Redskins’ Colt McCoy stays ready, waiting on an ‘if’

Quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh, left, watches Colt McCoy during training camp. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by John McDonnell.

RICHMOND, Va. – The last man off the Redskins practice field Monday afternoon was strolling back to the locker room when two fans stopped him. One was wearing a Colt McCoy Redskins jersey. The other mentioned to the real-life quarterback how much he enjoyed his Monday Night Football win over the Cowboys in 2014. Wasn’t that something, Pete Grant asked McCoy? Wasn’t that a memory? Couldn’t he do that again?

McCoy posed for photos, and signed autographs, and thanked the men for their support. But no, McCoy would rather not linger on memories of perhaps his best moment in the NFL.

“I can’t look back,” McCoy said moments later. “I can’t think about that. No. That’s in the past. I proved I could do it. Now, if I get that chance again. . .”

That’s quite an “if,” and one that hovers around the 29-year-old veteran. Washington’s dizzying 2014 quarterback carousel has long been powered down; the music, turned off. Two of its three participants now appear to have starting jobs: Kirk Cousins with the Redskins and Robert Griffin III with the Browns. And the third quarterback – the man who likely played the best of the three in 2014, before losing his starting job because of a late-season neck injury – is once again Washington’s backup.

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So why come back here? McCoy wasn’t compelled to return for a third season with the Redskins. He had offers from four other clubs this past offseason; all were to serve as a backup, but some were more lucrative than Washington’s three-year $9-million offer. (“I looked at the offers on the table and what people thought of me, and it was a lot better than kind of what you hear from the media,” he said.)

McCoy said he thought about his choice for a few days, but in the end, the decision seemed easy. Coaches in Washington trusted and respected him, and “that’s hard to find in our league,” he said. The team was coming off a playoff appearance, and the offense was stacked with talent. The next time McCoy takes the field, he has to succeed. And so here he is, feeling like he’s a better quarterback than he ever has been, but without much of a chance to show that to the world.

“Obviously we all want to play. I’d give anything,” he said. “Listen, there’s no glory in my role, right? There’s no glory. The hours and hours of preparing, that’s just my responsibility. And I may never see the field. But if I do, it’s up to me.”

That’s why McCoy is so emphatic about not dwelling in the past. It’s why he grabbed my shoulder to add a bit of friendly emphasis on that point. And it’s why he asked me several times to convey a message to the fans: that “I know I haven’t played a whole lot, and I know you don’t really know me, but I’m proud to be a Washington Redskin, and I’m proud to be on this team.”

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For the rest of us, though, all that past is hard to ignore. McCoy went through five offensive systems in his first five NFL seasons: three in the Cleveland quagmire — where he also was hampered by a head injury — and one as a San Francisco backup. He came to Washington looking to resurrect his career, and it seemed to be happening in 2014, even if that now feels like several lifetimes ago. McCoy rallied the Redskins to a home victory over Tennessee, led them to that prime-time upset in Dallas, and reclaimed the starting role late in the season. It didn’t seem crazy to imagine him competing for the starting job, at least on an interim basis.

But Cousins won a never-announced quarterback competition last summer, and then became the first Washington quarterback to start 16 games since Jason Campbell. Griffin moved on. And McCoy could have been left wondering exactly where his starting chance had wandered off to.

That’s against the rules, though. Remember: no lingering.

“I just don’t want to focus on any negative thing in the past, because I very easily could,” he said. “I certainly think that I’ll have another opportunity at some point. But right now, in this place, I can’t look back. There’s a lot of things that happened in the past, a lot of things that I wish could have gone a different way, that I could change. It’s not going to help me moving forward if I keep thinking about that. So my job right now is to manage my expectations and not look back.”

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And so looking forward, McCoy has re-imagined his role. His job now is “more transformational than transactional,” he decided, “meaning I have an opportunity to be behind the scenes and help everybody.” He talked about pouring himself into that work: helping offensive linemen with their calls (“because I know all the calls,”) helping running backs with their depths, helping receivers with their routes. He studies the first-team weapons so he’ll know their preferences, and he studies Cousins so he can offer his perspective to the starter.

He’s also as careful with his words as anyone on this roster, pausing repeatedly to make sure his message comes out correctly, and that his personal ambitions don’t carry with them even a hint of dissatisfaction.

“That’s his way,” said Chris Hall, McCoy’s center at Texas, who remains convinced that a healthy McCoy could be a Pro Bowl quarterback in the right situation. “Colt’s way is to grind, and to work, and to not make a peep about it. When nobody else was around and everybody else had already packed up and gone home, Colt’s doing extra workouts. That’s his way: to keep his head down and go to work.”

Still, there are realities. When McCoy plays in the preseason, it likely won’t be with Washington’s star-laden receiving corps but with backups fighting for roster spots. Washington’s starting quarterback is getting paid nearly $20 million this season; McCoy is making a fraction of that. The final year of his contract can be voided only if he plays at least 65 percent of Washington’s snaps either this season or next. He feels better equipped to succeed than he ever has before, and yet he knows he might never get to demonstrate that. Still, there’s that “if.”

“If I ever do get that opportunity, it’s going to mean the world to me, and I’m gonna have a tight grip on it, too. I’m not gonna let it go,” McCoy said. “I know I can play. I know I can play. People on this team know that. Coaches know that. So my job right now is continue to show that, to continue to be a great locker room guy, helping these guys along, coaching guys along on the side. . . . I want to win. I want to do whatever I can to help us win. But at the end of the day, my butt’s gonna be ready to play if I need to play.”