- Associated Press - Monday, November 15, 2010

BEREA, OHIO (AP) - If there were any doubts, any lingering questions, any deeper suspicions about whether he could handle the pressure of being Cleveland’s starting quarterback and all that goes with it, Colt McCoy has put them all to rest.

The rookie passed his toughest test. In two minutes.

With 70,000 Cleveland fans screaming their heads off, millions of TV viewers watching the drama unfold and the Browns needing a late touchdown to tie the New York Jets, McCoy calmly entered the huddle, looked into his teammates’ eyes and made a promise.

“He said, ‘Look at me. We’re going to win this game,’” tight end Evan Moore said Monday.

The kid was almost right.

Making just his fourth pro start, McCoy drove the Browns down the field and threw a TD pass to wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi with 44 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. Cleveland eventually lost 26-20 to the Jets, who scored with 16 just seconds to play in the extra period.

Still, McCoy made his mark.

Facing his fourth straight tenacious defense _ he hasn’t had an easy one yet _ McCoy gave the Browns and their die-hard fans more reason to believe that he is the one they’ve been waiting for, the one to finally return Cleveland to pro football prominence.

“Quote me on this: They have a quarterback now,” said Jets linebacker Trevor Pryce, who played for Baltimore. “I’m glad I’m not in the AFC North anymore so I don’t have to see him get better. They’ve had problems for a long time. They now have a legit quarterback.”

Catapulted up the depth chart because of ankle injuries to Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace, McCoy has taken the starter’s job and run with it. Nothing has fazed the easygoing 24-year-old Texan who seemed to be in over his head during training camp and preseason.

But in four starts, he exuded confidence, fearlessness and leadership. McCoy handled Pittsburgh’s blitz, managed the Superdome’s din in a victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Saints, completed 75 percent of his passes to win a matchup with New England’s Tom Brady and nearly knocked off the Jets.

Before Sunday, all that was missing was a defining moment. The two-minute drive, covering 59 yards in 10 plays, gave him one.

McCoy accounted for all 59 yards, completing 5 of 9 passes for 58 and sneaking the other 1 for a first down at midfield before the two-minute warning.

Call him Colt McClutch.

“Like I said after his first game in Pittsburgh, he’s been there,” Moore said. “He was the winningest quarterback in college, so for him to come in and put together a drive to win is just him playing football. That’s what he does. I’m not surprised.

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.

“Oh, no,” Mangini said, emphatically. “I can’t say that. After four games, I can say I like a ton of the stuff about him, but I don’t want to put that pressure on him, either. We gotta let him continue to grow and develop. That’s a lot of pressure to put on him, not that he hasn’t been under a lot of pressure.

“I’m not going to add to it.”