Starting Manziel: a disastrous idea for the Browns?

Brett Klein

Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer made his 13th start of the season in as many games this past Sunday in the team’s one-point loss to the Colts. However, it will likely have been his last one of the season and maybe even his last one ever for Cleveland. 

After being yanked from the game in which the team lost 26-10 to the Bills the week prior, Hoyer’s job security as his team’s starter was up in the air. 

Naturally, before Head Coach Mike Pettine re-awarded Hoyer the starting nod against the Colts, media and fans from all corners of the nation wondered about the potential commencement of the impending Johnny Manziel era in Cleveland. 

Pettine gave Hoyer one more chance on Sunday, but after another poor performance, the team decided to start Manziel this coming weekend against the Bengals.

The Browns’ coaching staff made a mistake by pulling Hoyer from the Bills game with 12 minutes remaining, at which point they trailed 20-3. It didn’t seem like a bad move at the time, given that Hoyer had thrown two interceptions. The error, though, was throwing a monkey wrench in the team’s chemistry. 

 Generally, it’s not a great idea to pull your starting quarterback from a game unless he will be benched for the remainder of the season. Hoyer now appears to be benched for good, but the team did throw him into the fray the week after pulling him from the game. Being replaced mid-game will rattle a starter’s confidence and have an adverse effect on the team as a whole. In the Browns’ particular situation, though, this move was an especially major gaffe.

First, following the loss to the Bills, the Browns were 7-5—still in the playoff picture despite playing in the hyper-competitive AFC North—and it was unwise to turn on the QB that got them there in spite of his poor play. More importantly, the Browns’ decision was wrong because they have the most polarizing backup quarterback since Tim Tebow breathing down Hoyer’s neck, which made controversy a near certainty.

When Pettine named Hoyer the team’s starter in training camp prior to the start of the regular season, it should have marked the end of the Manziel conversation. The team picked their guy and they had to stay with him as long as the team remained competitive—and it did with Hoyer at the helm. 

For the most part, the organization did a fine job of backing Hoyer through his rough starts and keeping the Johnny Football banter to a minimum—until week 13. Then Pettine unleashed the speculation of the masses that are mesmerized by thoughts of what Manziel can do as an NFL QB. Those masses will now get their wish this Sunday.  

Hoyer admitted that he was shocked after being pulled from the Bills game, and he should have been, even despite his unexceptional play. He had, at that point, led a perpetually underachieving franchise to relevance and a 7-5 record.

Sure, Hoyer’s numbers had been pretty mediocre—six interceptions and just one touchdown in the three games before playing Indianapolis—but the Browns were still in the hunt. And even with those depressing numbers, Hoyer had still thrown more touchdowns (11) than interceptions (10) on the season while completing over 56 percent of his passes. 

Hoyer went 14-31 on Sunday for 140 yards along with two picks and no touchdowns, hence Pettine opting to start Manziel. I’m not supporting Hoyer, though, as much as I’m backing the fragility of a player’s psyche and a team’s togetherness and mindset. 

Granted that Hoyer’s numbers have been ugly, stats do not tell the whole story. It’s more about wins and losses, which is an area that Hoyer has succeeded in this season, compared to his lengthy list of failed predecessors. By putting Manziel in the game against the Bills, Pettine communicated to Hoyer that he had doubts about his abilities and questions about which of his quarterbacks was better equipped to run the team. 

While those doubts and questions may be justified, that is the last thing that Hoyer, an undrafted free agent, needed to feel from his coach.

In the same way, this quarterback situation isn’t about the stats, it isn’t really about Manziel, either. Johnny Football was impressive in his time against the Bills; he went 5-8 for 63 yards and finished a scoring drive by sprinting into the end zone from 10 yards out. But then again, he isn’t the one who has put the Browns in position to compete for a playoff spot. 

If the Browns were going to hand the reigns off to Manziel, the time to do so was in August, not now in December. 

It’s ill advised to throw a 7-6 team on the shoulders of a 21-year-old rookie and suffer through the growing pains while attempting to make a playoff push, but that is now the situation that the Browns face. 

Browns all-pro left tackle Joe Thomas reportedly advised Pettine to keep his faith in Hoyer after the team’s loss to the Bills and summed up the connotative message sent to the team by Hoyer’s benching. 

“When you start throwing guys out there and seeing what they can do, the message is: ‘we’re already playing for next year,” Thomas said. “We don’t think necessarily that we can get into the playoffs this year anymore.” 

So not only did Pettine more or less turn his back on his starter, but he also conveyed a somewhat defeatist attitude to his team whether he intended to or not. By going with Manziel as the starter now, perhaps Thomas will change his view and understand that Pettine simply believes that Manziel gives them the best chance to win. 

After his fourth bad game in a row, Hoyer seemingly lost the confidence of his teammates, coaches and fans. 

And those feelings are justified because Hoyer has been nearly as likely to connect with opposing cornerbacks and safeties as with his own receivers lately.  

Unfortunately for a franchise that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2002, the playoffs are now a long shot once again barring a Johnny Football miracle. 

Perhaps they never should have doubted the guy who finally brought some respectability to the Cleveland franchise.