Cleveland Browns know exactly what they're doing.Maybe the
Since the team drafted Johnny Manziel, both his fans and his detractors want to see him "wreck this league," as he wrote in a draft night text to quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains. However, there was some semblance of shock when Browns owner Jimmy Haslam announced that Manziel would be the backup. Why pick a passer in the first round if he's going to sit and watch? Then, leading into OTAs, general manager Ray Farmer said last year's starter (before injury), Brian Hoyer, is ahead of Manziel "probably by a substantial margin." More puzzlement ensued.
It shouldn't be puzzling, though. Rather than undermining Manziel's candidacy for the starter's job, the Browns' words reflect what a lot of people should consider: Hoyer is the best option for this season, both for the Browns and for Manziel.
At first glance, it's hard to fathom why Hoyer, who was undrafted out of Michigan State, is in Manziel's way. If he's so good, why has he started fewer than a handful of games in the NFL? The answer is fairly simple: Hoyer was a backup to Tom Brady in New England for three seasons – and no one is displacing Brady – and then he spent a season with the Cardinals before coming to Cleveland. When he got a shot as the Browns' starter last season, he did quite well. He beat the Vikings, then the hated Bengals, and then tore his ACL in his third start against the Bills. Cleveland won all three of those games, and were 1-12 in the contests he didn't play.
"In New England, he backed up a guy who's going to be in the Hall of Fame," said Hoyer's high school coach, Chuck Kyle of St. Ignatius in Cleveland. "He thought, 'I can look at it as 'I'll never get my chance' or look at it as 'I'll get a chance to learn a lot.' Those years with the Patriots, he'd never trade those. He got into the science of football."
The payoff seemed clear in the short time Hoyer led the Browns. He moved the ball quickly and efficiently to all parts of the field, and gave the offense a rhythm it needed. This was especially valuable considering the Browns had just traded Trent Richardson to the Colts, and their No. 1 backfield option was Willis McGahee. Going 3-0 with an 82.6 passer rating with a 4-12 team isn't bad.
Hoyer is not a superstar quarterback, but he understands how a pro-style offense is run. Manziel will need to know what Hoyer knows to last in the NFL. And that will take time. Texas A&M's offense is an offshoot of the Air Raid offense devised by Hal Mumme, and the playbook Mumme used was, well, quite different from most NFL playbooks.
"We really didn't have a playbook," said Mumme, who is now the head coach at Belhaven University in Mississippi. "That's kind of the simplest way to say it. We just had a way of practicing. I never found playbooks to be the way to teach. Players got to rely on the book more than they relied on the teaching. I teach the whole offense in three practices."
The NFL is not like that. It's more of the "science of football," to use Kyle's term. That's not to say Manziel can't learn the offense. As Mumme said, "Good players will learn anything." It just means Johnny Football won't translate immediately to the pro game.
"I'm sure he'll have some adjustments," Mumme said. "Most [NFL] playbooks are not as simple as the one he's used to."
This might explain why Hoyer is ahead by a "substantial margin." He's been learning from Brady while Manziel has been putting together a highlight reel. And it's probably not smart for the Browns to chuck their playbook for Manziel's style, because there's not a lot of evidence that Manziel's style works in the pros.
"The pro-style offense is how people score in the pros," Kyle said. "There's nothing wrong with that. In college, now the quarterback is someone who throws well and is running 15 times a game. Are pro teams going to run their quarterbacks 15 times a game? That's a lot of money to pay for someone who is running 15 times a game."
Nobody knows this better than Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who worked with Robert Griffin III in Washington and winced like everyone else when the former Heisman winner bolted from the pocket and slid too late (or not at all). Hoyer can't run like Manziel, and so he must throw from the pocket to succeed. That's something Manziel can learn from, even if he doesn't emulate it when he gets his shot.
"A guy that's been in the league can make those decisions and not just real-time but he can make them quickly," Farmer said. "A guy that's still thinking about it and processing the information, it's going to take him another step and another click, and in the NFL, that extra step closes the window and it doesn't result in a good outcome."
The worst thing that can happen is if Manziel is overwhelmed or injured. The Browns had a first-round draft pick in Tim Couch who was both. Couch was not protected well and he never got comfortable. If the Browns are going to change their reputation as a franchise that can't turn a star college passer into a star pro passer, tossing Manziel into the fire is not the way to go. The Jacksonville Jaguars learned this the hard way with Blaine Gabbert, and now they insist Blake Bortles will sit for the season behind Chad Henne. Yes, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Griffin started right away, but none of those teams had another viable option at quarterback. The Browns do.
Hoyer has another advantage that seems small but actually isn't: "What I'm questioning, to be quite honest," Kyle said, "is the young man [Manziel] has always played in Texas. That's not Ohio weather. It's cold, really cold, and right on the lake. It's pretty different."
Hoyer, who was raised in Cleveland as a Browns fan, is used to what will be foreign to Manziel: the weather, the offense, the AFC North opponents, and the demands of a full season. That can only help Manziel adjust. Johnny Football is, after all, only 21. He won't be Johnny Rotten if he waits a year to wreck the league.
And there's also the possibility that Hoyer, who at 28 is two years younger than former quarterback of the future Brandon Weeden, will flourish. Hoyer wasn't really given the chance going into last season, but the small sample size was promising. Hoyer as the starter and Manziel as a change-of-pace quarterback in certain situations could keep fans happy and defenses off-balance. As much as the world wants Johnny Football to start Week 1, Manziel entering at the least expected moments rather than the most desired moments might be best for everyone involved.
The Browns may know this already, even if all the Johnny backers don't.