McCoy’s fresh start invigorates Cleveland

Colt McCoy threw six TD passes and nine INTs as a rookie.
(AP Photo)

BEREA, Ohio – Colt McCoy(notes) was never Eric Mangini’s idea, so after Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren strongly “suggested” the team pick McCoy in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft, the team’s then-coach gave his new quarterback something of a silent treatment.

When McCoy arrived in the spring, ready to work out, a source familiar with the situation says, his new coaches barely spoke to him.

When the season began, the other quarterbacks got the weekly game plan on Monday. McCoy didn’t see his until Wednesday. No explanation provided; it was as if he didn’t exist at all.

“Last year had a lot of challenges,” McCoy said last week as he sat on a pile of pads near the edge of the practice fields. “I spent a lot of time trying to think about ‘Why did this happen? Or that happen?’ ”

McCoy does not like to talk about these things, reluctantly confirming details of his relationship with the previous regime only when pressed. “I don’t want to throw those guys under the bus,” he said. He is a coach’s son and there is a respect for the process.

Plus he has a chance to be the star who can fill the void left by LeBron James. His story is a positive one now after injuries to Jake Delhomme(notes) and Seneca Wallace(notes) forced Mangini to play McCoy for eight games last year, and the quarterback gave enough hints of promise to pump a long-festering hope that has been tempered in the past by so many dreadful Browns seasons.

And Mangini is gone, anyway, dumped by Holmgren who, multiple sources say, grew weary of watching the former coach’s wayward offense and knew McCoy had to be in more nurturing hands. This is why he picked Pat Shurmur – the nephew of Fritz Shurmur, Holmgren’s most trusted defensive coordinator with whom he went to two Super Bowls in Green Bay.

Pat Shurmur is an offensive coach who runs the same pure, Bill Walsh version of the West Coast offense that Holmgren cherishes. When he was in his 30s, Shurmur molded Donovan McNabb(notes) in Philadelphia. Last season, as the Rams offensive coordinator, he managed Sam Bradford’s(notes) transition to the NFL. And now, at 46, he has been given McCoy with the mandate of building him too.

“The biggest thing that we have going for us is Pat knowing the offense,” said Gil Haskell, the former offensive coordinator of the Panthers and Seahawks who is a special advisor to Holmgren. “San Francisco won Super Bowls. Green Bay went to two Super Bowls. Seattle went to a Super Bowl. Tampa Bay went to a Super Bowl. Andy Reid went to a Super Bowl. It works. The offense works.”

And it works for quarterbacks. Holmgren has always been about quarterback-driven teams, rather than those built around defense or a great running attack. Growing up in the game under Walsh, he was responsible for developing Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre(notes) and Matt Hasselbeck(notes). Being picked by him is like being hand-selected for greatness. It makes sense he would fall in love with McCoy. The quarterback from Texas has excellent vision of everything on the field, anticipating things others can’t.

The fact he had been injured in college and wasn’t tall (listed at 6-foot-1) and didn’t possess one of those tremendously strong passing arms was never a concern. The West Coast offense demands precision over brute strength. The more Holmgren passed McCoy’s tapes around to his coaching advisors, the more he liked him.

It’s now up to Shurmur to turn him into an NFL star.

Shurmur spent a lot of time with McCoy in the weeks before last year’s draft as the Rams considered him and found he and Bradford to be the same in many ways. He liked McCoy’s demeanor and decision-making and saw him as a player who could win in the NFL.

“I think what I have seen in Colt, at least in the last week or so, he’s a very eager guy, very smart, he understands how to play the position and he really tries to learn the terminology – try to get up to speed that way,” Shurmur said. “Because every play doesn’t work how you draw it up, he has the ability to improvise and make something happen.”

Whereas many of the coaches ignored him last year and he had to seek out friendly faces on the staff to ask what he should be doing, Shurmur is a confidant, someone who is always willing to go over the offense and include him in the creation of the game plan. But the problem is that development has been set back by the lockout. It is hard to teach the West Coast offense and all of its nuances without practices. Cleveland’s staff believes it lost 24 opportunities to work with players on the field. This doesn’t even speak to the countless weeks of private conversation and study Shurmur and McCoy would have had.

Shurmur said he had time to meet with McCoy a little before the lockout happened. He gave his new quarterback a playbook and some advice. But it was hardly enough. When Browns players wanted to work out together, McCoy had to call them himself and try to recreate a minicamp or OTA without having ever led one previously.

But if Shurmur is bothered by the lost time, he won’t show it.

“You just got to be smart about what we are putting in and make sure we are doing all the right things with what we have,” Shurmur said.

And it’s far different for McCoy than last summer when communication was sometimes non-existent with his coaches. For instance, he says he didn’t learn he was going to start the team’s final exhibition game in 2010 until about five minutes before the contest started. A coach looked at him and said: “You’re starting,” then McCoy raced into a huddle with players he barely knew.

“There had been no reps [in practice], nothing,” McCoy said.

That he completed all 13 of the passes he threw that evening was a shock – “13 for 13, where did that come from?” he said, his voice filled with wonder. It was one of those moments that baffle him, both in the way it was handled and the success that he had. And if nothing else it gives him a belief that he can handle anything the NFL will throw his way.

Mike Holmgren (left) and Pat Shurmur watch over practice.
(AP Photo)

“Have a healthy respect for what happened last year, then move on,” Shurmur told him.

Sitting on the pads, McCoy nodded.

“I try to look back at the positives,” he said.

Like the two games of the eight that the Browns won. Like the game against the Jets they should have won if a couple things had gone right, or the contest in Jacksonville they had won until Jaguars running back Maurice Jones Drew broke off a long touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.

“I told Pat I’m always going to be a learner,” McCoy said.

Across the field a huge roar went up from inside a tent filled with Browns fans. McCoy is asked if he knows how much Cleveland has been dying for a winner.

“Oh yes,” he said, laughing slightly for emphasis.

The thought has only been driven into him nearly every day since he arrived last summer. The city scorned by LeBron and hungry for football success for the past 25 years has placed many of its hopes on the promise he showed in those eight games he started last season. This is a football town at heart as evidenced by the throng of fans that come to the team’s headquarters every day during training camp just to watch the players run through drills. Last Saturday, 11,000 people came to the stadium downtown simply to sit through an open practice.

“It’s easy to say this is one of those teams that fans will support if it plays well,” McCoy said. “We’ve got to win. We’ve got to find a way.”

How much is going to be up to him.

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Aug 9, 2011