Cleveland: A One-Quarterback Town
Site: Cleveland Browns Training Facility, Lou Groza Blvd, Berea, Ohio
What I Saw: Morning practice, Tuesday, Aug. 11. Party cloudy, low 70s.
Three things you need to know about the Browns:
1. There isn’t a QB competition. Coach Mike Pettine might not be guaranteeing that Josh McCown will start Week 1, but the 13-year veteran is, in Pettine’s words, “firmly” the starter ahead of Johnny Manziel. McCown takes all the first-team reps. “What has helped this year is Josh knowing he is firmly the No. 1,” Pettine said. “It’s unfair to look back to a year ago and say, well, Brian Hoyer obviously didn’t help Johnny. They were in a competition. The circumstances are different this year. Josh is secure in his job, but at the same time he can help mentor those other guys in the room.” In the practice we saw, McCown looked mediocre. Pettine was really excited about a strike McCown threw off his back foot to Taylor Gabriel to convert a first down, against a cornerback who was starting to undercut the route. But many of his throws seemed to lack zip, including a floater into the end zone that was easily picked off by CB Joe Haden.
2. Johnny Manziel is being held more accountable in year two, on and off the field. “What we did not do a good enough job here [last year], not nearly a good enough job, is holding him accountable, even when he wasn’t the guy,” Pettine said. “That’s the main reason why I made the switch at the QB coach position.” Pettine fired Dowell Loggains and replaced him with Kevin O’Connell, the 30-year-old who worked with Manziel pre-draft and was a backup quarterback for the Jets when Pettine was coaching there. After a rocky rookie season and an offseason stint in rehab, Manziel’s mental focus and energy have improved significantly, Pettine said. An example: He rarely gets a question wrong in meetings. “The times when he is frustrated are when he wants something to be right and it’s not done right,” Pettine said. "He’s a work in progress, but the will is definitely there. I think he realized he let a lot of people down, and he wants to make amends for it.”
3. The number of offensive skill players who have been banged up is bad news for a team trying to install a new offense. During one 11-on-11 team rep, I looked at the roster to see who the back was taking reps with the first team: RB Jalen Parmele. He signed with the team last week. RBs Terrance West and Duke Johnson, plus WR Dwayne Bowe, are among the key players who have missed time this camp with injuries.
What will determine success or failure for the Browns: Whether they get the Josh McCown who threw 13 TDs and 1 INTs in Chicago in ’13, or the one who threw 11 TDs and 14 INTs for the Buccaneers last season. One big difference from Tampa Bay that the Browns believe plays in their favor is the quality of their offensive line, anchored by players like LT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. Even in practice, you can tell that McCown has time to throw and there aren't a lot of broken plays.
Player I saw and really liked: WR Taylor Gabriel. The thing you notice when watching the 5-foot-8, 167-pound receiver is his easy quickness. After the undrafted rookie surprised with 621 receiving yards in his rookie season, he’s primed for a big role in 2015.
Five dot-dot-dot observations about Cleveland: Manziel was has been experiencing some mid-training camp elbow soreness, but is still expected to play in the preseason opener Thursday. During the practice we watched, he was dressed in full pads but didn’t participate in the team 11-on-11 period. His throwing arm—his right arm—was wrapped in a sleeve and the only throws he made were left-handed during drills. … Mike Pettine has adopted a new tactic this spring: sitting in the quarterback meetings. The former defensive coordinator hopes his perspective can help the offense scheme up ways to be successful against different styles of defense. “It’s re-energized me,” said Pettine, a high-school QB who also called the offensive plays when he was a high school coach. … Ex-QB Terrelle Pryor’s chances of making the team as a receiver may take a hit from him being sidelined for the first preseason game with hamstring tightness. He is a very raw route-runner, but Pettine said Pryor’s excellent ball skills give him a chance. … Center Alex Mack, back from a season-ending broken fibula, on working with a new QB: “Um, well, we’ve had a lot of QBs here….” Good point. … Pettine awards orange-and-brown camouflage practice jerseys to the unit on the team that won the previous day’s practice. The offense was wearing the camo jerseys Tuesday, and Pettine said the offense has actually won more practices than the defense so far in camp.
One name I’d forgotten about: WR Dwayne Bowe. Ray Farmer’s big free-agent signing has been sidelined with a hamstring injury, so it’s hard to have any real idea what kind of impact he can make on the Browns offense.
The thing I will remember about Berea, Ohio: The elementary-school age Browns fan briefing his friends on the status of the quarterback position. “Johnny hasn’t taken snaps,” he said ominously. The football fixation runs deep in this city.
Gut feeling as I left camp: The Browns were 7-9 without any consistent quarterback play last season. They hope McCown can be a stopgap at the position, but you have to wonder if they’ll be able to score enough points to keep up with the rest of the division.
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