It was clear that until he either fully believed Johnny Manziel was ready to be his full-time starter or received an edict from the front office that it was time, Browns head coach Mike Pettine wasn't going to make that call on his own. From the 2015 preseason through last Sunday's game against the Steelers, Pettine has met Manziel's obvious on-field improvement with reactions ranging from impassiveness to outright disdain. Whether it's because Manziel doesn't meet Pettine's vision of an ideal quarterback or because Pettine had Manziel foisted upon him in the 2014 draft is a matter of conjecture, but veteran Josh McCown had been Pettine's guy all along, and that was that.
However, two days after Manziel completed 33 of 45 passes for 372 yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh in a 30-9 loss, the Browns announced he would indeed be the starter for the rest of the 2015 season. To this point, Manziel has only seen starting action when McCown has been injured, and McCown does possess the veteran acumen and pocket awareness that Pettine and his staff seems to prefer.
But when you look at the big picture, this move was the right one, and it was overdue. The Browns now have an extra bye week to prepare Manziel for the full range of the offensive game plan—they don't play again until they meet the Ravens on November 30—and with a 2-8 record, it's not as if Pettine's frequent insistences that McCown gives the team the better chance to win mean anything at this point.
"To go back to yesterday and echo—the film showed it even more—he showed significant progress," Pettine said of Manziel on Monday. "That was one of the better quarterbacking performances. You take the first play out—which you can’t forget about, the ball slipped out of his hand—but the fact that he rallied from that, being on the road in that environment I have seen where things have gone bad early and guys go in the tank and they get that glazed look in their eye. He was the exact opposite. He was loose. He was into it. Given what he has gone through, you are just proud of the kid and happy for him. Wish we had a better result from a team standpoint because—pardon my French—he played his ass off.”
And here's the thing—McCown is a limited journeyman quarterback who will never exceed a specific ceiling. He's the type of player you install when your starting quarterback is injured, or you're playing out the string and waiting for the draft to provide your quarterback of the future.
Based on the tape, it's becoming more and more evident that the Browns may already have their quarterback of the future, and it's Manziel. I'm not on that side of things because of a couple of splash plays—in truth, Manziel has shown impressive improvement in limited snaps throughout the season.
When I first reviewed Manziel's tape this season, it was after he started in place of the injured McCown and threw two touchdown passes in a 28-14 Week 2 win over the Titans. At that point, Manziel was a random, running quarterback with a knack for creating big plays outside of structure, and very little pocket awareness. When Pettine said that he was still unsure about Manziel's immediate future as a starter at that point, he may well have been right. Still, even then, Manziel showed enough potential to bear watching.
Then, when he completed 11 of 18 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown in the first half of Cleveland's 31-10 Week 9 loss to the Bengals, and Pettine said at the half that he'd have to calm Manziel down so that he could make plays in the pocket, it seemed as if Manziel was at the mercy of a grumpy coach. Pettine simply refused to understand that in today's NFL, coaches are often presented with athletic, unfinished quarterbacks, and it's their obligation to merge what those quarterbacks already know with what's required for NFL success. Things fell apart for Manziel and the Browns in the second half of that game, and Pettine played the waiting game through the week before the Steelers game until finally announcing that Manziel would get another chance.
What he did with that chance showed even more development. Manziel's first pass attempt was a feeble fumble recovered by the Steelers, and his last four passes were incompletions, but what he did between those errors was more than good enough to force Pettine's hand. More than ever before, Manziel did operate from the pocket. He ran more when he needed to than when he felt the need to bail, he executed pump fakes and second reads, and he ran the offense—for the most part—the way a professional quarterback should. He overcame the limitations of his receivers and recovered from a ghastly face mask penalty in which Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats appeared determined to rip his head off. He threw a prayer of an interception to safety Mike Mitchell, but his touch throw of a touchdown to tight end Gary Barnidge was a thing of beauty.
Oh... Manziel also led the Browns in rushing, with a paltry 17 yards. That's the other part of this story. The Browns are a broken team with an inconsistent running game, underwhelming receivers and a defense that has been an enormous disappointment. When your young quarterback shows this kind of growth in the face of such issues, you want to ride that for all it's worth.
“He is doing a good job," left tackle Joe Thomas said of Manziel. "All I can say is that when you are a lineman, you notice glaring mistakes and formations, play calls, snap counts, exchanges, interceptions and things like that. Obviously, he has minimized those. Hardly see any of it, notwithstanding the first play—that can happen to anybody. The sharpness and the command of the offense and huddle is really impressive, especially considering where he was a year ago.”
Even McCown agreed when he was asked about it after the Steelers game.
“For him to be effective from the pocket first—you just look at it and look at our league, and the guys that are successful, they are successful from the pocket—I was proud of him because he was so effective from the pocket. Then when all the other stuff happens, it is icing on the cake. Yesterday, I thought he captured that and had a great balance of those things. I think that is why he was so effective.”
Did he still miss open receivers? Sure. Is his game fully formed yet? Not at all. But in his consistent progression as a quarterback this season, Manziel has shown that he's willing to meet his team more than halfway.
It was time for a Browns franchise with an uninspiring present, and an uncertain future, to take care of the other half.