December 8, 2011

2002: Couch-to-Morgan Pass on Last Play Pulls Browns Past Jaguars

The Cleveland Browns were 6-6 and had suffered a tough loss the previous week as they faced the Jacksonville Jaguars on December 8, 2002 at ALLTEL Stadium. Under Head Coach Butch Davis, the re-formed Browns had improved to 7-9 in ’01 after being a dismal 5-27 under Chris Palmer in 1999 and 2000. QB Tim Couch (pictured at right), the first overall draft pick in ’99, had been frustratingly inconsistent, capable of big games and making big plays, but following up with poor performances; he had also been battling injuries during the course of the season. After a slow start, rookie RB William Green, another first draft choice, was beginning to have an impact and there were good wide receivers in Kevin Johnson, Quincy Morgan, Dennis Northcutt, and Andre’ Davis. However, the defense was suspect against both the run and pass.

While Head Coach Tom Coughlin’s Jaguars had a lesser record at 5-7, they had started off at 3-1 and lost each of their previous two contests by two points apiece. RB Fred Taylor was healthy and playing well, although QB Mark Brunell, at age 32, appeared to be on the downside of a good career. Moreover, Jacksonville had beaten the Browns in seven of their previous eight meetings (they had been in the same division prior to the 2002 reorganization).

The first half was low-scoring. The Browns took the opening kickoff and drove to the Jacksonville 25 yard line, but Phil Dawson’s 42-yard field goal attempt was no good. Following a short possession by the Jaguars, Couch threw a pass that was intercepted by FS Marlon McCree, giving Jacksonville the ball near midfield. Brunell completed four passes, including one for a four-yard touchdown to TE Kyle Brady, and the Jaguars were ahead by 7-0.

It looked as though Cleveland had evened the score quickly when Andre’ Davis returned the ensuing kickoff 91 yards for an apparent TD, but it was called back due to a holding penalty. The contest then settled into a defensive battle during the remainder of the first half. With 3:20 remaining in the second quarter, the Browns launched a promising drive that was highlighted by Couch’s 12-yard carry and a 20-yard run by RB Jamel White to the Jacksonville 19. However, they again came up empty when a 36-yard field goal attempt was blocked. The Jaguars maintained their one-TD lead at the intermission.

The home team had a three-and-out series to start the third quarter. Cleveland took over deep in its own territory at the 10 yard line, but back-to-back passes by Couch of 22 yards to Kevin Johnson and 26 to TE Mark Campbell moved the ball into Jacksonville territory. Green carried four straight times for a total of 30 yards and the impressive ten-play, 90-yard drive ended with the first-year running back going three yards up the middle for a touchdown.

The score didn’t stay tied for long. The Jaguars had the ball for five plays on their ensuing possession with Fred Taylor taking off down the center of the field for a 44-yard TD. The offensive flurry continued on Cleveland’s next series. Following two runs by Green, Couch threw to Quincy Morgan on a 60-yard scoring play and the teams entered the fourth quarter even at 14-14.

Once more the game settled into a defensive struggle with punts being traded back and forth. The Jaguars were winning the battle for field position, and a poor 28-yard kick by Cleveland’s Chris Gardocki gave them possession at the Browns’ 43 with just over five minutes to play. They made the most of it, going 28 yards in six plays with Danny Boyd booting a 33-yard field goal to once again put Jacksonville in the lead at 17-14.

That lead looked more secure when Couch was intercepted by LB Akin Ayodele, who returned the pickoff 22 yards to give the Jaguars the ball at the Cleveland 24. Jacksonville kept the ball on the ground while the Browns used up their timeouts, with Taylor carrying four times to get to the three yard line. Coach Coughlin elected to take the easy field goal, Boyd booted the 22-yard chip-shot, and with under a minute to play, the Jaguars seemed well in control with a six-point lead.

Following a poor squib kickoff by Boyd, a kicker appearing in his first NFL game, the Browns had the ball at their 47. Couch was immediately sacked for a five-yard loss and gained eight yards to midfield with a pass to White. With the clock ticking down to zero, Couch dropped back and fired a long, high pass toward Morgan in the end zone. The wide receiver was covered closely by CB Fernando Bryant, who was three inches shorter. Both leaped and fell to the ground, with Morgan holding the ball against his body for an incredible touchdown (pictured below).

The side judge signaled touchdown, but the play was reviewed to make sure the ball had not hit the turf (Tom Coughlin was certain it had). After a long 90 seconds, the TD was upheld, Dawson kicked the all-important extra point, and the stunned crowd began filing out of the stadium as the Browns came away with a 21-20 win. It was the 16th time in two years that Cleveland had been involved in a game decided in the final seconds.

The Browns outgained Jacksonville (417 yards to 211) and had more first downs (21 to 13). While both teams had healthy rushing totals (Cleveland 173, Jaguars 157), Jacksonville gained just 54 net passing yards. Each team had three sacks, but the Browns turned the ball over twice (nearly fatal the second time) while Jacksonville suffered none. Cleveland was also penalized 10 times, to five flags thrown on the Jaguars.

Tim Couch completed 21 of 35 passes for 264 yards with two touchdowns as well as two intercepted. William Green had a fine performance with 119 yards on 26 carries that included a TD. Quincy Morgan gained 118 yards on his three pass receptions with two touchdowns, including the deciding one. TE Steve Heiden led the team with 5 catches, although for just 21 yards.

For Jacksonville, Fred Taylor had an outstanding rushing performance with 145 yards and the long TD on 23 carries. Mark Brunell went to the air 14 times with 10 completions for 73 yards and a touchdown. Kyle Brady had three receptions for 16 yards and a score and WR Jimmy Smith led the club with just 23 yards on his two catches.

The two coaches succinctly summed up the improbable ending:

“I thought I had seen everything I could in football,” said Cleveland’s Davis. “I guess I hadn't.”

“Comments are beyond me right now,” said Tom Coughlin.

The final result had repercussions for both teams. Cleveland went on to finish second in the AFC North with a 9-7 record and just qualified for a wild card spot in the playoffs. They lost to Pittsburgh in the first round by a 36-33 score. By that point, backup QB Kelly Holcomb was behind center – less talented than Couch, he had become a fan favorite and took over when the starter went down with a broken leg. Meanwhile, the Jaguars ended up third in the AFC South with a dismal 6-10 record, costing Coach Coughlin his job.

In fourteen games, Tim Couch threw for 2842 yards and 18 touchdowns, and the team had a winning record, but he only placed among the league’s top 10 passers in one category – his 18 interceptions ranked fourth. He lasted just one more year in the NFL. Quincy Morgan led the NFL by averaging 17.2 yards-per-reception as he achieved career highs with 56 catches for 964 yards and seven TDs. His performance dropped off badly in ’03 and he was dealt to Dallas during the 2004 season, bouncing among three teams and catching just nine passes in his last two years.