Since they passed on drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, the Cleveland Browns have looked everywhere but the Home Shopping Network for a reliable quarterback. ¶ They have tried drafting them, signing them in free agency, even trading for them, all with the hope of finding the next Mike Phipps or Bernie Kosar. ¶ The search, though, actually has lasted a lot longer than the 2004 draft. ¶ When their franchise returned to the National Football League in 1999, the Browns used the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to select quarterback Tim Couch, a can't-miss, pass-happy quarterback from the University of Kentucky who, many thought, would revive their fortunes.
Instead of enjoying the same success as the quarterback picked immediately after him (Donovan McNabb), Couch flamed out faster than Joe Charboneau, compiling a 22-37 record in an undistinguished five-year career and triggering a quarterback quandary that has spiraled into a second decade.
Now, 12 years later, the Browns are still enduring the debilitating effect of their failures to find a quarterback.
"It's the most important position on field and it's also the most complex position on the field," said former Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly. "If you keep changing the player there, you keep spinning your wheels and you're starting over, and it's putting your offense in neutral."
When Roethlisberger returns to the field at 1 p.m. today at Heinz Field after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, the Browns will trot out another new starting quarterback -- rookie Colt McCoy -- a move mandated by injuries to the two quarterbacks who were brought in this season to stick their fingers into the franchise's leaky dike, Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace.
"It's challenging because we went into the season with Jake Delhomme as the starter, and then he was hurt the first game, then Seneca came in," said Browns coach Eric Mangini, who has started five different quarterbacks, counting McCoy, in less than two seasons in Cleveland. "Seneca did a great job and did a great job during the preseason. But you do have to do some different things with him than you have to with Jake. Now, with both banged up, you got to adjust to each guy that's in."
Keeping track of all the Browns' quarterbacks is like counting the mistresses in the Tiger Woods scandal -- every time you turn around another one pops up.
Since they returned to the league in 1999 the Browns have had 15 different starting quarterbacks. McCoy, their third-round selection from Texas, will be No. 16.
"We felt like we had really answered that question with Jake starting and playing the first game of the season," Mangini said. "You just don't know with injuries. You got to deal with it and move forward. But we had some experience with it, definitely."
Even more indicative of their futile search: The Browns have had a different starting quarterback in six of the past seven season openers since they passed on Roethlisberger. That includes Jeff Garcia, who was signed in free agency in February 2004. A former Pro Bowl and playoff quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers, he was the reason the Browns did not draft Roethlisberger and instead opted to take tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.
The others: Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn and Delhomme.
Curiously, the only quarterback to last longer than five years is the one who was drafted to play another position -- wide receiver Joshua Cribbs, who was a quarterback at Kent State and is in his sixth season with the Browns.
"Things happen," Cribbs said the other day. "You have to take it in stride and move on. You have to play for whoever the quarterback is. This is the NFL. A guy can be on one team one day and then another team the next. So you have to take things in stride and go out there and learn how to play football without worrying about who is at quarterback or who is the wide receiver or who is this guy. You need to do your job and do it well."
Such is a way of life for the Browns, who go through quarterbacks like diners go through napkins.
"The reason you have so many quarterbacks is usually because you don't have a good one," Casserly said.
In Cleveland, the mistakes are everywhere you look.
It began when the new franchise used its first draft choice on Couch, even though it had no offensive line to protect him and no running back or wide receivers to complement him. Couch started 59 games in five years with the Browns -- more than any other quarterback since their inaugural season -- and led the team to its only playoff appearance since its return, in 2002.
But, after Kelly Holcomb started for the injured Couch and passed for 429 yards and three touchdowns in a near upset in a wild-card game at Heinz Field, Couch started only seven more games the following season and was gone.
Then there was Frye, a third-round choice from Akron who played in the same Mid-American Conference as Roethlisberger and grew up in Willard, Ohio, about 50 miles from Roethlisberger's hometown of Findlay. When the Browns drafted him in 2005, it was almost as if it was some type of psychological salve or professional mea culpa for not taking Roethlisberger one year earlier.
In his third season, Frye was named to start the 2007 season opener against the Steelers, largely because he was the default winner of a training-camp competition with slow-footed Derek Anderson. But, after completing just 4 of 10 passes for 34 yards and throwing an interception in a 34-7 loss to the Steelers, Frye was benched at halftime and traded two days later to the Seattle Seahawks.
It might have been the shortest title ever held since Andre the Giant held the World Wrestling Federation championship for 45 seconds in 1988 (he sold the title to the Million Dollar Man after pinning Hulk Hogan).
The Browns have seen the long-term effects of such inconsistency at quarterback. Heading into this meeting with the Steelers, they are 60-122 since 1999.
Not one of the 15 quarterbacks who preceded McCoy has a winning record. Anderson, who started 34 games between 2007-2009, was the closest (16-18).
"It's devastating," said Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who was the Browns' offensive coordinator during their only playoff season in 2002. "You can have a quality defense but you can't score points, and you can have a quality offensive line and say, OK, we'll run the ball, but you can't score enough points to beat the good ones without a quality quarterback. Playing with a young guy that's going to turn it over and put your team at risk, it's hard to win and it's very, very frustrating."
As the Browns can attest.
No team has had greater quarterback stability than the Green Bay Packers, who have had only two starting quarterbacks since Sept. 20, 1992 -- Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. Favre started 253 consecutive games for the Packers until his first retirement in 2008, and Rodgers has followed the same iron-man path, starting 36 consecutive games since replacing Favre.
That streak, though, could be in jeopardy because Rodgers sustained a concussion last week in a loss to the Washington Redskins and might not play at home today against the Miami Dolphins.
"You can lose guys at other positions," Arians said. "But there's usually not as big a dropoff as there is at that position."
Since 1999, the Steelers have had seven starting quarterbacks -- Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomczak, Kent Graham, Tommy Maddox, Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon and Roethlisberger. But, during that period, three quarterbacks have started 162 of the 180 games -- Roethlisberger (86), Stewart (44) and Maddox (32). And the record in that stretch is 112-67-1.
"There are only so many good quarterbacks in the league, and, when you get to the backup quarterback, they're still a backup quarterback," Casserly said. "Now, when you get to the third quarterback, it's even worse. In Cleveland's case, you're starting a rookie. At least with Pittsburgh, you have an experienced guy with Batch and then you got [Byron] Leftwich."
They do not need a shopping list. Have not since 2004.
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com . First Published October 17, 2010 4:00 AM