It was 2006. Austin, Texas was coming down from the high of a national championship several months earlier. Like every other Texas alum, I was glued to a quarterback battle between blue chip true freshman Jevan Snead and the underdog two-star recruit; a redshirt freshman from West Texas named Colt McCoy. McCoy won the job, and then a then-record 45 NCAA games and legendary status in Texas football history. He was undersized and underpowered QB by NFL standards and appropriately drafted in the third round by Cleveland in 2010.
Two years later, another draft looms ahead and it’s hard to think of a current NFL player whose future is as tied to the outcome as Colt’s is. He surprised everyone with a great run as a rookie and perhaps showed his greatest potential in an overtime loss to the Jets. Holographic chips and questionable biographies aside, he looked like he might beat the odds in the NFL just like he did in Texas. Yet his second year campaign saw him rank near the bottom of the league as a passer, nearly murdered by opposing defenses, concussed, and bogged down by an overbearing father and other unseemly off-field chirping. While McCoy’s toughness on the field is no longer a question, it seems a near certainty that the Browns will draft another quarterback in this draft.
I like to put NFL quarterbacks into four different categories:
“The Perennial All-Pro”- This quarterback not only has the mental and physical ability to play the game but can also carry the team on his back. He makes everyone around him better. Expect multiple Pro Bowl selections. Barring injury, the playoffs are a certainty. The only question is what stands between them and the Super Bowl. (Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning)
“The Solid Pro”- This is a quarterback who won’t necessarily carry his team but can play the position well enough that there are no questions about his basic abilities. Surrounded by an adequate cast and a good defense he should get you to the playoffs and perhaps even a Super Bowl if everything else is exceptional. Much harder to win but there’s no question you’re in playoff contention. (Matt Hasselbeck, Joe Flacco)
“The Question”- This player has “upside” or “potential” which translates into “there are holes in his game but we think we can fix them.” This player, by definition, has either a physical hindrance such as arm strength, accuracy or height or an intellectual one. You don’t know exactly how long it might take to get to the next level but your coach and GM will probably lose their job unless it happens very quickly. Your team may pour an investment of time (years) and money into these polarizing figures and ultimately come up empty. (Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn).
“The Dud”- This player really has no business being in the league. They aren’t common but they either have zero skill or they have a lack of professionalism or a character flaw that they cannot overcome (Ryan Leaf, Jamarcus Russell)
A real danger for NFL franchises lies in incorrectly evaluating which group a quarterback falls in here.
It probably isn’t fair to lump a player into these groups before their third year but we all know the judgment happens sooner than that. Colt was very inaccurate last year. He struggled to move the team. Bottom line is that he didn’t win and he looked bad doing it.
Colt posted a pedestrian 74.5 passer rating and a completion percentage that was under 60%. That’s hardly going to get it done in the NFL. At some point in the middle of this past season, this Texas alum turned in his bandwagon ticket, as hard as it was to do. At some point in middle age, the recent QB from your alma mater feels more like your kid than your peer. Yet I reached the point last season where I believed it was more likely that Colt wouldn’t be the QB of the future for the Browns than that he would.
Even though I might be off of the bandwagon I do wonder if the critics (including myself) are too hard on Colt based on 2011. The optimist would say that his receivers led the league in drops. His offensive line gave up a QB hit 83 times (8th) along with 39 sacks (13th). He had a remarkably poor rushing offense around him averaging only 3.7 yards per rush. He had a coach whose offense he had to learn on his own without an OTA or preseason program. He had an offense that former NFL QB Dan Fouts remarked had no “hot route” concept and a play-caller who didn’t call a vertical route until the third quarter of that game. The play concepts seemed odd as his drops didn’t always match the depth of the pass pattern. He appeared to not have the authority to audible, which would limit any quarterback. While his accuracy was poor his bigger problem was holding the ball too long, which was not a problem at Texas where he knew the playbook and was on the same page as his receivers (though, admittedly, in a much simpler offensive scheme).
Last season saw a few rookie quarterbacks find varied degrees of success. Cam Newton was the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Andy Dalton and Tim Tebow led teams to the playoffs. Newton and Tebow each played for head coaches who were new to their teams. What does this tell us about Colt McCoy? It’s probably an apples-to-oranges comparison, because there are two advantages that each of those QBs had that Colt did not have. First, each of those teams had a greater threat of a running game as they weren’t married to the West Coast Offense. The Broncos and Panthers were #1 and #3 in rushing respectively. Second and perhaps more importantly, those coaches realized the limits of those players’ abilities and drew up offensive game plans that were comfortable for the player. Ron Rivera’s staff watched every Auburn game to develop concepts for Newton. John Fox and Mike McCoy switched to (and won with) a high school offense to suit Tebow. It might be that the Browns will not adjust to the abilities of their QB and would rather that he “sink or swim” running their predictable and rigidly Walshian offense.
The question now becomes not “what do I think about Colt McCoy?” but “what do the Browns think about Colt McCoy?” While the franchise’s heated pursuit of Robert Griffin III might say a lot about the answer to that question, in a few short days we’ll have more clarity.
If we take the organizations statements about the pursuit of RGIII at face value – that the player was too special to pass up, but that they still think Colt can be a good quarterback in the league — the Browns will not select Ryan Tannehill from Texas A&M at #4 (or, God forbid, trade up to #3 to get him). More likely, they’ll select an offensive weapon like Trent Richardson or Justin Blackmon at #4 and probably others with later picks, to give Colt another look with better talent around him. This wouldn’t preclude taking Brandon Weeden in the late first or early second round, or someone like Brock Osweiler, Kirk Cousins or Nick Foles in later rounds. Colt needs the competition. The Browns need the competition. The 2012 draft a watershed moment for player and team.
Ed’s note: Don’t forget, the official Cleveland Frowns Draft Party at Map Room (sponsored by JIM BEAM) is in two days, with door PRIZES, discount brand name BOURBON and domestic drafts, non-specified discount appetizers, FREE pizza, LIVE drunk-tweeting, and an unspeakable MESS of talk about non-transdermal holographic chips and everything else that’s important. We’ll be back tomorrow here for more draft talk, etc.