My original plan for this week's Browns play review was to cover the A-11 formation touchdown pass from Colt McCoy to Robert Royal, but Mike Tanier, my outstanding Football Outsiders colleague, covered it on Monday. While that was the splash play of the game, McCoy showed me a lot more in Cleveland's eventual 19-17 loss to the Bengals. More than ever, I'm convinced that a rebuilding Browns team will be best-served by putting McCoy under center and seeing how far he can take it in 2011.
We should start with the rough spots, knowing full well that there are physical debits that will prevent McCoy from making the highlight reels at times – his arm is average at best, and at 6-1, 216 coming out of Texas, there were all the worries about his holding up at the NFL level. He did miss Cleveland's previous three games with a high ankle sprain, but that's no specific indication of an injury-prone nature.
Additionally, there are times when the rookie shows a greenish hue in his passing reads and decisions; we saw two examples early in the Bengals game. On his first pass of the day, McCoy flat-out overthrew Peyton Hillis on a simple swing pass that probably wouldn't have gone anywhere, as two Bengals defenders were zeroing in on Hillis out of man coverage. The next play featured his first completion of the day, a 15-yarder to Ben Watson in which his throw had Watson jumping to catch it over the middle. That's a common rookie mistake, to throw your receiver into an unprotected position, but I didn't see McCoy do it again in this game, and that's one thing about him that impresses me – he seems to learn from his mistakes.
On the bright side, he is well-versed in selling play action, and he's tremendously effective when he's rolling out or on the run – people are inclined to being up the Drew Brees similarities (a short guy from Texas), but McCoy's ability to see the field and make plays happen when rolling out is one way in which I think the comparison sticks. He'll need to continue to do that in order to open throwing lanes; we saw that he will have passes batted down on an attempted throw out of trips left with 11:56 left in the first half. Both Brees and Michael Vick, who are each shorter than McCoy, know that rolling out is the best way to bring their advantages to bear.
Despite his arm strength being a legitimate concern in some offenses, I think there's a reason Mike Holmgren pulled the trigger on McCoy. As the best living teacher of the West Coast Offense, Holmgren knows better than anyone that as long as your quarterback can run the game and make stick throws when necessary, a rocket arm is not required. We saw this when McCoy went back to Watson late in the third quarter. It was another pass over the middle, but this time, McCoy threw a great ball with outstanding timing, beating Cincinnati's zone in the process.
The Bengals, who run as much Cover-3 as any team in the NFL, went with a Cover-2 look on the Browns' second-and-8 with 1:03 left in the third quarter. McCoy had the ball at the Cincinnati 32, and took the shotgun snap with Hillis to his left. At the snap, four zone defenders converged on the middle of the field while two receivers and the other tight end (Royal) ran their clearing routes.
Watson went straight into the teeth of that zone box and waited for McCoy's throw under safeties Reggie Nelson (20) and Roy L. Williams (31), and in front of linebackers Dhani Jones (57) and Keith Rivers (55). This time, the throw was perfect – just high enough to get over Jones' attempted deflection, but not so high that Watson was going to get his ribs crunched by two or three tacklers. It was a great example of how McCoy has the confidence – and him coaches have confidence in him – to re-run plays that have not been as successful in the past for whatever reason.
Rookie quarterbacks will make mistakes; that's the nature of the beast. But again, what makes McCoy so impressive is the fact that he processes those mistakes, starts to eliminate them immediately, and has no fear about getting back on the proverbial bike. That's a huge Step 1 on the path to a successful NFL future.