Mike Pettine faces a difficult decision at quarterback for the final four games. But his choice will have impact beyond just the 2014 season, which is why Cleveland needs to sit Brian Hoyer and see exactly what it has in its lightning-rod rookie QB
Tough call for Cleveland coach Mike Pettine, who to start at quarterback Sunday. Should he go with Brian Hoyer, the worker bee liked and trusted in the locker room, despite his declining recent performance and his 0-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio the past two weeks? Or should Pettine shake things up and go with the unpredictable Johnny Manziel, who could drive offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan crazy with his knee-jerk style, looking once at the coverage and then bolting from the pocket?
Neither is optimal. To me, if Pettine picks Hoyer (last 47 drives: one touchdown pass) to start against Indianapolis at home Sunday afternoon, it’s more an indictment of Manziel than an endorsement of Hoyer. Pettine isn’t afraid to make a tough call. He’s done it often in Cleveland, and in Buffalo last year. The Browns' playoff chances are on life-support, and a decisive call is needed. If it’s the status quo, it’ll say something about Manziel—that either he’s jaking it in preparation, or Pettine and Shanahan don’t trust him fully with the offense.
Either way, picking Hoyer says more bad about Manziel than good about Hoyer.
Everyone in the Cleveland organization loves Hoyer. Great guy. Cleveland guy. Local boy makes good. But he’s hit a ceiling. He’s struggling mightily. The season’s on the line, and he just got back the NFL’s leading receiver in 2013, Josh Gordon, and he still can’t make it happen.
So going to Manziel should be a no-doubt pick by Pettine, right? Give the team a spark. Put the bad boy in the lineup. Let the player who drove Nick Saban—the best defensive tactician south of Bill Belichick—crazy have a shot at Indianapolis and its 25th-rated defense against the pass. Manziel against the Colts. It should happen.
The reasons why go beyond the 2014 season, but right now is significant too. If you’re the Browns, you’ve got to have realistic goals. Just make the playoffs. There’s no reason to think anyone in the building thinks the Browns are actually suited for a playoff run. Just give them the sixth seed, and the 2014 season would be a raging success. But to make the playoffs—to go 3-1 or better against Indy, Cincinnati, Carolina and Baltimore—would be a tremendous feat for a team as shaky as Cleveland. And can you really see Hoyer leading them to three wins in the last four? I don’t know if Manziel can, but I feel much better about his chances to do so after seeing a lot of Hoyer the last couple of weeks.
It’s about more than the next month, though. It’s about 2015, and beyond.
Say Pettine’s pick for Hoyer and Manziel is a coin flip. (And it’s probably close to that.) Picking Hoyer keeps Manziel stapled to the bench at a time Cleveland GM Ray Farmer and Pettine need to start making a judgment of his ability to be the quarterback of the future. It wouldn’t be the worst thing if Hoyer played the full season—if the Browns were marching toward the playoffs, or he was playing well enough to justify consideration for a long-term contract in this, his walk year. Well, the Browns have at best an outside shot for the playoffs, and you see how Hoyer’s been playing the past four weeks.
If Manziel gets the job, Cleveland gets four games to see what they have in him—and gets a chance to torment a few defensive coordinators who don’t usually face option quarterbacks. The competitive advantage could be significant. There’s another edge. The Browns can’t be positive Manziel is their quarterback of the future. If Manziel shines, Cleveland knows it can let Hoyer walk in free agency, won’t have to put a priority on scouting quarterbacks in the 2015 draft, and instead can figure out which veteran backup they want to bring in to support Manziel and provide insurance next season.
But if Manziel is full of holes or just okay, Cleveland can enter the off-season knowing it has to spend legitimate money on a quality backup (Mark Sanchez? Nick Foles?), or has to scout every college quarterback. If the Browns have a pick in the teens, say, they may be faced with a difficult decision: what if Jameis Winston is there when they pick? If they are unsure of Manziel and see a player they're very high on, wouldn't they be smart to have the existing institutional knowledge to make a difficult choice?
Pettine has a tough call, but only one, as I see it. Start Johnny.
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