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Ever the underdog, Brian Hoyer unfazed by Manziel Mania in Cleveland

BEREA, Ohio -- Like a lot of things Brian Hoyer references in conversation, he first learned the “Ignore the noise’’ mindset in New England, that Patriots mantra that reminds you to slap the blinders on and screen out everything but the task directly in front of you. He’s a Brown now, but it’s certainly an approach that’s coming in handy in Cleveland.    

Somehow Hoyer is managing it even here, despite dealing with the seemingly historic tsunami of noise known as Manziel Mania. Others may drown in it, but so far the veteran Browns’ quarterback hasn’t really struggled with the celebrated arrival of Cleveland’s future at the quarterback position. It may be well understood that Johnny Manziel owns tomorrow, but Hoyer still has a pretty good grasp on the present in Browns training camp, and he doesn’t buy into the narrative that he’s in a battle he can’t win.   

You won’t get Hoyer to play along with the storyline that goes like this: Poor, Brian Hoyer. Spent all those years backing up Tom Brady in New England, finally got his dream-come-true shot in his hometown of Cleveland and blew out his knee after going 3-0 as the Browns’ starter in 2013. Came back strong, only to see the Browns change coaches and front office personnel and wind up spending a first-round pick on Manziel, the former Texas A&M Heisman winner and presumed franchise savior. What lousy timing yet again for the underdog. All that’s left is for the rookie to beat out the sixth-year journeyman and get on with the fascinating saga that everyone is tuning in to see. 

Except that Hoyer isn’t following the script, or has his own. Instead he’s playing well, and he’s not going to be easily beaten out for the Browns starting job. Manziel’s time will no doubt come, but summer could well give way to fall before it does. If then.  

“The name of this game is to get somebody who’s younger and better, and he knows that,’’ veteran Browns receiver Nate Burleson said, of Hoyer. “Here he is, coming off [an ACL] injury, and he knows he has to prove his knee’s all right, he knows that he has to capture this team, and the even bigger issue probably is that he has to capture that outside audience, because everybody’s screaming for Johnny and rightfully so.  

“But he’s OK with that. He’s handled it the right way and you can tell it didn’t shake him or throw him off his game when Johnny was drafted. He’s like, ‘Look, when I go out there and make plays, I’ll let things shake out however they will.’ It’s not his decision to make, and the only thing he can control, making plays on the field, he’s doing a pretty good job of that.’’  

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Early in camp at least, before the preseason games even start to clarify things a little, Hoyer has held a clear edge over Manziel in their battle. In the two days of practices I watched, Hoyer looked much smoother and more comfortable in new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system, knows the playbook inside out and has been the sharper and more consistent passer and playmaker. Manziel has flashed at times, but he has for the most part looked like the rookie quarterback he is: The good, the bad, the occasional ugly. His reps have been with the No. 2 offense, and Hoyer has led the Browns’ first team.   

Cleveland doesn’t open its preseason for another 10 days or so, at Detroit next Saturday, but it’s obviously Hoyer’s job to lose as August arrives. And no one I talked to at the Browns seems the least bit surprised about that.   

“Getting ready to play against him a year ago [as Buffalo’s defensive coordinator], I thought this was a guy people have kind of fallen asleep on,’’ first-year Browns head coach Mike Pettine said, of Hoyer. “I thought he was a quality quarterback when we went against him last year, but unfortunately it was in our game where he got injured. As I’ve said, it will be difficult to beat Brian out. It’s a tall task [for a rookie] given the way the rules are and the limited amount of practice time and reps you can have now. Brian’s had a solid head start in the spring in the playbook, and he’s a veteran guy. I’ve been impressed with him.’’ 

Hoyer, 28, is not deluding himself when it comes to the realities of his situation in Cleveland. First-round quarterbacks hit the field sooner rather than later in the NFL, and that means Manziel’s starting opportunity will probably arrive in weeks, not months. But for now, the blinders are on, and his challenge is to make Manziel’s task as difficult as possible, giving the rookie no opening,   

“When last year’s [coaching] staff was fired I knew I was going to have to earn it all over again,’’ said Hoyer, who started in Weeks 3-5 for Cleveland last year before the ACL injury, becoming the first Browns’ quarterback to ever win his first three starts. “For me, with the way my career has gone, even had I started all last year and things [had] gone great, I still think I’m coming out here every day thinking if I don’t play good I’m going to get cut. That’s been my mentality since I was in New England. But sometimes that’s best best thing for you, to have that pressure.’’  

Hoyer said he realizes Manziel Mania swirls around him, but other than the first practice of Browns training camp, when he looked a little too jacked up and eager to impress for his own good, no one has seen any signs of him giving in to the carnival atmosphere that has descended on Cleveland since Manziel arrived.  

