In a quest for stability and progress, and a desire to win despite the existence of a giant cloud of uncertainty surrounding an entirely new coaching staff and their respective systems and schema, Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy embodies the collective persona of fans who will pile into the lakefront habitat, stand shoulder to shoulder in sports bars and even those who choose the comfy confines of their own home, all in support of their beloved franchise.
In what will be his first full season as a starting quarterback in the NFL, the second-year kid out of the University of Texas faces the growing resentment of a fan base who has had to endure back-to-back 5-11 seasons with the last month of deplorable football in 2010 leaving a yearning for anything close to competency. The arch-enemy of all things respectable football over the last four seasons, the Browns will now place the near future of a downtrodden franchise in the hands of a kid with seven career starts under his belt.
With the Browns front office using the bulk of their draft resources to bolster what many would deem to be non-skill positions, said kid will go to battle with largely the same pieces in his back pocket – or saddle bags, for the cowboys at heart - that he had during those very starts last season. A third-round quarterback who just so happens to be the last name on a laundry list of men who have been under center since the team returned in 1999, McCoy has approximately six months to show that he is worthy of being the man for the foreseeable future before he becomes the next name hurled in the revolving door which has seemingly been present over the same time period.
Naturally, McCoy has his fair share of supporters as he does detractors. The pro-McCoy folks come in many varieties. The kid is undoubtedly a winner; it is all he has known over his career as an amateur. He commands the huddle despite being nearly half of a foot shorter than most of the men who surround him. His out-routes are far from Quinnian regardless of completion. When he needs to lighten up the mood, the southern boy can interject one of his many farm-fueled lines as he did in his debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers – when the entire world was expecting the 24-year old to be maimed, he preceded his first snap as a professional by harnessing his Texas-bred aw shucks mentality, telling his team that the “hay was in the barn,” likely inducing the same head shaking in his teammates as it does fans who hear these quaint little quips. But the rest was history.
While the full season numbers are nothing to write home about, McCoy tossed four touchdown passes and only one interception against teams not named the Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens. Against the vaunted New England Patriots, McCoy produced a QB rating of 101.6; against the Cincinnati Bengals, a 132.6. He has the ability to scramble and played all of last season with a sub-par shoulder thanks to Alabama lineman Marcell Dareus spiking him like the football he was holding during an option play just several months earlier. The last few games, McCoy had also returned from of a high ankle sprain, an injury that typically takes considerably longer to nurse than the rookie allotted, limiting one of his aforementioned weapons.
McCoy did not back down when teams presented eight defenders in the box, whether it was a play action pass to Mohammed Massaquoi for 20 yards or a three-step drop to Evan Moore in the midst of a fly pattern. Reading the defense in a fourth-and-one scenario, McCoy audibles out and takes the head-first dive for the first down.
The detractors, or merely those that are not eactly sold on McCoy’s potential for long term success, will tell you that he finished the 2010 season with a passer rating south of 75. His six touchdowns and nine interceptions was not a ratio that can be replicated under any circumstances. The curtain was lifted on his perceived weak arm and inability to play in the cold when the Browns went 0-3 in McCoy’s final three starts where the rookie threw six interceptions to only one touchdown against the division rival Steelers and Ravens – two teams that one cannot merely be remove from analysis as they represent 25 percent of the Browns’ schedule during any given season. After all, domestic inflation is next to nil once you strip out food costs and energy prices…you know, two things that we all need every day.
To that point, the Jordan Shipleys of the world will tell you that their fearless leader had no choice but to hurl the ball 41 times in the season finale as the Browns’ defense put the offense in such a rut from the onset; the more attempts will undoubtedly lead to more potential errors, espcially given the targets of his passes. The detractors will then counter with the fact that McCoy nearly had his receiving target in Massaquoi beheaded after he was led on a slant pattern into a the helmet and shoulder pads of a ready-and-waiting James Harrison.
And when the going gets tough, McCoy tends to choose flight over fight. Many of the rookie’s successful passes were of the Jeff Garcia mold, rolling to his right on a play action or to his left thanks to a blown blocking assignment by the right side of the line. In Pat Shurmur’s new West Coast system, the fleet of foot will not flourish; McCoy needs to trust his eyes and hit his receivers in stride, tight windows or not.
