BEREA — Colt McCoy entered the locker room and the rookie treatment began.
"Hey, look at Colt." "Can I get an autograph?" "Guarantee a win, Colt."
McCoy was the center of attention Wednesday morning as he stood in the middle of dozens of reporters. He's expected to make his NFL debut as the starting quarterback Sunday in Pittsburgh.
"Golly. You can tell my teammates, they're all joshing with me and giving me a hard time," McCoy said over the hoots, hollers and catcalls. "But I'm really excited."
The rookie treatment from the Steelers won't be as innocent - or as painless. They have allowed the fewest points in the league (50) and the fourth-fewest yards per game (289.0) and have 11 sacks and 12 takeaways.
"I've watched their defense for the last two days -- a lot," McCoy said. "They're really fast. They fly around to the ball. They're physical and they walk around and try to get a rusher free or somebody in pass coverage that's not accounted for."
McCoy (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) was a third-round pick, No. 85 overall, out of Texas. He was the winningest quarterback in NCAA history with 45 victories and will have his No. 12 retired Oct. 30. Browns president Mike Holmgren wanted to let him grow into a bigger role, and the team's plan was to have him watch from the sideline all season.
But veterans Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace have serious ankle injuries and didn't practice Wednesday. Coach Eric Mangini wouldn't rule them out for the game, but admitted he's "leaning" toward starting McCoy. Brett Ratliff, who was re-signed Tuesday and has spent three years under Mangini, is another possibility.
"I want to take a look at the practice, but he'll get a majority of the reps," Mangini said of McCoy. "I have confidence in Colt. I have confidence in Brett.
"Colt's played a lot of football games and he's won a lot of football games, just hasn't done it here."
McCoy, who talked to the media wearing a backward Longhorns hat and a Browns T-shirt, accepted his role as No. 3 quarterback but always believed he was ready to play.
"Coach Holmgren said it at the very beginning of the season, Coach Mangini, that I was going to watch and learn," McCoy said, "but you know what, throughout the first four or five games this season, I've prepared like I was the starter, I worked hard.
"In the meetings and the film room I studied with Jake and Seneca and Coach (Brian) Daboll. I understand what we're doing offensively. I understand our game plans. So now you just got to go out there and do it."
McCoy was a three-year starter in high school under his father, Brad, then started four years at Texas. He's used to playing.
But his first college game was vs. North Texas and his first road game vs. Rice at Houston's Reliant Stadium. Not exactly the Steelers at Heinz Field, which will be packed with towel-waving maniacs.
"I'm not trying to think of that," McCoy said. "I'm thinking about what I need to do offensively for this team to be successful. Going on the road in Pittsburgh, yeah, that's tough. All the odds are stacked up against us.
"If we go out and do what we do, I think we have a chance."
"You don't beat the Steelers with one player, you beat the Steelers with a team and a team that plays well together through four quarters," Mangini said. "There are no trick plays, there's no microwave answer to beating these guys. You better be ready to meet that intensity and meet it head on, and if you aren't, then you've got problems."
All ribbing aside, his teammates rallied around McCoy. They know they need him, and that they need to help him.
"He's well-equipped to go in this game against the so-called big, bad Steelers and help us win this football game," said receiver Joshua Cribbs, who could take some of the pressure off with more time as the Wildcat quarterback. "He's a proven winner and I believe with the talent around him, and with the package that's going to be tailored for him, we will put him in the best situation to be successful.
"We're not trying to put the game on his shoulders at all. Just stay within the system and let it work for (you). And it will, he's smart enough to know that."
McCoy got off to a rough start in the preseason. He threw interceptions and took sacks and didn't appear ready to play at this level.
But he rebounded in the preseason finale, starting and going 13-for-13 for 131 yards and a 108.7 rating vs. the Bears. That gave him a boost of confidence before heading back to the bench for the next month.
"That obviously helped," McCoy said. "It helped around the locker room. It helped around my coaches."
The zone blitzes of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau make the Steelers particularly tough for a rookie quarterback. They always seem to bring more guys, in unexpected places, than the line can block. McCoy asked Delhomme for any tips, but he's never faced them, either.
McCoy already made his first rookie mistake of the week. Midway through the news conference, he noticed he was wearing the play-call cheat sheet on his wrist and quickly took it off.
"He is a lot more comfortable calling the plays, understanding the plays, understanding the reads, the cadences, the personnel that he's working with," Mangini said. "All that stuff was brand new."
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 10-1 against the Browns. He knows what McCoy should expect Sunday.
"Heckuva rivalry," he said. "To come into Heinz Field it's going to be quite an experience for him. I know playing in the Big 12 and playing for Texas, he's had some big rivalries with Oklahoma and games like that. I'm sure the crowd won't overwhelm him too much.
"But I'm sure he's going to get the experience really quick what an AFC North and especially a Browns-Steelers rivalry is like."
McCoy is eager for the opportunity.
"I've heard about (the rivalry) for sure," he said. "Whether it's from guys in here in the locker room or just people around town. I know it's a big rivalry and it's important to us. I know that."
The rookie learns fast.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.