Of Johnny U. and long-shot QBs

9-12-02, 4:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The passing of Johnny Unitas in Baltimore and the emergence of Kelly Holcomb in Cleveland is as good as time as any to be reminded that NFL quarterbacks can spring up anywhere at any time.

Not that Holcomb is going to be another Unitas. But the Brown family thought they were going to get both and didn't, which shows you the vagaries of the position and game.

The Bengals, who thought they had a deal with Holcomb on the first day of free agency in 2001, watched him come out of nowhere to light up the Chiefs for 326 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions in Sunday's 40-39 loss. With Tim Couch limited in practice Thursday and the Browns waiting to see how his sore elbow responds Friday, it looks like Holcomb gets another start against the Bengals Sunday. His only start in six NFL seasons before last Sunday had been against the Bengals for the Colts in 1997. He threw for 236 yards and a touchdown, but he also threw three interceptions and fell victim to Boomer Esiason's second-half charge off the bench. His only start in six NFL seasons before that had been against the Bengals for the Colts in 1997. He threw for 236 yards and a touchdown, but he also threw three interceptions and fell victim to Boomer Esiason's second-half charge off the bench.

Still, the Bengals liked what they saw of Holcomb in their annual preseason game, and on the all-out recommendation of director of player personnel Duke Tobin, a former Colts scout, they pursued him and thought they had a verbal agreement until they learned he was going to Cleveland. Holcomb's quarterbacks coach with the Colts, Bruce

Arians, had been named the Browns offensive coordinator the month before.

"We thought we had made a deal, but it turned out he had second thoughts," said Bengals Presidnt Mike Brown. "When we played him, he looked to be a poised, accurate quarterback. When you're a quarterback, it's not so much what you do, but what you don't do and he didn't do many of those. He had a splendid game Sunday and if he has many more of those, they're going to have issues."

What might have been? The Bengals would have signed Jon Kitna even if they signed Holcomb. But they wouldn't have signed Scott Mitchell, who had three interceptions in relief of Kitna last year in, of course, Cleveland.

The bigger might have been is if Unitas had signed with Mike Brown's father after the Steelers cut him before the 1955 season. Paul Brown told him he didn't have room on the Browns roster, but that he would take him in the spring of 1956. But the Colts phoned Unitas in February, and the 75-cent call became bronzed in Canton. Unitas might have been the guy who would have won two or three more NFL titles for Paul Brown, which would have made Brown immune to the desires of Art Modell.

"And the rest is in the history books," Mike Brown said Thursday, reacting to Unitas' death. "It might have changed lots of lives. He was a great quarterback with uncanny accuracy. The Colts had a No. 1 pick from Oregon (George Shaw) who was a great athlete. But he didn't have the accuracy or the ability to put it all together like Unitas."

Brown calls Unitas, "the Kurt Warner of his day. Or you can call Warner the Unitas of today. The fact is, both were around and took time to be found."

That's not saying Holcomb is another Unitas. After all, he's waited six years. Bengals cornerback Jeff Burris spent several years with Holcomb in Indianapolis and wasn't surprised what his ex-teammate did against the Chiefs. Holcomb was a frequent visitor to Burris' Bible studies with the Colts.

"He's a very solid guy all the way around," Burris said. "It's not surprising because he's doing it in Bruce Arians' system. Kelly makes quick decisions, he's got a quick release, and a strong arm. He throws a good deep ball. Whether it's Kelly or Tim (Couch) back there, we've got a challenge."

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