach).
"The reads and release are important, because just a fraction of a second can make the difference between the ball getting in there or not getting in there.
"I'm doing better with those things now. Hopefully, I'll be even quicker by the time the season starts."
If Couch can continue to make strides in those two areas, then it would greatly increase his chances to win the starting job.
Couch has tended at times in the past to hold onto the ball too long, a problem that comes from not making quick enough reads and not getting rid of the ball quickly enough.
The fact he is in his third year with this offense and coordinator, Bruce Arians, has enabled Couch to just about master the scheme.
"Now when I come to the line of scrimmage with a play, I know pretty much what to expect - what the defense will do and who will be open," Couch said. "The first year with this offense, I'd come up to the line with a play I had never run before. So I wasn't sure what was going to happen."
Part of the problem, especially last season, was that Couch was experiencing pain in his arm. Not immense pain, mind you, but enough to keep him from having quite as much zip on the ball.
It came to a head in the next-to-last preseason game in 2002 when he tore scar tissue in his throwing elbow and incurred tendinitis, causing him to miss three weeks of action.
But all that is behind him now.
"This is the best my arm has felt in a long time," Couch said. "My arm feels good. I feel a lot better. I have a lot more confidence in my arm now."
In fact, Couch seems much more confident about everything, on and off the field, that has anything to do with the game. He has thrown the ball extremely well to this point. His passes are accurate. They are arriving quickly, and at the right time, when the receivers are open.
But don't read too much into that. As Couch and Holcomb both know, there can be no rush to judgment in this process.