Kelly Holcomb was a backup. That’s what he’d been in Indianapolis, that what he was in later in Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Minnesota, and that’s what he was in Cleveland, too, to begin with. Cleveland didn’t come at the end of that line of ill-fated player-team marriages, though, it came right after Indy. Holcomb spent five seasons with Indianapolis before making the move to Cleveland and becoming a Brown, backing up 1st round draft pick Tim Couch, the man Cleveland thought they could build their newly reestablished franchise around.
Couch arrived in town in 1999, just as the Browns rejoined the NFL. A mediocre career at best, Couch posted arguably his best season in 2002, throwing 18 TDs and 18 INTs. He led Cleveland to its first winning season since their return and got the Browns into the playoffs on a 9-7 record. Not a bad story, until you recall that Couch broke his leg in the final game of the season. Who should step in in relief, but Kelly Holcomb.
Kelly Holcomb was not a bad quarterback. He wasn’t, say, Jake Delhomme, who led his team, the Carolina Panthers, to the Super Bowl in 2003, a year after the Browns made the playoffs. Maybe he could’ve been, given different circumstances. To be fair, the Browns didn’t have any of the flash that a Super Bowl caliber team has. Maybe Kelly Holcomb could’ve been that guy if he was surrounded by the talent the Panthers had that year. Maybe even Tim Couch could’ve been, for that matter.
But Couch was out. Sidelined by the injury, he was left to watch anxiously as his backup looked to do the job he was hired to do himself. But Holcomb did better than that.
In the 2002 AFC Wild Card matchup between Cleveland and AFC North champions the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kelly Holcomb was 26 out of 43, throwing for 429 yards and 3 TDs. Picked off just once during the contest, Holcomb and the Browns were up 33-21 with just over five minutes left to play. In a heartbreaking turn of events, the Steelers found the end zone two more times before the end of the day, converting on a two-point conversion and winning the game 36-33.
“We just couldn’t keep them out of the end zone that day,” Holcomb would later recall, years after the game.
He was right, they couldn’t stop them that day. But in Kelly Holcomb we are given a reminder of what it means to play, to live even, in the moments we are given. On the playoff stage, the situation in which every team want to put their best foot forward, Holcomb came up as big as he could’ve, putting everything into his performance. This is a great reminder that even when all you’ve got isn’t quite enough, the most admirable thing is still to leave it all out on the field.
Kelly Holcomb’s biggest NFL moment is a story that captivates the imagination and gives you a sense of hope; it makes you want to root for the backup. It makes you want to dig deep and root for the underdog in all of us.