Redskins fans chanted his name after three quarters of boos failed to convey the magnitude of their disgust.
On Sunday against St. Louis, Washington’s home crowd will get its wish. Colt McCoy will make his third start of the season and his first at home since supplanting Griffin as Washington’s No. 1 quarterback — a job that in the Redskins’ glory days was deemed second only to that of the president in terms of prestige in the nation’s capital.
With Washington (3-9) eliminated from the playoffs, the most compelling question in the four remaining games is whether McCoy, 28, will prove to be a mere placeholder or stake a claim for the job in 2015.
For now, he is first-year Coach Jay Gruden’s third attempt at getting the quarterback job right in a season gone horribly wrong.
After benching second-string quarterback Kirk Cousins for a rash of late-game turnovers and sitting Griffin for his poor decision-making in the pocket, Gruden said he seeks nothing spectacular from McCoy against the Rams. He’s simply looking for competence and steadiness.
“You want to see consistency, number one,” Gruden said in an interview. “I don’t want to see three quarters of good football and one quarter of, ‘Oh my God! Who is this guy?’ I feel like we have gotten that enough.”
Washington has lost four straight games. Once coveted Redskins tickets can be bought on the resale market for less than a cappuccino. And Gruden has yet to establish he’s capable of engineering a turnaround of this chronically underachieving squad.
Amid this bleak backdrop, McCoy, the most successful quarterback in University of Texas history and the 2008 Heisman Trophy runner-up, has a rare opportunity to reassert himself as a viable NFL starter on his third stop in a five-year pro career marked by more losses than wins.
“You’re always playing for your career when you’re a backup quarterback,” said Charley Casserly, former Redskins general manager and now an analyst for NFL Network. “I think the league views him as a backup quarterback.
“But two things are happening here. He’s playing for a job for next year. And the Redskins, from their point of view, have a decision to make. The easy one is to say you’ve got to go get a quarterback. But next year, your quarterback might be Colt McCoy.”
Starting the season as a third-stringer, McCoy wasn’t expected to play a single down. But he is the only quarterback to have led the team to victory in a complete game. And he did it against the red-hot Cowboys in Dallas, on “Monday Night Football,” overcoming a tentative start to claw out a 20-17 upset in overtime.
McCoy wasn’t at the top of any NFL team’s wish list when free agency opened.
His NFL résumé — 6-15 in 21 starts for Cleveland, which traded him to San Francisco after three seasons — wasn’t impressive.
The eye test isn’t persuasive; at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, he’s smaller than the prototypical NFL quarterback. And his soft-spoken voice and polite manner undersell him, if anything.
But all that, according to former Texas coach Mack Brown, obscures the bigger point.
“He is very thoughtful. He gives back to the community. He has a very strong faith; in fact, I’ve never heard him say a cuss word. Never. He is very positive, and he looks very young,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “But what people do not understand about him is he is fiercely competitive, and he will fight you till the end. Winning is more important to him than anything else.”
He also boasts a rock-solid confidence that’s rooted in self-awareness rather than arrogance, hard work rather than entitlement.
“I understand I’m not the most skilled quarterback,” McCoy said. “I don’t have the strongest arm. I’m not the fastest guy; I’m not the most athletic guy. But I do feel like there are some qualities I bring that are good. For me, I have to be fully prepared each week. My preparation stems from being smart, understanding what defenses do, what they’re trying to do, knowing the right place to go with the football versus different coverages and different blitzes.”
In four seasons at Texas (2006-09), McCoy led the Longhorns to 45 victories in 53 starts and forged a brotherhood with teammates that endures today.
Tight end David Thomas, three years older, remembers first coming across McCoy as a scrawny teenage quarterback from Class 2A Jim Ned High School. What struck Thomas then, and again when McCoy debuted as a redshirt freshman, was McCoy’s fearlessness and hunger.
“He just has this incredible belief in himself that’s contagious,” Thomas said.