“It’s pretty easy to stay focused when you don’t go and watch SportsCenter or NFL Network or go online,’’ Hoyer said. “There’s so much coverage, but you’ve really just got to block it out. The only thing that really matters in this situation is what happens in this building. There is this competition going on, but the main thing I feel is I’m competing with myself to be the best quarterback for this team. And then the rest will take care of itself.’’   

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Teammates describe Hoyer and Manziel as being equally intense competitors who are trying to out-do each other on the field at every moment, but Hoyer has nothing but positives to say about his 21-year-old potential successor.   

“All I can say about the kid is when he’s in the building, he does everything the right way,’’ Hoyer said. “He’s in meetings, he’s asking questions, he’s working hard. I got asked the other day about his offseason. I don’t know anything about that. I have no idea. But there are no rules about what you can and can’t do when you’re away from the building. He’s definitely a talented kid and he is who he is, a guy who won the Heisman Trophy.’’  

Browns players so far have been careful to not publicly take sides in the team’s quarterback competition, but it’s clear Hoyer has no shortage of fans within the organization. And last year’s 3-0 record as a starter has plenty to do with that, given Cleveland went 1-12 in games started by anyone else. Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell were not retained by the team’s new regime of Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer, but Hoyer was.    

“He played well and we won when he played, and that’s all you can really ask for as a quarterback, to lead your team to victory,’’ Browns star tight end Jordan Cameron said. “And he did it the right way. He prepares so well. His locker is right next to mine, and I see how he’s always trying to get better. It’s contagious and you need a guy like that to lead the team.’’  

Before his first start last season -- in Week 3 at Minnesota, a 31-27 defeat of the Vikings -- Hoyer, as Cameron recalls, almost pestered him into pre-game preparation he didn’t see the need for. Until the following day, that is.  

“After the team meeting the night before the game, he came up to everyone and he was like ‘C’mere, c’mere, c’mere.’ I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ And I didn’t know anything about Brian Hoyer, but he had a sheet of all these notes. I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ It’s literally like 9:30-9:45 p.m. and I’m trying to get some food, and he sits down and says, ‘Alright, when you get this look, this is going to happen, so you do this. And when you get this look, do this,’ and he’s just going down the line picking people out of the food line to go over all this and telling them what to do.  

“And sure enough those looks came up in the game. And he probably even told me I was going to catch the game-winning touchdown pass that day, and I did. Stuff like that, that’s what you want out of a QB. After that you realize he knows what he’s doing, he knows what he wants, and I’m following him.’’ 

Pettine has said he intends to make a decision on his starting quarterback by Week 3 of the preseason, and until then, the competition is on. But Hoyer working with the 1’s in practice and Manziel with the 2’s speaks volumes at the moment, even though Pettine has said he’ll give Manziel first-team reps soon.   

“Our primary position here is to drive competition, to force Brian to play as well as he can and same with Johnny,’’ Farmer said. “We want to make them both compete themselves into a tizzy, to where somebody will step up and really demonstrate they’re the guy.   

“But Brian has been a pro’s pro so far with Manziel Mania. It’s not easy when there’s a lot of chatter, or we’ll call it scuttlebutt, attached to any one player, especially somebody competing at your position and for your specific job, if you will. Any time there’s so much fanfare around one guy, you hear it. There’s a lot of noise, but he’s handled it like a pro.’’  

Hoyer didn’t set the world on fire in his three-game starting stint last year in Cleveland, except perhaps by the Browns’ anemic quarterback standards: 57-of-96 (59.4), for 615 yards, with five touchdowns, three interceptions, 6.41 yards per attempt and a 82.6 rating. But Cleveland did top 30 points twice in his three starts, and managed just one other such outing the entire season. His accuracy and decision-making were strengths, and he was no mere game manager as a quarterback.   

“People were questioning the sample size of his playing time and the durability issue, those are the biggest negatives,’’ Pettine said. “But I don’t think anybody questioned what he did when he was in there. He was a solid NFL starter.’’   

But for how long will he continue to be? In Cleveland, that’s the question that everyone can’t wait to get answered. To his credit, Pettine knows that’s part of the deal he and his Browns have bargained for this season.   

“It’s the formula for success, right?’’ Pettine said. “First-year head coach, rookie quarterback, quarterback controversy. It’s all there. I’ve seen people have us in their power rankings at 33. So we can only go up.’’

The noise rages on in Cleveland, but Hoyer hopes to do his part to quiet it for now. Everyone knows it’ll be Manziel’s team some day. Just not today.