Both first-year head coaches in Monday night's game between the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins were hoping for some clarity regarding their quarterbacks. Browns head man Mike Pettine wanted to use this game to move closer to the starting quarterback decision he must make between Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel. Redskins head coach Jay Gruden wanted to see Robert Griffin III play in a way that showed he was integrated in his new offense and more comfortable in the pocket.
None of this happened, as the marquee throwers looked pretty bad from start to finish. Hoyer completed two passes in six attempts for 16 yards, Manziel went 7 of 16 for 65 yards, Griffin went 6 of 8 for 112 yards and an interception, and Washington backup Kirk Cousins went 12 of 21 for 145 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The best quarterbacks on the day were the third-stringers -- Colt McCoy for the Redskins, and Connor Shaw for the Browns. McCoy completed just two passes, but one went 30 yards to receiver Nick Williams for the deciding score in a 24-23 win, while Shaw's 45-yard Hail Mary to Emmanuel Ogbuehi as time ran out put the Browns back into the contest. Mercifully for all involved, Pettine chose to go for two on the conversion, saving those watching the game from overtime, and Shaw's incomplete pass to Charles Johnson put this one in the books.
It didn't start well for the Browns, to be sure. There was an early snap on first down on the first drive of the game, leading to Redskins pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan blowing by right tackle Mitchell Schwartz for a sack. Then, a false start on left tackle Joe Thomas. Then, Hoyer threw a quick pass to tight end Jordan Cameron, who dropped the ball. Then, on third-and-21, a run call to Ben Tate, who gained 19 yards. Hoyer ended his second drive by throwing low to Andrew Hawkins.
Manziel didn't look much better -- he was slow to diagnose blitzes and jumpy in the pocket. He was also sacked by Kerrigan, who bull-rushed Schwartz into the quarterback. It's safe to say that if the Browns intend to keep Schwartz as their right tackle, they'd better have a tight end inline on every play.
"It's gonna be hard to provide evaluation without really watching it," Pettine said after the game, regarding what has become a rather muddied process. "All the options are still on the table, and it's still something we'd like to do, but we'll see."
Though they pulled this game out, the Redskins didn't wow anyone with their serious quarterbacks. Griffin responded to Cleveland's offensive weirdness with a sketchy handoff that led to a fumble on the first drive, and an ugly pick to Joe Haden on the second drive when he failed to read a complex blitz drawn up by the Browns. On the third drive, Griffin (who resolutely refused to avoid contact) slid on a bailout play and came up limping. He was called for two false starts (abrupt movement pre-snap), and his footwork on throws was, quite frankly, terrible. Griffin did hit Andre Roberts with a 49-yard bomb on the last play of the first quarter, but that drive ended with an impressive goal-line stand by Cleveland's defense, and no points for Washington.
Everybody threw behind their receivers on angular routes and looked a bit off-kilter. Cousins kept throwing high and off, and it was clear that the Redskins' interior offensive line had few answers for Cleveland's blitz packages.
Given a new opportunity to drive his team to the first score of the day after a Tashaun Gipson interception, Hoyer threw another bad ball to Hawkins on third down, and Cleveland had to settle for a field goal. Hoyer's first completion of the night came with 2:17 left in the first half. It was a short pass to tight end MarQueis Gray, who promptly turned the ball over.
The first touchdown of the game didn't come until there were 23 seconds remaining in the first half, when Evan Royster ran the ball over from two yards out. This came one play after Cousins' high throw in the end zone to receiver Ryan Grant was played perfectly by rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert.
Cousins opened the second half for the Redskins, and he looked better against the Browns' second team, ending the first drive of the third quarter with a 14-yard backdoor fade touchdown to Grant with 10:45 left. But the Redskins' next drive ended with a holding penalty and three straight incompletions, leaving the viewers posing a vexing question:
"Can't anyone play quarterback in this game?"
Manziel, who came out to start the second half for his team, didn't fare much better. After a roughing the passer call put the ball at the Washington 35-yard line, Manziel completed one of his next three passes for six yards, and the Browns punted yet again. Manziel's most definitive gesture may have come with 2:28 left in the third quarter, when he flipped off the Redskins' bench.
"I should've been smarter," Manziel said. "It was a Monday Night Football game - the cameras were probably solidly on me." He said that of the middle-finger gesture, but the statement applied just as solidly to his actual play.
Manziel's fourth-quarter touchdown pass was a two-yard flip to halfback Dion Lewis, and Lewis did the rest of the work for the eight-yard score. The Browns scored again when McCoy threw a 19-yard pick-six to Browns safety Jim Leonhard on his first throw of the evening. Sadly, that was par for the course on this particular night.
Griffin's issues may be in adapting to a new offense in which he's expected to do different things, while Cousins could eventually be tripped up by his own limitations. In the case of Hoyer and Manziel, the frequent splitting of reps in practice and in games may be upending both players. Hoyer is a more familiar player to most NFL observers -- he had three full seasons in the Patriots' organization from 2009 through 2011 (for which he's probably overvalued) before bouncing around the league a bit and landing in Cleveland on a two-year deal before the 2013 season. Like Cousins, Hoyer needs to recognize and play to his clear strengths and limitations.
Manziel is the more dynamic and high-upside player, but he's going from a college offense in which he was frequently directed to make easy reads on the run, and to bail in the face of pressure. If the Browns want Manziel to play with more discipline (and they do), they must give the time and the number of reps needed to discern if he's capable of that. He needs help dissecting blitzes and throwing with timing, and he's not going to get that sitting around.
The NFL adage, "If you have two starting quarterbacks, you have no starting quarterbacks" comes to mind. The Browns host the Rams on Saturday night in their penultimate preseason contest, while Washington travels to meet the Ravens on the same day. Safe to day, the quarterbacks' film rooms will be very busy this week.