After leading Texas to a 12-0 regular season during his senior year, McCoy’s star turn in the BCS national championship game against Alabama ended with a shoulder injury on the Longhorns’ opening drive.
Brown says McCoy never showed a trace of bitterness over the setback but got back to work. Nonetheless, his stock in the 2010 NFL draft suffered. And his college success never translated with the Browns, who picked him in the third round.
“It was a rough go in Cleveland,” McCoy said. “What I can hang my hat on is that I gave it everything that I had. As frustrating as it was, as much change and turnover as it was, I accept the fact that we didn’t win enough games for me to keep my job.”
Taking note of all this, for no reason other than he enjoys studying quarterbacks, was Gruden, who recalls McCoy’s toughness at Texas and amid losing efforts in Cleveland.
“I can remember him taking hits and still standing in there,” Gruden said when asked why he wanted to sign McCoy as a free agent. “He was that tough, gritty type of guy that you’d like to have on your team.”
Installed as Washington’s starter following Griffin’s third straight loss since returning from injury, McCoy began poorly against the Colts. Handed two turnovers at the outset, the offense produced just one field goal. He was sacked six times and had four fumbles, one returned for a touchdown. But he finished with a career-high 392 passing yards while proving he could still make plays with his legs, eluding three tackles to hit tight end Logan Paulsen with one of his three touchdown passes.
Some of the NFL’s best quarterbacks have bloomed late. Peyton Manning was an interception machine early in his career, as was Brett Favre. Steve Young was initially considered a bust with Tampa Bay. And sixth-round draft pick Tom Brady may have never gotten off the bench had Drew Bledsoe never gotten injured.
This is good news for McCoy, who is in his fifth season. It should come as solace, too, for Griffin and Cousins, in their third seasons. Still, the Redskins have three 20-something quarterbacks (Griffin is 24; Cousins, 26; McCoy, 28) with losing NFL records.
Looking to next season, Washington could draft a long-range quarterback if Gruden decides Griffin isn’t the answer.
Another option: sticking with McCoy, assuming he finishes the season strong.
A third option: holding an open competition for the job among whoever is on the roster. Gruden chuckles, lest he weep, over the prospect of having such a monumental question hang in the balance during training camp,
“You don’t want to have competition at that position all the time,” Gruden said. “You’d like to have a guy you can say, ‘Hey, this is our quarterback, fellas. Let’s build our team around him!’ And then you have the competition between No. 2 and 3.
“We’ll see what happens these last four games. Then as a staff we’ll have to talk about the future of the position — whether we’re going to build around Colt, whether we’re going to have a competition between Colt and Robert and Kirk.”
McCoy insists he’s not looking beyond St. Louis but instead is “staying in my three-foot world.”
That means nothing has changed about his preparation.
He’s among the first players to arrive at Redskins Park and among the last to leave. When practice ends, he heads out for a long run early in the week, switching to gassers later in the week. He doesn’t draw attention to his effort, although he’s speaking out more in meetings now that the Redskins are his team.
McCoy has never needed prodding to do his work. He knows he can’t scramble unless he’s aerobically fit. He also knows he can’t absorb NFL-caliber hits unless he keeps his weight up. So year after year, regardless of his place on the depth chart, he logs the extra miles and packs on the extra calories just in case he’s called upon.
It’s no surprise to Quan Cosby, a former Texas teammate who traveled to Dallas last month to cheer McCoy on in his first start for the Redskins. Like McCoy, Cosby said he learned years ago that the NFL is a business that specializes in telling college players why they’re not good enough. An undrafted wide receiver, Cosby earned his way onto four NFL teams. He knows why his former quarterback refuses to fold.
“He was the winningest college football quarterback in the history of the game,” Cosby said of McCoy, whose record has since been eclipsed. “I knew all the things that were said about what he couldn’t do in the league would only make him work harder.”
So McCoy keeps at it, working in hopes an NFL team will count on him again rather than count him out.