Couch's fractured thumb another tough break for Browns

Friday, October 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEREA, Ohio (AP) _ Tim Couch's broken right thumb will take at least six weeks to heal. It may be too late for the Cleveland Browns' season to get any better.

Couch, the team's $48 million quarterback and franchise player, fractured a bone at the base of his thumb on the final play of practice Thursday when he bashed it against a linebacker's hand while making a throw.

Couch will miss a minimum of six games and is likely out for the year.

``The last play in practice,'' a dejected Browns coach Chris Palmer repeated softly when informing reporters of Couch's devastating injury.

This was a sack the Browns couldn't do anything to stop, and a loss they couldn't afford to take.

A Browns spokesman said Friday that Couch's surgery would not take place until next week.

With team owner Al Lerner and Browns president Carmen Policy watching from the sideline, Couch was following through on a 25-yard fade pass to Dennis Northcutt in the end zone when his hand banged into the hand of linebacker Ryan Taylor.

``It was a freak deal,'' said backup quarterback Doug Pederson, who will replace Couch in the starting lineup. ``I broke my thumb the same way in college. It's just a freak accident.''

If the injury was to any other Browns player, it wouldn't be nearly as devastating to the Browns, who have already lost three other offensive starters to season-ending injuries.

Couch was the first player selected by the Browns when they returned to the NFL as an expansion team last season, and he was the best thing about the club as it staggered through a dismal 2-14 year.

Losing Couch only presents more problems and stunts the Browns' growth as a young team.

Palmer's drawn expression and ashen face were telling signs of the impact of Couch's loss.

``It's a test,'' Palmer said. ``They want to see how much I can take.''

Palmer said Couch, who already has a metal screw in his thumb from a high school injury, would need either a screw or pin surgically inserted.

The Browns don't have a bye until Week 17, and because Couch will need time to rehabilitate, it's highly doubtful the team would dress him for another game this season.

After X-rays taken at the Cleveland Clinic revealed the fracture, Couch returned to the Browns' training facility. An hour later, a team official pulled a Hummer vehicle up to the back door to take Couch home.

``I'm all right,'' said Couch, whose hand was bandaged.

With Couch sidelined indefinitely, Pederson will start Sunday's game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Pederson was signed on Sept. 1, after backup Ty Detmer was lost for the year with a ruptured Achilles' tendon.

``Here's another opportunity for a player to step up with another player's misfortune,'' Palmer said. ``We just have to close ranks and march on.''

Pederson, 31, started nine games for the Philadelphia Eagles last season, completing 119 of 227 passes for 1,276 yards and seven TDs. He appeared briefly against Baltimore earlier this season when Couch went out with a knee injury and completed his only pass for four yards.

``I'm sure we'll do some things differently,'' Pederson said. ``But we have to stay within the realm of the gameplan. We're not going to change the whole gameplan just because the new guy is playing.''

Some of the Browns players didn't seem to notice Couch had been hurt as practiced ended.

A few of the players had dropped to a knee to huddle around Palmer for their post-practice talk as Couch was still being examined by head trainer Jim Colello and two assistants.

Couch shook his hand several times before heading to the locker room. His hand appeared to be red and swollen and he winced in pain as he went through the doors of the Browns' training facility.

Taylor, who was only activated from the practice squad last week, rushed and and raised his arm trying to block Couch's pass when he the injury happened.

``It wasn't a dirty play,'' Palmer said. ``There was no malice. It was an unfortunate play in practice.''

Couch went 137-of-215 for 1,483 yards and seven touchdowns this season. But he's thrown just two TDs with eight interceptions during Cleveland's current four-game losing streak.

Couch was the first QB taken in a draft class which included Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper, Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, Cincinnati's Akili Smith and Chicago's Cade McNown _ all current NFL starters.

He led all rookie quarterbacks in completions, attempts, yards and TDs in 1999 despite missing the final game last season with a knee injury.

Couch is the Browns' fourth offensive starter to go down to a season-ending injury. Already the youngest team in the league and lacking depth everywhere, the Browns had lost running back Errict Rhett (foot), wide receiver JaJuan Dawson (collarbone) and guard Jim Pyne (knee) for the rest of the year.