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Without contract agreement, deal won't be struck

Nearly three weeks into their pursuit of Tim Couch, the Green Bay Packers are not significantly closer to acquiring the former Cleveland Browns starting quarterback in a trade, and there are indications now that a deal might not be struck at all.

Sources close to the talks told ESPN.com that, while the two teams have narrowed the gap in their differences on trade terms, the Packers and Couch remain dramatically apart in contract talks. Any team that acquires Couch will have to rework his contract, since his current deal has two years remaining on it, at base salaries of $7.6 million for 2004 and $8 million for 2005.

Reached late Friday, agent Tom Condon would only admit generically that discussions with Packers negotiator Andrew Brandt are continuing. Brandt, in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, termed the negotiations "challenging."

The two sides remain separated on two fronts, the length of the contract and economics of a deal, and progress has been barely incremental. Green Bay wants to compensate Couch with a deal commensurate to those of other backup quarterbacks but he wants not only a higher base salary than that but also bonus considerations. Sources said the Packers want a deal of at least two years in length, while Couch is looking at a one-year contract.

Those who know Couch well, and understand his fierce competitiveness, acknowledge it will be difficult for him to play caddy to starter Brett Favre for even one season, let alone possibly sitting idle for two years. Favre has offered no indication of retirement plans and the consensus is that the 13-year veteran will play at least two more seasons.

For Couch, 26, the Green Bay scenario appears to be his best option, but sources said that he might opt to wait until after the draft, when teams' needs at quarterback could change. The Packers, who at some point must address the need to begin developing an eventual successor to Favre, would like to have the Couch matter resolved prior to the draft.

It is believed the Browns are seeking a second-round pick for Couch, the Packers have offered a fifth-rounder, and the teams would settle for something in between.

Couch visited with Packers officials in Green Bay on April 6-7. Less than two weeks earlier, he dined with coach Mike Sherman in Cleveland, only hours after the Packers had received official permission from Browns officials to meet with the five-year veteran.

Couch's five-year tenure in Cleveland essentially ended last month, when the club signed former San Francisco starter Jeff Garcia to a four-year, $25 million contract. Since then, the market for Couch has been slow, since many teams that might have an interest in him will wait to see if Cleveland simply releases him. That way, they could sign Couch as a free agent, without having to compensate the Browns in a trade.

Since he remains under contract, Couch attempted to participate in the Browns' offseason conditioning program, but club officials requested he not use the complex. The feeling was that, if Couch was injured during a conditioning session, Cleveland could be liable for the final two seasons of his contract and his trade value would be diminished.

The first overall pick in the '99 draft, Couch carries a salary cap charge of $9.26 million for 2004 and is due a base salary of $7.6 million. His base salary for 2005 is $8 million and his cap charge is $9.663 million. Before signing Garcia, the Browns had attempted to reduce Couch's compensation to about $6.5 million total for 2004-2005. Couch refused to accept such a dramatic restructuring and then, after the addition of Garcia, he rebuffed overtures to stay in Cleveland as the backup.

In 62 appearances, 59 of them starts, Couch has completed 1,025 of 1,714 attempts, for 11,131 yards, with 64 touchdown passes, 67 interceptions and a passer rating of 75.1.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.