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On the opening drill of practice this summer, Cleveland's defensive captain stepped into the huddle, began to relay the play and caught himself before he spoke. "I looked at the guys in front of me, and I literally had to do introductions with the whole defense, right there in the first huddle," outside linebacker Scott Fujita says. "Three of the guys, I didn't even know who they were. I say it lightly, but that was just the reality of it. I've never been on a team this young. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but it just emphasizes how important every rep is in practice."
The Browns need to be quick learners. Team president Mike Holmgren fired Eric Mangini after two seasons and a 10--22 record and brought in Pat Shurmur to resuscitate a franchise that showed some pulse in 2010 (back-to-back midseason wins over the Saints and the Patriots) before flat-lining (six losses in the final eight games).
The changes this year are substantial. Cleveland has installed a West Coast attack, shifted from a 3--4 defense to a 4--3 under new coordinator Dick Jauron and handed the reins of the offense to a young quarterback with an old soul, Colt McCoy. Shurmur's charge will be similar to what it was in St. Louis, where as coordinator he helped Sam Bradford become the 2010 Offensive Rookie of the Year. "Physically, emotionally and how they're wired to play the position, there are a lot of similarities in Sam and Colt," Shurmur says.
Though McCoy, a 2010 third-round pick out of Texas, was just 2--6 as a rookie last season, with a middling 74.5 passer rating, he impressed the Browns with his maturity and poise—one veteran compared him with a "young Drew Brees"—during a season in which he started out third on the depth chart. In Week 6, McCoy began a brutally tough stretch against the Steelers, Saints, Patriots and Jets as a neophyte and came out as a leader. At the team meeting the night before his first start, at Pittsburgh on Oct. 17, McCoy stood and addressed the room. He told his teammates not to worry about him; he was ready to play. Though the Browns lost 28--10, McCoy completed 23 of 33 passes for 281 yards. "To get eight games under your belt is invaluable," says McCoy, who'll be 25 when the season starts. "Being able to learn from those games, some of the positives, some of the negatives, will be huge. Mike and Pat talk about it: 'That was a free eight games. Use that to your advantage.'"
Before the lockout Holmgren and Shurmur were in McCoy's ear about being prepared once the work stoppage was over. "Their message was, Don't take any steps back. Be the leader and be ready to go," says McCoy. "I'd never had an off-season in the NFL, so I didn't know what it was like, but I tried to treat it like what I thought it would be. We did a good job this summer."
During the lockout McCoy invited teammates to Austin to work out and also had them running drills at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, down the street from the Browns' practice facility. On some days Cleveland's locked-out players watched film of the West Coast offense, a version of which McCoy ran at Texas. The local media dubbed the practice sessions Camp Colt. (McCoy was embarrassed by the name.) Even some defensive players showed up, including cornerback Joe Haden.
"Colt's just a winner," says Haden, the Browns' first-round pick out of Florida in 2010. "He commands respect. He's the first one here and the last one to leave. Whatever he says, goes."
Cleveland faces Pittsburgh and Baltimore twice each in the final five games. In a way the Browns will have the autumn to prepare for those battles. They'll need it to further break in their new offense and their young QB. The receiving corps is thin and callow—the top returning wideout, third-year man Mohamed Massaquoi, had just 36 receptions—but McCoy can lean on productive weapons in eighth-year tight end Benjamin Watson, who had a career-high 68 catches in his first season in Cleveland, and fourth-year back Peyton Hillis, who broke out in 2010 with 1,177 rushing yards and 61 receptions.
Camaraderie and optimism are the order of the day in Cleveland. At Camp Colt in Austin, all-purpose threat Josh Cribbs caught up with a video team and expressed the prevailing the sentiment: "The Browns, 2011—we're on our way."