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Browns make right move in starting Brian Hoyer, but now real work starts for Johnny Manziel

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

After what could reasonably be deemed the worst quarterback competition in recent NFL memory, Brian Hoyer has been named the Cleveland Browns’ starter.

That leaves Johnny Manziel on the bench to begin his NFL career, a place that is probably best for him in the long term and will be temporary unless Hoyer improves dramatically in the regular-season opener against Pittsburgh.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Johnny Football is how he handles a bit of adversity in a career that, from small-town superstar at Kerrville (Texas) Tivy High School to a Heisman-winning first season playing for Texas A&M, has always been charmed. For once, at least thus far, his unique, bravado-filled style of play didn't find a way to win out in the end.

Manziel is the first to say he needs to keep working to get better, but how he handles the second string remains to be seen.

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"[Hoyer] was the clear leader from the beginning," Browns coach Mike Pettine said Wednesday morning. "We've maintained all along that if it was close, I would prefer to go with the more experienced player. Brian has done a great job in the meeting rooms and with his teammates on the practice field and in the locker room."

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Brian Hoyer, left, is starting over Johnny Manziel – for now. (AP)

Brian Hoyer, left, is starting over Johnny Manziel – for now. (AP)

Hoyer won the job mostly by default; Manziel did nothing to seize it from him. Facing an increasingly dire reality to start the season, Pettine smartly went with the more veteran player who showed he was a capable NFL quarterback last year when he started three games before being injured.

This allows the Browns to use Saturday’s third preseason game against St. Louis as a dress rehearsal, allowing Hoyer to get the majority of the reps while working through a real, if modified, game plan.

As Hoyer continues to strengthen following the ACL surgery that ended his 2013 season, perhaps he shows more accuracy and zip on the ball. The Browns can only hope so as Hoyer’s 2-for-6 passing for just 16 yards Monday in a 24-23 loss to Washington did nothing to inspire confidence.

Hoyer himself labeled it “disappointing, embarrassing.”

It’s not exactly what you want to hear from the new starter.

“It probably couldn’t be any worse,” Hoyer said after the game. “We started off poorly and we didn’t really change after that.”

Yet Manziel wasn’t appreciably better and he didn’t help himself by throwing a middle finger at a heckling Washington bench after a third-quarter incompletion, a move that Pettine said showed the lack of composure the team demands.

“Especially the quarterback,” Pettine said.

[ Fantasy Spin: Brian Hoyer to start, Johnny Manziel to the bench ]

The big issue for Manziel is getting through the learning curve of the NFL. He has flashed signs of excitement, particularly an ability to use his athletic ability to scramble and extend plays.

However, he has complained about the complexity of play calling, is at times slow to come out from under center and, particularly on Monday, badly missed on throws that were certainly makeable. All of this should take time. He’s only a rookie with just two seasons of on-field action at A&M, where he ran a wide-open spread offense.

“I’m not incredibly focused on this race,” Manziel said Monday. “I think I need to do what I need to do to get better as a football player and everything else will come.”

The first part of that statement is questionable. Much of the football loving nation was focused on the Browns' quarterback race – whether they actually cared who led a team that won just four games last year or not.

The second part, however, is the important one.

This is anything but a set-in-stone decision by the Browns. It’s certainly possible that Hoyer, freed from the shackles of daily competition, flourishes into a solid, if not spectacular, starting quarterback and Manziel never again sniffs a real chance at the job.

No one would bet on that, however.

This is a team with a bad offense, a questionable receiving corps and an offensive line that is in full construct. Hoyer is playing on a knee that hasn’t yet had a full year to heal.

The likelihood that Manziel gets another crack at starting, potentially early in the season, seems reasonable.

First, though, he can spend time away from the spotlight, buried in learning the offense – “It’s new, it’s fresh,” he said – all while sharpening his decision-making and confidence. Manziel said on Monday he paused before making throws.

“When you hesitate, things close up fast in this league,” Manziel said.

His fellow first-round selected signal callers – Blake Bortles in Jacksonville and Teddy Bridgewater in Minnesota – are facing similar situations. For decades this was the NFL norm, not the instant stardom of Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III.

Can Manziel buckle down and get to work? We’ll see. He redshirted his first year at Texas A&M but found himself that offseason in trouble for a fight outside a bar. Other than that, he’s lived a dream football life, assuming local cult status in a high school setting right out of "Friday Night Lights" and then going national by beating Alabama and winning the Heisman in his first year of eligibility with the Aggies.

“I feel like I need every practice we have and every game that is scheduled for us,” Manziel said. “They are there for a reason. I’m a young guy and the more reps I get, the more game situations I get, the better.”

Now he’s got to prove it.

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