The Real McCoy? Browns believe they have their QB of future

BEREA, Ohio -- Saturday, Oct. 16. It's the night before the Cleveland Browns are going to face the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the ballroom of the hotel housing the Browns, a baby-faced rookie who will be their starting quarterback the next day stands to address all of his teammates.

The older players are understandably skeptical. So are the coaches. After all, there is that face, which makes him look much more like a 12-year-old than the 24-year-old his birth certificate professes he is. And there's the fact the only reason he's playing is because the two quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart, Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace, are injured. And there's the fact he struggled so badly in training-camp practices that it led to talk of his possibly being cut. And there's the fact the opponent has one of the best and most aggressive defenses in the NFL.

Colt McCoy seems to be the only one who hasn't gotten the memo that he's facing enormous odds for success.

"You can count on me," he says emphatically. "I'm going to play well."

A few chuckles could be heard, although they weren't being made at the kid's expense. They were more an appreciation of his unbridled display of moxie.

"There are guys that say stuff like that and they're trying to convince you and convince themselves they're playing well, but he believed it," coach Eric Mangini said. "It wasn't arrogance. It wasn't bravado. It was, 'Hey, count on me, count on me.' "

The Browns proceeded to lose, 28-10, but McCoy had a solid game. The former Texas standout completed 23 of 33 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown. He also had two interceptions, both on tipped passes.

McCoy went on to lead the Browns to stunning back-to-back victories at New Orleans and at home against New England. He has shown steady improvement, and turned many doubters -- especially the ones who cited his relative lack of height (6-foot-1) and arm strength as the reason that, despite being the winngest quarterback in college history, he slipped to the third round of the draft -- into believers.

"He's made incredible strides," fourth-year offensive tackle Joe Thomas said.

McCoy can take another giant step forward if he guides the 3-5 Browns to a third successive win, against the New York Jets, Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium. That will make four consecutive opponents with six victories, and the one, in McCoy's estimation, with "the toughest defense we'll play so far."

Yet no one around the Browns is doubting McCoy's ability to pull off another shocker. Not anymore.

"(Some players) are happy to be here, while other guys expect to be here and expect to be good," Delhomme said. "That's his expectation."

What has changed since his long, lousy summer?

McCoy will tell you he's "definitely" the same player, but that his circumstances have improved. "Just being able to play again, getting reps, interacting with guys in the locker room, and earning respect," he said. McCoy clearly finds greater comfort in being a starter than a third-stringer who saw almost no practice time during the summer and was surrounded by other bottom-dwellers on the depth chart when he did.

"Colt's whole college experience was, he was the man," Mangini said. "He took all the reps, he got all the coaching, he did all those things. Then he comes to a place where he's not the man. He's the No. 3, he's getting very limited reps, and that's a hard transition in addition to learning a new playbook, new coaches, being under center. Then, when he transitions back to being the man out in front, he was so much more comfortable with that. That's kind of where he belonged, in a sense. And right away, he just assumed that role."

No one is talking about McCoy's lack of size or arm strength now.

"That's the beauty about this business," eighth-year offensive guard Eric Steinbach said. "It doesn't matter about the size or speed or strength. All that stuff's for combines and on paper. But when you line up on Sunday, every guy's a different makeup and build. If you can play football, you can play football."

It took a while to get used to the more in-your-face coaching style than he saw at Texas, but McCoy has connected well with Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. He has done an exceptional job of tapping into and accentuating McCoy's many assets, the biggest of which are his accuracy and ability to run.

Daboll calls McCoy "a preparation freak," to the point where between offseason workouts and training camp he routinely called the coach late at night, while he was in bed, to review the playbook.

McCoy also has benefitted greatly from the mentoring of Delhomme, the 35-year-old veteran who had already prepared to take on those duties before McCoy's arrival. The day Delhomme signed as a free agent after being released by Carolina, Browns president Mike Holmgren informed him that the team would draft a quarterback and wanted Delhomme to help guide him.

McCoy and Delhomme live near each other. Each morning, at about 6:05 a.m., McCoy picks up Delhomme in his white, 2005 Chevy pickup truck and drives him to the Browns' practice facility. McCoy also is Delhomme's ride home each night.

During those 25-minute drives, they talk. Most of their conversations, of course, are about football and especially about the intricacies of the quarterback position and the Browns' playbook. Delhomme sees his primary mission as keeping McCoy loose.

"Because when you're loose but you know what you're doing, you play," he said.

McCoy is much looser now than he was in the summer. The unfamiliar playbook, which looked nothing like what he had seen while operating the Longhorns' spread attack, had tied his brain into knots. He wasn't sure of what he was doing, and the results were predictable.

