(May 28, 2003) -- Most of what an NFL coach gleans from offseason workouts isn't obvious to the untrained eye.
With no pads or contact, players are pretty much limited to showing basic athletic skills as well as their grasp of the offensive or defensive strategy they are force-fed before taking the field. Once you get past the fundamentals of whether a quarterback can take a snap and throw, a receiver can run a route and catch, and a running back can take a handoff and run with a ball, the rest is assessing finer points. It is studying footwork, handwork, instincts and body control. It is envisioning how each play will be executed under the stress of competition and knowledge that the 240-pound linebacker applying a gentle, two-handed tap in May will deliver a far more forceful blow in July.
Coaching opinions formed this time of year count, but can -- and often do -- change based on what players show when the hitting starts in training camp and in preseason games and there are more tangible means of measurement.
Tim Couch may be the team's former No. 1 pick ...
Unless, of course, you happen to be Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis and intend to decide whether Tim Couch or Kelly Holcomb will be your starting quarterback by the time training camp opens.
Under such circumstances, there is no diminishing the significance of the offseason workouts the Browns are conducting this week, or the ones they have held in the previous two weeks. Couch and Holcomb aren't merely looking to sharpen their skills in what Davis calls a "quarterback school." They are making their respective cases to lead a team that should have plenty to say about the outcome of the AFC North.
Are these ideal conditions to settle perhaps the most crucial decision concerning the Browns this year?
Not really. Even though quarterbacks aren't subjected to contact in training camp, the tempo and sense of urgency in those workouts create a more demanding atmosphere than they encounter in the offseason. It stands to reason that their performance probably would be a bit more revealing, and that their play in preseason games, when the "hands-off" rule no longer applies, would render the most meaningful information of all.
But Davis doesn't want to wait. He believes it is vital to establish the starter's identity well before the Browns open camp on July 24. This way, he can avoid -- or at least try to avoid -- the distraction of a quarterback controversy. He wants the rest of the team to have no doubt about the man he has chosen to be at the controls of the offense. He wants cohesion and chemistry to begin forming from the very first offensive huddle of the summer.
The fact that Couch and Holcomb have been starters for the Browns does offer a solid foundation of assessment that compensates for some of the benefits lost from not extending this contest into the preseason. But obviously it isn't enough because Davis has had Couch and Holcomb evenly splitting time in "quarterback school." Holcomb recently told a reporter covering the Browns that "it's right down the middle. One day (Couch is) taking the snaps with the first team, the next day I am." That gives Browns offensive coordinator Bruce Arians the ability to grade the quality of each quarterback's mechanics and decision-making on an equal basis.
Of course, there would be no decision to make if Couch, the top overall pick of the 1999 draft who seemed to be finally coming into his own near the end of last season, hadn't suffered a broken leg late last year. That opened the door for Holcomb, who has yet to nail down a No. 1 job in seven seasons, to make three impressive appearances as the starter. When he threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns in a 36-33 overtime playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Couch's first-string status suddenly was in doubt.
This is a tricky call for Davis. Although the selection of Couch was made before he became coach, he still must deal with the fact that the Browns have an enormous financial investment in the former Kentucky star. At the same time, he cannot ignore the fact that Holcomb, despite being on his third team since entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 1995, gave his team a tremendous lift and responded to the challenge of starting a road playoff game with the performance of his life.
"I think we're one of the few teams in the league that's very fortunate to have two guys that our team believes in and can win games with," Davis said earlier in the offseason.
... but Kelly Holcomb played like a No. 1 pick in the playoffs.
Still, only one can start. In arriving at that decision, Davis must confront the following dilemma: Does he give up on Couch, knowing the Browns weren't the only team that viewed him as the top-rated player in the '99 draft and that there is a better-than-even chance he will one day consistently perform at that level, in favor of a quarterback who has been cut five times and could very well be a one-game sensation?
Davis no doubt will consider that some of the best quarterbacking in recent seasons has come from players previously overlooked by the NFL (Kurt Warner and Jeff Garcia), players whose careers have been yanked back from oblivion (Tommy Maddox), and players who have bounced around before finding a great fit (Brad Johnson and Rich Gannon). He no doubt will consider that developing a high-round, or any, draft pick into a great quarterback isn't necessarily a proven path for success; 19 of the 32 starting quarterbacks at the end of last season weren't drafted by their team.
But the bulk of what Davis uses to pick his starter will likely come from uncharacteristically intense offseason workouts. The "quarterback school" portion of the competition runs through May 30, pauses for three days, then resumes on June 3 for another four days. After that comes a June 10-12 minicamp, followed by a much-anticipated decision.
I do not know if this was posted anywhere else but it looks like the wait is almost over.