By Michael Silver, Yahoo! Sports
As Colt McCoy prepares for Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Cleveland Browns’ second-year quarterback is fighting through frustration on several fronts. His team has a disappointing 4-6 record. He and his receivers are adapting to a new, West Coast system implemented by rookie coach Pat Shurmur. And the team’s most valuable offensive player of 2010, running back Peyton Hillis, has been a non-factor, undone by injury and contract-related dissatisfaction.
Colt McCoy says the rough treatment he endured as a rookie from coaches helped him grow as a quarterback. "I really did appreciate them," McCoy said. "It made me stronger as a man. It taught me a lot about how to handle things."
Compared to the onslaught of negativity McCoy experienced as a rookie, however, these frustrations are subtle and quaint.
When McCoy arrived in Cleveland after a standout career as a four-year starter at the University of Texas, the third-round draft pick was welcomed with stiff arms by then-coach Eric Mangini and his assistants. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, in particular, unleashed a torrent of tough love, except the love part was lost on McCoy and the teammates who observed the regular razzing.
In what became a running joke in the Browns’ locker room, Daboll disparaged McCoy loudly and relentlessly – sometimes to his face, sometimes through the earpiece in the quarterback’s helmet.
“There were times I had to pull my helmet off to call a play in the huddle,” McCoy recalled in an interview earlier this month. “Guys could hear him yelling, and they’d say, ‘Just take it off.’ People said to me, ‘Man, I ain’t never seen anything like that. Just hang in there.’”
McCoy did, putting up solid numbers after taking over as the team’s starter six weeks into the 2010 season. His anticipated growth curve has leveled off in his second year – he has 2,181 passing yards, a 59.6 completion percentage, 11 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a passer rating of 79.2 – but his locker-room cred is exceedingly high, largely because teammates remember how well he handled himself as Daboll’s personal punching bag.
“I don’t think they were BFFs,” says one Browns veteran, using the common slang for “best friends forever.”
“I am not sure why Brian didn’t like Colt … I love the guy.”
Says tight end Evan Moore: “There was a lot of pressure put on Colt, and some of it was over the top. He was coming off winning 45 of 53 games in college, and it was the first time he was dealing with adversity. It was a whirlwind for him. He stepped right into a buzz saw. It rocked his world. I knew it was tough for him, and there were a lot of times when he was frustrated. But he did a good job of not really showing it, and he handled it well.”
Daboll, now the Miami Dolphins’ offensive coordinator, declined a Y! Sports interview request. His heavy-handed coaching approach toward McCoy was hardly unique, especially given that it occurred during the quarterback’s rookie season. Says Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2009: “When I got here as a rookie, I got hazed much worse by the coaching staff than I did by any player.”
Ex-Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll got in Colt McCoy's ear in several memorable instances.
McCoy seemed to be a particularly convenient target, for a variety of reasons: He had been thrust upon Mangini’s staff by newly hired Browns president Mike Holmgren and his handpicked general manager, Tom Heckert, who snatched him up after McCoy slipped in the draft; he came from Texas, where coach Mack Brown has a reputation for coddling players; and he began the season as a clear-cut third-stringer behind free-agent signees Jake Delhomme(notes) and Seneca Wallace(notes).
Rather than being embraced as a potential quarterback of the future, McCoy was treated very much like an afterthought with no hope of sniffing the field. He got no reps in practice, instead directing the scout team, as most third-stringers do, against the defensive starters.
Even those seemingly mundane assignments were fraught with peril.
“I remember [Daboll] yelling into Colt’s headset when he was the scout team quarterback, in the two-minute drill, when they were servicing us,” recalls veteran linebacker Scott Fujita(notes). “Daboll was talking into the microphone, very animated. I looked at Colt and he said, ‘He does that all the time. He’s constantly [expletive] me in the headset.’”
Says a Cleveland offensive player: “It happened all the time. Running scout team, you basically look at a play-card in the huddle and run that play – it’s not like there’s a lot of gray area. And still, Daboll would lose it. One time Daboll was yelling at him as he was running the scout team, into his helmet, and it was the part of the drill that finished practice. As Colt’s walking to the team breakdown area, where Mangini is giving his speech, Daboll is still in his ear, screaming. People couldn’t believe it.”
Another time, says the offensive player, “It was during a walkthrough, and they chose Colt to stand in at fullback, for whatever reason. I guess he kind of ran the wrong route; how the hell should he know what the fullback was supposed to run? Daboll flipped out. Colt was livid. He’d never had a coach talk to him like that.”
Several Browns recalled a meeting early in the 2010 season in which Daboll told McCoy, “I just watched [tape of] your last college game, and you were terrible. What the hell were you throwing out there? That was one of the worst games I’ve ever seen. Why the [expletive] did we draft you?” (Daboll, through a Dolphins spokesman, said he did not recall ever having said those things to McCoy.)
Looking back, McCoy concedes that he was unnerved by the constant admonishment.
“My problem is maybe I took it too personal,” he says. “I had my dad as a coach [in high school], and Mack Brown as my coach [at Texas] – the last two years it was my offense. Then I come here and I’m thinking, ‘We’re all professionals here.’ It was [confusing].
“There came a point where I just really had to find … me … who I wanted to be. It really gave me an opportunity to search, to find that, to decide what I want to stand up for. Do I even want to do this? Do I want to put up with that? I decided, when my time comes to play, I’ll be ready.”