"You can tell in a quarterback's drops if they're playing or if they're thinking," Delhomme said. "Well, he was just thinking so much."

But that was OK in the preseason, because McCoy wasn't expected to do much beyond watch and learn. The Browns were planning for this to be a "red-shirt" season for him.

"He did not have a great camp, he really didn't," Browns general manager Tom Heckert said. "He didn't play great in the preseason, but he wasn't playing with the guys he's going to play with on Sunday. He was under a lot of pressure and he made some bad decisions under that pressure."

McCoy's approach to his first start, in the Browns' preseason finale against Chicago, gave a strong indication of just how far away he was from being anything other than a spectator as an NFL rookie. He was so nervous that, the night before the game, while reviewing the game plan with Daboll, McCoy, according to the offensive coordinator, "just froze." Daboll stopped the meeting, told McCoy to close his playbook, and asked him to tell him a funny story. McCoy obliged and the meeting was over.

"That's the last time I saw him have any nerves," Daboll said.

Until, that is, he fumbled the center exchange on his first play from scrimmage. The Bears recovered and scored a touchdown. However, McCoy went on to go 13-for-13 for 131 yards, correctly made all of his reads, and executed flawlessly.

"You kind of started to see, 'OK, he's playing, he's not thinking,'" Delhomme said. "It can get very overwhelming, but you could just tell he had something."

Further proof came in the week leading up to the Pittsburgh game. With injuries to Delhomme and Wallace, the Browns were running out of quarterbacking options. However, by then, McCoy was showing that he had strong grasp of the offense, both in meetings and on the practice field.

In the second quarter, the Browns called a naked bootleg, anticipating that safety Troy Polamalu would blitz. McCoy stepped away from center, as if he were going to change the play. He never did, but his movement caused Polamalu, who was edging closer to the line, to recoil and take a couple of steps back. McCoy then went right back under center, took the snap, and had a positive play.

"To me, that's innate," Delhomme said. "You can't coach that. That's playing the game. Something as small as that, to me, you're seeing it. You know what's going on."

Delhomme learned something else about McCoy after the game: He is his harshest critic and a true perfectionist. Although McCoy drew plenty of praise from teammates and others for his play against the Steelers, he wasn't having any of it. He was upset that the Browns had lost. He was even more upset about the two interceptions, because both throws were slightly off the mark.

McCoy and Delhomme rode on separate team buses back to Cleveland. Ninety minutes into the ride, Delhomme received a text from McCoy that said the following: "You've got to be so precise in this game. There's no margin of error."

Two days before the New Orleans game, while driving home from practice, McCoy mentioned to Delhomme about a failed red-zone play in practice. He punched his steering wheel and said, "I had it. We didn't hit it. It was a bad ball."

At times, McCoy will display his frustration over a mistake in practice -- such as on his only incompletion in 20-plus pass attempts during Wednesday's workout -- and Daboll will pull him aside and say, "Don't show it to your veterans. Keep your cool."

"He's a great leader," Thomas said. "He's not a deer-in-the-headlights guy at all. He's a guy who commanded respect in the huddle even before he did anything, before he had any wins on this team. But now he's a guy who has gotten that respect on the field for what he's done in his first three games."

McCoy was at his most confident before facing the Patriots. That was largely because Mangini, the Pats' former defensive coordinator, and Daboll, a former offensive assistant in New England, had a thorough understanding of the opponent's 3-4 defense and were able to give McCoy plenty of helpful information.

One key bit of intelligence that the Browns incorporated into their preparation was, when defending inside their 20-yard line, the Patriots like to use double coverage. During the game, with the Browns at the New England 16, McCoy stepped up in the pocket and noticed that the double coverage created a clear running lane. He followed it all the way to the end zone.

"I've seen many guys who are pretty good in practice," Delhomme said. "But it's a different baby in the game. You can do it or you can't do it. Well, the kid can do it."

The question is, how far can the kid go?

Said Delhomme, "This is still early, very early, but I think the sky's the limit."

The balance of the season will tell the Browns plenty, but they have to be highly impressed with how McCoy has handled himself against three of the best defensive coaches in the game: Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau, New Orleans' Gregg Williams, and New England's Bill Belichick.

Now, he goes against the Jets' Rex Ryan.

How McCoy fares the rest of the way is likely to decide what the Browns will do in next year's draft, which is expected to be heavy with quality quarterbacks. The Browns were the only NFL team that happened to have two scouts at the game between Stanford's Andrew Luck and Washington's Jake Locker.

But that is no reflection about how they feel about McCoy now.

"Right now, it looks like we have something," Heckert said. "If he can continue to do this, obviously it helps us a lot."

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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