In complete contrast to Shurmur’s offense, the play-calling McCoy dealt with in his season of debatable success was anything but aggressive. In the team’s shocking win over the New Orleans Saints, McCoy passed for 74 yards while rushing for what totaled out as a five-yard loss. In the Patriots game, while McCoy can be credited with managing the huddle, the Browns found paydirt via their quarterback’s legs as well as those of breakout running back Peyton Hillis.
To McCoy’s credit, where he may lack in the physical measurables of most NFL quarterbacks, his tenacity and desire to change is something that many before him have not mentioned. Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace came into Cleveland last season crediting Mike Holmgren for his success in the league, speaking of an opportunity to help the Browns win and – of course – talking about the rabid fans that stand 70,000 deep every Sunday. Instead of coming in and hoping to “help” the Browns win, McCoy wants to spearhead a movement. Holding multiple mid-lockout camps for his teammates, the starting quarterback du jour is aiming to change the country club culture that permeated the days of Romeo Crennel and the rumored resentment some players (and many fans) had of Eric Mangini.
“I commend my teammates for really working this summer; it’s on our own time and our own money,” McCoy said on the Jim Rome Show earlier last week. “The most positive thing out of all of it, when you have 30-35 guys show up, you know that guys are dedicated and want to change the way things are right now, and change the culture that we’re in. We haven’t won in a while – winning is the most important thing, that’s why we’re doing this.
We want to win, we want to do something about it and we’re starting now.”
McCoy knows that he is not Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Despite the comparisons to Drew Brees, there are no delusions of grandeur in the mind of the Hobbs, New Mexico native. When asked about his 2010 season, McCoy is quick to thank the soon-to-be-released Jake Delhomme for his mentoring and willingness to hand the torch to his protege, a kid who was not supposed to even see the field in his first year. He has spent his summer not only hosting his teammates, but watching all of the dismal performances that took place toward season’s end, learning lessons about where he needs to improve.
The 2010 season saw successful campaigns by many quarterbacks not necessarily grouped in with the elite. Matt Cassell, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez made the playoffs. Josh Freeman won 10 games for the upstart Tampa Bay Buccaneers, David Garrard finished just two games shy of the always-lauded Manning in Indianapolis. The Browns do not necessarily need a franchise-changing quarterback, but one who can provide stability and end the never-ending ring of question marks that have marred the position since the days of Kosar.
Paraphrasing Joseph Wechsberg’s 1962 biography Dining at the Pavilion, a great conductor can only cast a spell over his audience if he or she has full control over his orchestra. The Browns front office may not have provided McCoy with an additional battery of weapons to have at his disposal once the regular season kicks off, but the coaching staff continues to assure fans and media alike that the second-year quarterback is a perfect fit for the system that is to be put in place. Coach Pat Shurmur had McCoy ranked second on his quarterback wish list prior to landing the 2010 first-overall selection in Sam Bradford, the rookie who threw for over 3,500 yards to go with 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in his freshman campaign under Shurmur’s play calling.
It will be up to McCoy to take his orchestra of Orange and Brown musicians and capitalize on the strengths while attempting to make up for the weaknesses. He has already shown that he can control the huddle, but this time around, his teammates and fans alike will need less twang and more production. He’s made it aware that the league is a production-based league; the sliced up numbers and analysis will only carry so much weight. And while his progress will be heavily debated by his supporters and detractos alike, McCoy will face the easiest schedule since the 2007 season where Derek Anderson amassed 10 wins, albeit with a few Pro Bowl receiving options at his disposal.
In his own book, McCoy expounds on a lesson which he learned for his parents: Always be ready for an opportunity. McCoy’s opportunity is undoubtedly here. Whether he makes the most, provides stability and leads this Browns team in the right direction remains to be seen. Conversely, he becomes just another name scratched out on the list of quarterbacks reaching lengths long enough to be in discussion with the ancient scrolls.
McCoy Photo: Scott Sargent/WFNY