Johnny who? Brian Hoyer becoming the man in Cleveland

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports
Johnny who? Brian Hoyer becoming the man in Cleveland
Johnny who? Brian Hoyer becoming the man in Cleveland

A Browns quarterback has captivated the city of Cleveland, vaulting the team to a 3-2 record with his creative play and lifting his jersey sales to fifth in the NFL. And along the way, he’s created a ripple of controversy with comments that have ignited concern about whether Cleveland will be able keep him long-term.

We’re talking about Brian Hoyer.

Browns backup QB Johnny Manziel (2) talks with Brian Hoyer during the win over the Steelers. (AP)
Browns backup QB Johnny Manziel (2) talks with Brian Hoyer during the win over the Steelers. (AP)
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Leading a maniacal comeback over the Titans and then following it up with a beatdown of the rival Steelers has led to Hoyer’s Captain Phillips moment. He is the captain now. The local boy who was supposed to capsize in the wake of Johnny Manziel’s arrival in Cleveland is now 6-2 as the Browns’ starter, completing 60 percent of his passes, including seven touchdowns against one interception this season. One of the more popular hashtags on Twitter among Cleveland fans is now #johnnywho.

Perhaps the best example of the sea change comes from Browns superfan “Pumpkinhead” (real name: Gus Angelone), who showed up at the draft in New York and shed tears of joy when his team picked Manziel. Now he’s “behind Brian 200 percent!” and has made T-shirts with sayings like “Brian Cleveland” and “Home6rown Hoyer.”

“Never skeptical on Brian,” Pumpkinhead wrote in a text. “We loved him last year after he got his chance.”

Well, sorta. Hoyer did get some love when he beat the Bengals at home last season, but even his supporters wondered if he had the chops to be the long-term answer at quarterback. Now a lot of the people who were neutral to doubtful on Hoyer are suddenly seeing him as the key to their playoff dreams. And Hoyer, to his credit, isn’t letting bygones be bygones. This week, he was asked about his contract status and his future NFL goals.

“I don’t think I need to say any more than I’m from Cleveland and this is where I want to be,” Hoyer said before going ahead and saying more. “But I also am a competitor, so I want to be somewhere where I’m playing.”

Hoyer is a free agent after this year and even though the Browns’ season is only five games old, that fairly benign comment gave all of Cleveland another bout of PLSD: Post-LeBron Stress Disorder. A quarterback who was heretofore expendable had suddenly become invaluable, and a town that lost its hometown hoops hero (and an entire cast of all-star Indians pitchers) suddenly got seasick.

“When it comes to Brian Hoyer’s contract situation,” Terry Pluto wrote this week in the Plain-Dealer, “everyone needs to simply calm down.”

Think about that: the local columnist is telling his readers to calm down … about Brian Hoyer.

Nothing is proven yet; Hoyer could still be mediocre and Manziel could still be the answer in Cleveland. But what’s most impressive here is how Hoyer not only shrugged off an avalanche of national press attention but also led the Browns to a strong start without star receiver Josh Gordon. The Browns are depleted on offense, and Hoyer has done what everyone expected Manziel to do – make plays out of nothing. Last Sunday, he bolted out to his left, spun, and threw back across his body to tight end Jordan Cameron on the other side of the field. It was Manziel Magic for sure, except it came from the pocket passer who had bored even some Browns fans to distraction.

You better believe fans are getting behind Brian Hoyer. (AP)
You better believe fans are getting behind Brian Hoyer. (AP)

This turn of events may seem to herald an early end to the Johnny Football madness, but it actually may be ideal for the rookie. Manziel was asked over the summer to learn a pro playbook after basically going without a playbook at Texas A&M. He was overwhelmed with information, as nearly any first-year quarterback would be. Now he gets to learn the game from a man who learned the game from Tom Brady.

“In New England, [Hoyer] backed up a guy who’s going to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” said Hoyer’s high school coach, Chuck Kyle. “You can look at it and say, ‘I’ll never get my chance,’ or look at it and say, ‘I’ll get a chance to learn a lot.’ Those [three] years with the Patriots, he’d never trade those. He got into the science of football.”

It’s hard to think of a better future for Manziel than the path Hoyer took, even if the guy in front of him is not quite Tom Brady. “He is definitely a guy who is there early, looking at film, and the last guy out of the parking lot,” Kyle said of Hoyer, who was undrafted out of Michigan State in 2009. “How to attack the opponent’s defense – he has a real desire to do that and a keen eye to do that. That gives him the confidence to go out there and be a leader.”

That kind of leader is what the Browns need Manziel to be, whether he takes over the job later this season or in three seasons.

The added bonus for the franchise is something that’s been absent: stability and excitement. The Browns are favored on the road by more points this weekend than they have been since they re-entered the NFL in 1999. Maybe that says more about the Jaguars than it does about Cleveland, but the Browns’ remaining schedule has plenty of winnable games. The team’s only trip out of the Eastern time zone all season has already passed (Nashville two weeks ago), and the Browns won that game. Cleveland is starved for a title, any title, but it’s a Browns town much more than a Cavs town, even now, and Hoyer is bringing the kind of hope that hasn’t been seen there in a very long while. That buys time for Manziel, first-year coach Mike Pettine, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Gordon, and perhaps Hoyer in the form of a new contract. The absolute chaos in Cleveland over the summer has given way to relative steadiness.

When asked about his semi-controversial comments this week, Hoyer played them down and declared he was concentrating on Jacksonville. That’s a pretty nice luxury for a franchise that couldn’t concentrate on much of anything a few weeks ago.

What seemed least likely in August is now something close to obvious in October: the Browns have calmed the waters because they handed the ship to Brian Hoyer.

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