By Eric Szczepinski
In a huge AFC battle with playoff implications riding on each game every week the Browns faced a must win game on the road against the Buffalo Bills. Following last week’s late game heroics by Brian Hoyer the Browns needed consistent play on the road from their veteran quarterback. Hoyer and the Browns offense sputtered throughout the game. Brian Hoyer was benched in favor of rookie sensation Johnny Manziel and has once again started a quarterback controversy heading into week 13 of the season. Mike Pettine declined to comment on who his week 13 starter would be so the debate begins this week, Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel?
Lets begin at looking at Brian Hoyer. Hoyer had his toughest challenge of the season going against the 5th rated defense and the best front four in all of football featuring Mario Williams. The Browns started the game working quick passes underneath, not allowing Buffalo’s pressure to get to Hoyer. Hoyer started the game hot, going 7/8 for 79 yards early on. Hoyer led the Browns on their longest drive of the season marching 91 yards on 15 plays. The drive stalled and Billy Cundiff connected with a field goal. The offense looked in rhythm and it looked like the quick passing attack would be successful against a superior Buffalo defense.
However, after this drive the offense was stagnant and made costly mistakes. Hoyer threw an interception on another mis-communication down the seem intended for Josh Gordon and another on a post route to Taylor Gabriel who was in double coverage. Hoyer stared down Gabriel and threw a horrible interception. That would be Hoyer’s last play before he got benched. Hoyer finished the game 18 of 30 passing for 192 yards and 2 interceptions. Hoyer’s play has steadily declined and it has been evident the past 3 weeks. Pro Football Focus has graded Brian Hoyer -18.7 over the past 3 weeks which is by far the worst among starting quarterbacks. The second worst is Raider’s rookie Derek Car who graded in at -7.9. Hoyer needed to rebound from back-to-back poor performances against Houston and Atlanta. Hoyer failed to spark the offense and with time running out to make a comeback Head Coach Mike Pettine made a move with 12:01 in the 4th quarter.
In came Johnny Manziel in a hostile environment on the road trailing 17 points in the 4th quarter. Looking calm and poised, Manziel went to work. Kyle Shannahan used Manziel’s strengths by bootlegging him out of the pocket and using play action. What impressed me the most about Manziel’s 80-yard scoring drive was his throw over the middle to Josh Gordon. The Browns were in hurry up offense and as Manziel got to the line under center, he scanned the Bills defense and changed the play at the line of scrimmage. This showed the level of maturity and growth Manziel has made since week 4 of the preseason. During his first series as quarterback Manziel had full control and demand of the offense. On the play Manziel play action faked and threw a strike to Gordon over the middle for 18 yards. The drive was capped off by Manziel making another highlight reel rushing touchdown he was known for at Texas A&M. His rushing touchdown also stuck out because he showed his growth as a passer. Manziel looked to throw the entire time and as no one was open and he recognized man coverage (seeing defenders backs) he found a huge running lane to take off and score.
14 weeks ago the Cleveland Browns named Brian Hoyer as their starting quarterback. It was the right decision at the time and Hoyer surpassed all expectations and has placed the Browns in the middle of a playoff race. 14 weeks ago Manziel was nowhere near being ready to take over the reins and become the day one starter. Manziel has embraced the backup role and has become a student of the game, learning the offense. In his first series Manziel showed the poise and command of the offense, a very important trait every coach wants in their young quarterback. Sitting 14 weeks has benefited Manziel immensely. The Browns plan all along was to ride Brian Hoyer as far as he could possibly take him letting Johnny Manziel sit and learn the offense. No one expected Hoyer to start as long as he has let alone to perform as well as he did early on and position the Browns for the playoffs. Everyone knew Hoyer would have to play lights out in order to keep the talented rookie on the bench and Hoyer successfully did that most of this season. But with the Browns 1-2 in their past 3 games, and with the recent decline in Hoyer’s performance, the time was right to make the quarterback switch.
ESPN’s Sal Paolontonio talked to Mike Pettine after the game Sunday, “The door is definitely open for a change at the quarterback position,” Pettine told Paolontonio. “It’s not like we’re just going to go back to Brian. This has been a cumulative thing where discussions about a change at quarterback have been more and more lively. We’ll evaluate both quarterbacks and have a decision soon.”
Mike Pettine seemed hesitant in the words he used and made it seem that he was leaning on putting the season on the shoulders of his rookie quarterback. Peter King from Sports Illustrated had this to say on Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel, “As good as he was in the first half of the season in solidifying Cleveland’s shaky offense without Josh Gordon, he hasn’t been good enough over the past month, or in the two games since Gordon came back. Manziel should get a shot, and now.” National and local media are expecting Mike Pettine to name Manziel the Browns starter on Wednesday, which comes with great expectations for Manziel. The move to Johnny is a boom or bust move for this season. Its time for the Browns to push all the chips in on Manziel for the remainder of the season. Yes, the Browns want to make the playoffs, but no one expected the Browns to be in this situation. The Browns are also looking at the long term picture. The last thing the Browns want is to miss the playoffs with a struggling Brian Hoyer while leaving Manziel on the bench not knowing what they have in him. Playing Manziel will benefit the Browns long term while still playing for a playoff spot this year. From the beginning Manziel will be playing in a playoff type atmosphere and this will help him grow immensely.
The Browns (7-5) are still in the middle of a playoff race, hosting a huge game with Indianapolis on Sunday. They have put a ton of pressure on Manziel. The switch to Manziel would be a last chance desperation move for making the playoffs this year in the competitive AFC. Also, the switch allows the Browns to get their rookie quarterback adjusted and adapted to the NFL during these last 4 games. Playing Manziel these last 4 games will set a bar for Manziel to know exactly what he has to accomplish next off-season to be a successful NFL quarterback. For the Browns to make the postseason it looks like a finish of 3-1 would sneak the Browns in. Having a tough stretch for a rookie without experience will provide a difficult challenge for Manziel and the Browns. But with Johnny Football at the helm, anything is possible. Go Browns.