After both Delhomme and Wallace suffered high-ankle sprains, McCoy was pressed into duty, at which point he noticed a pronounced change in his coaches’ demeanor. While still hard on him, Daboll now treated McCoy like a player capable of handling his responsibilities. There were high points, such as the quarterback’s 14-for-19, 174-yard performance in a 34-14 upset over the Patriots in his third start. There were many more low moments, including the high-ankle sprain that McCoy suffered in late November that caused him to miss three games, and the five consecutive defeats as a starter after winning two of his first three games.
McCoy may have done a good job of masking his frustration to his teammates, but at home he wasn’t as successful.
Browns coach Pat Shurmur says Colt McCoy is almost still a rookie since he's running an entirely different offense from last season.
“If I get criticized for anything by my coaches it’s really being too hard on myself,” he says. “I would stay here at the facility till 10, go home, go to sleep, be back here at 6:30. I took a lot of stuff home. It was bad. My wife [Rachel] just thought I was this crazy, foreign, way-off guy in his own world, like, ‘I can’t believe this is my husband.’ People [outside of football] thought something was wrong with me.”
After the season, Holmgren fired Mangini and his assistants, and McCoy insists he bore his departing coaches no ill will.
“When those guys left I walked up and shook their hands,” he says. “I really did appreciate them. It made me stronger as a man. It taught me a lot about how to handle things.”
Shurmur, who’d spent the previous two seasons as the Rams’ offensive coordinator, was hired to replace Mangini in January, but the lockout kept McCoy and his teammates from assimilating and implementing the new coach’s system. Instead, it was McCoy who gathered the Browns for offseason workouts, conducting four separate “Camp Colt” sessions in Austin, Texas, before the labor settlement hastened the start of training camp.
“In a weird way I think that it was good for me, because you almost have to assume that leadership role,” he says. “I had to make sure the guys were working out, training, getting in the playbook, learning the offense. Those guys didn’t know me last year, so having all of them down and working with them was a real positive. We got to grow as teammates, go out, have some fun.”
The most football-related fun McCoy had over the offseason, however, occurred in Hattiesburg, Miss. at the home of a living legend. Eager to learn the principles of the West Coast offense, McCoy got a phone number for Brett Favre(notes) from Browns strength and conditioning coach Kent Johnston, the best man in the future Hall of Famer’s wedding. McCoy left a message and Favre, who guided the Packers to consecutive Super Bowls in the ’90s when Holmgren was Green Bay’s coach, called back almost immediately.
“I was totally nervous,” McCoy recalls. “I wore No. 4 in high school because of him. He set it up so I could come down there for a couple of days, and he picked me up from the airport in his Ford truck, wearing his Wranglers.”
Colt McCoy has seen six wins in almost two seasons as a starter with the Browns. "From the outside it's easy to point a finger and say, 'Look, same old Browns.' It's not gonna happen overnight. As frustrating as that is, that's reality."
McCoy cherished the experience, which included throwing sessions at a nearby high school, fishing on the huge lake on Favre’s property and waking up at the house to eat “the best pancakes in the world,” courtesy of Brett’s mother-in-law. Best of all was a late-night rap session with the three-time MVP, who has sent McCoy encouraging texts in the months that have followed.
Though McCoy entered 2011 as the Browns’ unquestioned starter, he’s still getting some tough love from his superiors. In October Holmgren, asked whether he’s convinced that McCoy is his franchise quarterback, answered, “Let’s let him play and see how performs and we’ll evaluate it at end of year.”
Asked earlier this month if he felt McCoy had taken a step back this season, Heckert said, “I don’t know if he’s regressed – it’s a new offense, and there was a lockout, and there has been an adjustment period – but he should progress now.”
Shurmur says of McCoy: “I like him a great deal. I evaluated him coming out of college, and I always thought he was wired right, thought he would work hard, thought he was talented. To me, he’s almost a rookie. It’s all new.”
If McCoy is in fact getting better, it hasn’t yet shown up on the stat sheet or standings. After winning more games than any quarterback in NCAA history, McCoy is grappling with life in last place in the AFC North.
“I cannot stand to lose,” he says. “I’m a competitor. I’m just almost going insane.”
Though he and Hillis are friends, McCoy seemed to have lost all patience with the ongoing saga when we spoke in early November, saying, “If you’re healthy, just play. Help yourself. Help our team. We’ve got guys in here playing with all kinds of injuries. We do it for each other, for ourselves, for our city – all kinds of reasons. Nobody in [the organization] does disrespect him, whatever he believes.
“You just need to put your head down and play. Maybe I learned that a little bit last year.”
What McCoy has learned in his second season is that progress isn’t always as tangible as he’d like it to be, and that patience is an underrated quality.
“The West Coast, it takes time,” he says. “Some of the coaches called me in the other day and showed me some numbers: Steve Young was 3-16 in his first 19 starts, with a low 60 percent completion rate. Joe Montana started 2-10. Their point to me was, ‘It takes time. Can you be doing better? Yeah. We all can. But just keep fighting. It will happen.’ And that’s exciting, because I know how sweet it’s gonna be.
“From the outside it’s easy to point a finger and say, ‘Look, same old Browns.’ It’s not gonna happen overnight. As frustrating as that is, that’s reality.”
In the meantime, McCoy will put his head down and keep working – and he’s thankful that, unlike last season, he can keep his helmet on while doing so.