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Don’t Bolt on Colt

By Mark Harris

The Cleveland Browns should preserve Colt McCoy as their starting quarterback next season.

Is Colt McCoy going to carry the Browns on his shoulders, willing them to a championship in the next year or two? Probably not but is that right standard, right now?

McCoy has hardly set the NFL on fire this year. He won 4 and lost 9, completed 57.6% of his passes for 2,733 yards, and registered 14 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.

It’s not been easy going for McCoy. The learning curve is well documented – a first-time head coach installing an entirely new offense with an entirely new coaching staff, the youngest team in football and no offseason. McCoy and the offense then lost their very capable starting left guard in Eric Steinbach and their most productive player and rusher in Peyton Hillis.

For most of McCoy’s thirteen games, the offensive line comprised of two bona-fide NFL starters, two first-year starters that were mid-round draft picks and a revolving door at right tackle. The offensive line was bad for most of the season and McCoy took a beating: The Browns were among the league’s worst in hits on the quarterback. Critics have questioned McCoy’s pocket presence but did he have a pocket in which to be present?

The Browns receivers also differentiated themselves as prolific pass-droppers, leading the league in dropped passes with 43. Poor or misunderstood route-running led to incompletions and interceptions. What we don’t know is how often the team’s inexperienced receivers, who were also learning a new offense, failed to get open or failed to run the right pattern. But we do know that if the receivers had only an average number of drops, McCoy’s completion percentage would be something closer to 61% and he’d likely have a few more touchdowns, maybe a few more wins.

It’s worth noting that a completion percentage of 61% would place McCoy among the league’s best for accuracy, as only four of the league’s top ten rated quarterbacks completed more than 60% of their passes. By comparison, Andy Dalton, the Bengals celebrated rookie had a completion percentage of 58%, while the Bengals receivers did an above average job catching the ball – ranking only 21st in dropped passes. What kind of season would Dalton have put together if the Bengals receivers led the league in drops?

There is other evidence to suggest that when McCoy receives a bit of help from those around him, he plays well and wins. The five games in which the Browns put forth a respectable rushing effort (recording a 100-yard or near-100-yard rushing performance) were against Indianapolis, Seattle, Jacksonville, Arizona and at Baltimore. McCoy missed the last two games with an injury, both of which were defeats. He played, however, in the first three and won them all.

The team’s defense – while courageous and improving – didn’t help matters. The Browns gave up more rushing yards than every other team in the NFL, save one. Allowing the other team to run-at-will means long, sustained drives, and lengthy possessions, which rests opposing defenses and makes them more formidable.

For a West-Coast Offense predicated on timing, rhythm is everything. But rhythm is hard to establish when your standing on the sidelines. Even worse, prolonged possessions by the other team inspire anxiety and desperation, players think too much and, when finally given the chance, try to do too much. This dynamic was most conspicuous in the fourth quarter, as games wore on and the stakes rose the offense looked timid and tight.

McCoy is a young, inexperienced NFL quarterback. He will get better, especially as the players around him improve. How much better is a question that cannot be answered without playing him. Peyton Manning’s rookie statistics were worse than McCoy’s (56.7% completion percentage, 71.2 passer rating, 3 wins, and more interceptions than touchdowns). So were Troy Aikman’s (53% completion percentage, 0 wins, and twice as many interceptions as touchdowns), and Aikman had Michael Irvin!

McCoy played slightly better than the Rams’ Sam Bradford this year statistically and in terms of real-world wins. They’re comparable quarterbacks at this point in their careers. Who knows for sure where either will go from here but would anyone argue that St. Louis should ditch Bradford? The only real difference between McCoy and Bradford is their respective draft order, which means little. The reality is that they had comparable careers in college, with Bradford barely edging McCoy for the Heisman and McCoy barely edging Bradford in their lone on-field battle.

McCoy’s doubters will damn his arm-strength, but is there proof that passes were systemically under-thrown or late-arriving? There were certainly moments when his timing seemed off and his accuracy rattled. But likewise, we also saw McCoy zip line drives into a howling wind in the St. Louis game and against Baltimore in a driving rain. He may not have the strongest arm in football but, fundamentally, McCoy is an accurate passer with, I believe, adequate arm strength. He’s also tough, smart, athletic and can lead.

A well-settled concept in neuroscience is the tendency of the central nervous system to record the experience of pain in neural pathways, creating grooves where the pain can travel efficiently in the future. Like grooves in a rock where the water will run, the moment we feel stress, anxiety or pain, there is a map showing that pain where to go.

Since the team’s re-birth in 1999, Browns fans have suffered a string of awful coaches and even worse quarterbacks. So when things start to go wrong for the Browns, pain travels rapidly and without friction in the direction of the team’s coach and quarterback.

We know the coach is safe and here to stay. So, naturally, some are now calling for a biopsy of the signal caller. But there’s no disputing that our pain can be traced elsewhere to places like the offensive line, our run defense, our non-receiving receivers and injury-plagued running backs. With so much to cure on this team, where the prescription is less complicated and more likely to bring relief, the Browns should focus there change agenda elsewhere.

Imagine the impact of healthy Eric Steinbach, the acquisition of an elite running back or receiver along with a Right Tackle in the first round, plus one or two offensive playmakers added in free agency.

The re-born Browns have started sixteen different quarterbacks in thirteen years. Given that McCoy has shown promise and toughness under near-impossible circumstances, the bar should be very high for number seventeen. Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert understand the need for stability, and that understanding should extend beyond preserving the head coach to the decision to play McCoy next year.

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5 Responses to “Don’t Bolt on Colt”

  1. Amanda says:

    Best article on this subject yet!

  2. dale says:

    Sorry, but you guys must all be abusing several substances! Colt is a career backup at best! I’ll be very generous and call him a poor mans Ty Detmer!

  3. 919216 says:

    Everyone says put some talent around McCoy. What makes you think Free Agent WRs want to come to Cleveland to play with McCoy? I’m a lifelong Browns fan, but if I’m Pierre Garcon, Vincent Jackson, Laurent Robinson or Mario Manningham, why the hell would I want to go to Cleveland to play with Colt McCoy?

    I’ll fully admit that Colt has been done no favors by H&H thus far, can’t argue otherwise. But I watched every snap of the Browns 2011 season, and I didn’t even see the kinds of flashes I needed to see. It just seems like the guy was in over his head. THE 2011 BROWNS SCORED ONE MORE OFFENSIVE POINT THAN THEY DID IN THEIR 1999 EXPANSION SEASON. You can’t tell me McCoy has no culpability in this.

    Not to beat a dead horse, but that’s the argument between McCoy and RGIII; McCoy is a QB that needs tons of talent around him to make him an able QB, he’s never going to elevate the talent of those around him. People think RGIII can be that type of talent, though we now have no chance of getting him.

  4. Denolakes says:

    With the RGIII sweepstakes over and Garcon going to the ‘Skins, as well. Virtually all the quality WRs are signed already to other teams (no surprise here). If the Browns trade for Ben Tate, then it makes either Blackmon or Claiborne their choice at No. 4, assuming they keep it. Trade down for another No. 2 and they still get quality WR and a QB that they like, plus more starters at key positions. Not sexy and I’m not sure I like it, but I see the logic.

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