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QB regaining arm strength, confidence

MIAMI -- Only six days removed from Lasik surgery and already Tim Couch's eyesight is restored to nearly 20/20.

Unfortunately, even the most powerful laser beam can't remedy every malady, as his vision of the future remains just about as murky as it was before a local specialist zapped his peepers last week.

"Sure, it's a little nerve-racking, to say the least," said Couch, the former Cleveland Browns starter, sitting in the lobby of the Downtown Athletic Club, where he has been rehabilitating from shoulder surgery in February. "It's never comfortable when you're not as in control of your fate as you're accustomed to being. It's not the easiest thing being so uncertain about how this will all work out."

The top overall selection in the 1999 NFL draft, Couch has not thrown a pass in a regular-season game since Dec. 28, 2003, against the Cincinnati Bengals. With training camps set to open in some NFL precincts this weekend, he is without a contract, and probably two to four more weeks away from being sufficiently recovered to audition for any potential suitors. In the past 11 months, Couch has been released by two franchises, and undergone extensive surgery to repair tears to his right rotator cuff, labrum and biceps.

Make no mistake, though, about this: Couch's eyesight isn't the only thing that has been refocused. And if his throwing session Wednesday afternoon was any indication, there should be at least a few teams interested when he is ready to cut loose sometime next month.

Because at just 27 years of age, and with more starts (59) on his résumé than exactly half of the 32 NFL quarterbacks who will go to camp at the top of their teams' depth charts, Couch might be able to open a personnel director's eyes before the regular season commences.

"He's young, he had a great surgeon, he's got a great body, and has been pretty [diligent] in his rehabilitation," said Lisa Kearns, a physical therapist and exercise physiologist for SportFit Rehab and Training. Kearns has presided over Couch's recovery since two weeks after his surgery and is also prepping cornerback Ty Law for his imminent workouts for teams.

"I would think that, with the way he's going, it's just a matter of a few more weeks until he's far enough along to demonstrate that he can play in the league," Kearns said. "I mean, he really has been problem-free."

Most important to Couch, whose career in Cleveland stalled at times because of the club's ineptitude and a spate of injuries, he is pain free. And given where his arm was only a year ago, when he was in training camp with the Green Bay Packers following his release by the Browns, being pain free is a leap of gigantic, and welcomed, proportions.

There was a point in camp last summer, Couch said, when his shoulder was so weak and the pain knifing through his right arm so intense, that he could not summon up the strength to yank the bed sheets off in the morning. In a workout for the Chicago Bears, who were interested in adding Couch to the roster about a month after the Packers cut him loose, he could barely pick up the ball for the second day of what was scheduled to be back-to-back throwing sessions for club officials. Longtime pal and former high school teammate Rick Hensley, who shags passes for Couch during his thrice-weekly throwing sessions, told of a time last year when the ex-Kentucky quarterback climbed into his truck, but couldn't grab the steering wheel because his arm was shaking so profoundly.

And now, four months into his rehabilitation, and after throwing for four weeks? There's the occasional twinge in his right shoulder, but there isn't enough discomfort for Couch to even pop an aspirin for relief.

"He gets better every time we're out there," Hensley said. "His velocity is better every time he throws. [The passes are] coming in harder and harder. You watch."

And so we did.

After some warm-ups, stretching and manipulation of his shoulder by Kearns, one of the country's top trainers, Couch opted to advance to step 9 of a 14-level throwing program prescribed by Dr. James Andrews, the renowned Birmingham, Ala., based orthopedic surgeon who repaired his shoulder. While he will not have to progress through all 14 stages before he is ready to work out for teams, step 9 was significant for Couch, since it included throws of 50 yards, longer than he has attempted in nearly a year.

And so, in the sweltering heat and humidity, and in a lush stretch of greenery known as Bayfront Park, an urban oasis nestled between downtown hotels and office buildings, Couch took the next step toward trying to salvage his career.

It was not, to be sure, the same as being center stage in Cleveland Browns Stadium. The spectators consisted largely of curious, horse-mounted police, their numbers swelled by a bomb threat two days earlier. There were a few stragglers, two guys cleaning up debris from the park, and the occasional jogger. Perhaps the most focused onlooker was the huge, bronze statue of former U.S. Sen.Claude Pepper, a silent sentry, thumbs tucked into his vest pockets, sporting spectacles larger than anything Larry King has ever worn.

The unusual setting aside, every throw that Couch made during the 30-minute session Wednesday afternoon was probably just as important as the 1,714 attempts that he has registered in his 62 regular-season appearances. Perhaps even more so.

The mandatory throws in step 9 of the four-set program: 20 passes of 25-25 yards; 20 of 40-50 yards; 20 throws of 20 yards, on a line; 20 more of 10-15 yards, on a line. Each set was followed by a short break. Counting his warm-up lobs, and the throws he sneaked in during the break period between sets, Couch registered just more than 100 passes.

