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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Browns' Colt McCoy is finding his comfort zone

The Cleveland quarterback, who showed promise in eight starts last season but cringed when coaches berated him, hopes to progress under a new staff.

August 11, 2011|Sam Farmer
  • Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy drops back to pass during a practice earlier this month at training camp in Berea, Ohio.
Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy drops back to pass during a practice… (Tony Dejak / Associated…)

Reporting from Berea, Ohio — Buried deep in a locker at Cleveland Browns headquarters is the essence of quarterback Colt McCoy on tape.

Not videotape. A scrap of athletic tape.

Just as he did at the University of Texas, McCoy has adorned his locker with a three-letter word scrawled on a piece of adhesive: WIN.

"You win, you produce, you get to play for a long time and do what you love," McCoy said Thursday, easing back on a bench after practice.

Around these parts, that's easier penned than done. The Browns are coming off consecutive 5-11 seasons, have a new head coach and staff, and are implementing fresh systems on both sides of the ball. Of all NFL teams, they might be the one most inconvenienced by the lockout and compressed off-season.

Then again, they also have McCoy, who showed remarkable promise in eight starts last season. During a three-game stretch, he led the Browns to upsets against New Orleans and New England, and he nearly toppled the New York Jets before one of his receivers fumbled away the game.

"The things that are hardest to evaluate, I learned in his first three starts," Browns President Mike Holmgren said. "It's not too big for him. He can play the game. Does he have a good enough arm? Can he do it for the whole season? Can he stay healthy? We'll see. But I know this: The stage is not too big for him."

The Dallas Morning News recently tabulated McCoy's record as a starting quarterback, dating to his days at Jim Ned Middle School in Tuscola, Texas. He has won 109 of his 126 starts.

Pat Shurmur, like every new NFL head coach, is scrambling to learn the strengths of his players and get them up to speed in a crunched time frame. He said McCoy has caught on quickly, and the coach compared him to St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, Shurmur's student last season who went on to win NFL offensive rookie-of-the-year honors.

Shurmur said Bradford and McCoy "have a lot of the same attributes."

"They get up in the morning and the world tends to make sense," he said. "They're good decision makers. They know how to lead teams. There's a natural charisma to them."

McCoy showed that charisma during the lockout when he organized workouts in Austin, bringing most of his offensive teammates to his college town and putting them up in a resort to practice with them.

"To me, it was like he was comfortable again," tight end Evan Moore said. "Because he was in charge. It's not an ego thing. It's he's a confident leader."

Browns players might not have noticed that about McCoy at the start of last season. These coaches have a different philosophy about how to treat young players than Eric Mangini and his staff had last season. Then, McCoy was not a budding cornerstone of the team, but a rookie grunt, the undisputed, nameless low man on the totem pole who was alternately ignored and berated. It was straight out of the Bill Belichick football school, of which Mangini is a disciple.

"Last year presented a lot of challenges outside of football," McCoy said, choosing his words carefully. "It was different than anything I've ever been a part of."

Although he largely allowed Mangini to coach without peering over his shoulder, Holmgren did announce at the beginning of last season that McCoy probably wouldn't play. The Browns treated the rookie as such and did not allow him to take a snap with the No. 1 offense until it was absolutely necessary — in the run-up to the Week 6 game at Pittsburgh, when they were forced to start their third-stringer.

McCoy said many of his teammates barely knew who he was at that point "other than the guy who stood on the sideline and got yelled at for just standing there."

Even now, the residue from that experience lingers. He said he quietly cringes like a scalded dog when he makes a mistake in practice, waiting for the hellfire of criticism to come.

"One of the things out here is when I make a mistake, I get so fearful to do anything because I'm afraid of what's going to happen," he said. "If I throw a ball and try to squeeze one in, I'm like [wincing], 'Uh.' I'm hesitant to just turn around. That's not how it should be. If you start playing scared, you can't play."

Day by day, McCoy is getting used to the idea that the reaction is different with these coaches.

"Now don't think for a second that they're not hard on me," he said. "That's not what I'm saying. They're hard on me in a way that's nurturing and developing, but they're the same way with the rest of my team too."

There are expectations, but they are realistic ones. Promising as he was last season, McCoy is not expected to instantly flip a franchise that has won only a third of its games since the franchise was restored in Cleveland in 1999.

"I don't temper my enthusiasm," Holmgren said, "but I think I'm being realistic with my expectations for this group."

McCoy won't concede anything. He sees the writing on the wall. It's penned on tape.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesfarmer

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