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Browns coach Eric Mangini is running out of reasons not to keep McCoy behind center. Partly to keep opponents off balance, Mangini has been coy about naming his starter for each game, even though Delhomme and Wallace only returned to practice last week.

The injuries have given Mangini a convenient escape route, and he has taken it every time to avoid stamping McCoy as his No. 1 quarterback. With Delhomme and Wallace healthier and closer than ever to playing, Mangini won’t be able to keep his guessing game going.

On Monday, Mangini admitted that McCoy’s late-game performance deepened his and the coaching staff’s faith in the young QB.

“That drive Colt put together was another part of him building trust,” Mangini said. “That’s not an easy defense to move the ball in a two-minute situation and go score a touchdown on. There’s poise there, some outstanding plays from everybody.”

Mangini’s trust in McCoy was never more evident than when the Browns were backed up to their goal line in the final 1:35 of overtime. Instead of trying to run out the clock and settle for a tie, the Browns went for the win and ordered McCoy to throw from his end zone.

On first down at the 3, McCoy overthrew tight end Benjamin Watson, who was briefly open on a seam route. Watson had made a nice, 17-yard catch on the two-minute drive, and McCoy went back to him after getting a matchup he thought would work in Cleveland’s favor.

Although it was an incompletion, it may have been the Browns’ most important pass this season _ a clear sign that Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll believed enough in McCoy to put the game in his hands.

“It’s because I trusted him and trusted the group to be able to take that chance,” Mangini said. “That was why I made the decision I made at that point.”

McCoy finished 18 of 31 for 205 yards and no interceptions, but his stats hardly mattered.

He has blown the Browns away with other intangibles, and while Mangini may be reluctant to give him too much public praise, some of Cleveland’s players have bought into McCoy’s mystique.

“We’ve always believed in him,” linebacker Eric Barton said. “Every week he goes out there, personally he impresses me more and more. He’s just got it. It’s one of those things where he’s not tall, he can’t throw real hard, he can’t do this, but he’s a winner.

“You want like guys like that. He’s a natural leader and it’s infectious. I just love watching him. I love being around him. I think he’s a great quarterback.”

And just maybe Cleveland’s starter the rest of this season.

Mangini isn’t ready to go that far, but he came close when pressed on his quarterback situation. Anyway, that day is quickly approaching.

The Browns may have finally found their franchise quarterback of the future, but Mangini isn’t about to saddle McCoy with that.

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