The routine gained a certain rhythm. Five-step drop, throw to Hensley, occasional feedback from Kearns, who is trying to hone Couch's mechanics, repeat process. Because she was videotaping the session, Kearns could show Couch the digital documentation of his efforts during the brief break periods.

Because the deterioration to Couch's shoulder was not the result of a single, traumatic event -- a one-time hit, say, by a blitzing linebacker that tore the joint asunder -- but rather a gradual erosion caused by the grind of thousands of passes, Kearns is a stickler for fine-tuned mechanics. She reminds Couch not to allow his head to get out in front of the rest of his body, to not have his hips fly open and create strain on the shoulder, and to generate power with his lower body. Couch nods, proceeds back to the concrete path that dissects the park and serves as his cement field of dreams, and makes the adjustments.

For now, Couch is more interested in just throwing again, regaining velocity and strength, than he is concerned with touch and accuracy. But it was not, rest assured, as if Hensley was chasing errant passes all over the park.

"Those other things," acknowledged Couch, "will come. I'm just working more now on getting comfortable throwing again. I mean, I hadn't picked up a football in a long, long time, you know. Even for someone who has been doing this basically all his life, it did seem a little strange at first, definitely."

The verdict from this set of eyes: It will be surprising if Couch is not ready to work out sometime in the next month. And just as surprising, maybe, if he is not on an NFL roster at some juncture of the 2005 season. Granted, these eyes were made more for hunting and pecking on a keyboard than assessing NFL skill sets. However, they've seen enough passes to judge most of the components that accompany the art of throwing a football and Couch's arm strength certainly is close to being NFL-caliber again.

And after a few more weeks of working out, Couch should be ready for his comeback, both physically and mentally. That last part is key, too, since Couch has had to overcome the kind of self-doubt that characteristically creeps into the psyche of any athlete whose body malfunctions.

"I'm pretty close [mentally]," said Couch, as he prepared for his standard weight-lifting routine. "It's almost there. When I first picked up a football again, were there some doubts like, 'Man, is my arm going to fall off when I throw this thing?' Sure, there were, and you find yourself holding back some because of that. But I've thrown enough now, and had no pain or swelling, that I've just about got the confidence back in my arm. It feels good. So now, it's just a matter of continuing what I'm doing, and then getting in front of some [scouts] and hoping that I can create some confidence for them, too."

Next week, Couch will move to the practice fields at the University of Miami, a more suitable venue, and one with grass. He will don cleats and be able to plant and throw from a grass surface, rather than a concrete path in a park, and that should catapult him, Kearns said, to a higher level. Not too long after that, Couch should be ready to throw for league scouts.

This is not, it should be noted, a comeback quest fueled by finances. Couch earned more than $33 million in bonuses and salaries with the Browns, picked up $625,000 from the Packers as a signing bonus last summer, and has banked approximately $5 million more in endorsements and other off-field activities. There are no money concerns for Couch or his wife, Heather, or the couple's first child, a son, who is due next month.

Instead, it's about Couch's getting back to doing what he has done for so many years, competing at the highest level available to him. An athlete so well-rounded that he is the first prep player in Kentucky history to have earned the prestigious "Mr. Football" and "Mr. Basketball" titles in the same year, and named the USA Today football player of the year following his senior season at Leslie County High School in Hyden, Ky., Couch is certainly still young enough to eventually emerge as an NFL star.

League history is filled with tales of late-blooming quarterbacks, of players at the most critical position who did not become starters until later in their careers, or didn't emerge as stars until they fit into the right situation. Both blessed and cursed by having been the top pick in the '99 draft, Couch, who took a tremendous physical beating during his tenure with the Browns, is prepared to start rebuilding his career at the very bottom of a team's depth chart, if that's what it takes.

There were five quarterbacks chosen among the first dozen selections of the celebrated 1999 draft and, given Couch's current status, three of them are out of the league. After watching Couch throw and seeing the determination with which he is approaching his rehabilitation, it is difficult to believe he belongs among the ranks of Cade McNown and Akili Smith. Neither might Couch ever rise to the heights scaled by Donovan McNabb or Daunte Culpepper, the high-profile survivors of the lauded Class of '99 quarterback pool. But unless his rehab suffers some unexpected setback, he should be back in the league sometime this season, even as a No. 3 quarterback.

To his credit, Couch conceded, though, he has considered the alternative.

"Oh, sure, I've thought about the 'what if' side of this, the possibility that all this work still won't get me back [in the league]," Couch said. "But I'm optimistic that won't be the case. Look, I'm not doing this to try to prove somebody wrong. This isn't about me being able to say, 'See, I told you so.' It's just about playing football again, that's all, because that's what I do. Is there a life after football? Yeah, definitely, there is. And if I have to deal with that, well, I know there will be opportunities for me to be successful at whatever it is I'm doing. But I'm a long way from that yet."

And, based on Wednesday's workout, maybe a short way from being able to hold off the life-after-football thoughts for a few more years.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.