PITTSBURGH -- As strange as it sounds in defeat, Brian Hoyer won something rather meaningful Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field. The victory narrowly escaped the veteran Cleveland quarterback, but what he earned with that furious second-half comeback against the Pittsburgh Steelers strengthened his grip on the Browns' starting job, and just as importantly, his own locker room.
Score this one Pittsburgh 30, Cleveland 27, with the pivotal side story being Hoyer seizing a commanding lead in his one-on-one quarterback competition with rookie Johnny Manziel, who never even stepped on the field against the Steelers. The strong half of work Hoyer turned in in the game’s final 30 minutes spoke volumes, as did Manziel’s invisibility in a see-saw of an opener for both teams.
"Oh, man, I’m so proud of Hoyer," Browns’ Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden said, in a somber but not deflated losing locker room. “He’s our quarterback. He’s our starting quarterback, and we’re going to be behind him during his hard times, and when he’s doing what he does really well. You could see it in the second half, what kind of quarterback he can be for us, how he can lead this team."
With Cleveland trailing 27-3 at the half, having been dominated by a Steelers team in every facet of the game, the Browns and Hoyer flipped a switch at the start of the third quarter and roared back with 24 unanswered points to tie the game with 11:15 remaining. Cleveland’s up-tempo approach on offense couldn’t quite land the knockout punch against the staggered and wearied Steelers -- who won it at the closing gun on a 41-yard Shaun Suisham field goal -- but the comeback did serve notice that this may not be the same old bedraggled Browns. And Cleveland may not have an imminent quarterback change in its near future after all.
The Hoyer who out-played Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger in the second half, and the Hoyer who was part of a veterans-only halftime motivational session in the locker room, is the Hoyer who can indefinitely delay the dawn of the team's inevitable Manziel era. The last two quarters of Sunday’s game proved that these Browns will remain Hoyer’s team until further notice.
"We said we can’t get down on ourselves because we’re not the same Browns that have been in the past," Cleveland rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert said. "It’s a a new team, new coaching staff and we proved that in the second half."
Though Hoyer had won the Browns' starting quarterback job this preseason, in lackluster fashion, the specter of Manziel making his NFL regular-season debut had hung over this game all week long. Cleveland rookie head coach Mike Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan both admitted there was a package of plays they had designed for Manziel’s improvisational talents, and they said they would not hesitant to use them against Pittsburgh if the time was right.
But that time never came on Sunday. Pettine said he didn’t consider starting Manziel in the second half, with the Browns trailing by 24 points, and there was no way the former Heisman winner was going to replace the red-hot Hoyer once he got it going, leading Cleveland to 20 of its 23 first downs, 288 of its 389 yards of offense, and 24 of its 27 points, in the second half.
"The way the game went, we just never felt the need for him," Pettine said of Manziel, who barely took the Browns baseball cap off his head all day, inspiring some to claim his new nickname should be "Johnny Bench."
Last week, both Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau confidently said that they expected see Manziel in at least small doses on Sunday. But as it turned out, they should have been more concerned about seeing the second-half version of Hoyer, the one-time Steelers reserve quarterback, who entered Week 1 with a 3-0 record as the Browns starter. Hoyer finished the game with 19 completions in 30 attempts, for 230 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. But he was a blistering 15-of-20 for 173 yards after halftime, with a touchdown, ending his work day with a crisp 94.8 passer rating.
But maybe some of Hoyer’s best work came at the break, when he along with fellow Browns veterans Joe Thomas, Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner all spoke up, challenging their teammates to persevere and make Pittsburgh work for everything it got in the second half.
"We just said ‘Are we going to lay down and die or are we going to battle back?'" Hoyer said. “I told those guys at the end of the game that I’ll take that team to the end of the Earth if we’re going to fight back like that. Obviously we don't want to have to always do that, but if you have the heart and character to battle back against that team and get back to where we were, I’ll take that team any day.
"People realized that there were 30 minutes of football to play, and I think we just decided as a team to just go out and give it everything we got. The biggest thing is now we showed ourselves what we’re capable of. Now we have to go out and do it for four quarters. It’s too hard in this league to do otherwise."
The Browns’ 24-point comeback on the road had a degree of difficulty that was even higher thanks to the loss of arguably the team’s three most dangerous offensive skill players: suspended receiver Josh Gordon, running back Ben Tate, who left the game in the first half with a knee injury after gaining 41 yards on six carries, and tight end Jordan Cameron, who suffered a shoulder injury and did not return in the second half after catching two passes for 47 yards.
Into the void stepped players like rookie running backs Terrance West (100 yards on 16 carries, 6.3 average) and the undrafted Isaiah Crowell (five carries for 32 yards and two touchdowns), as well as slot receiver Andrew Hawkins (a game-high eight catches for 87 yards). Even without Gordon, Tate and Cameron, the Browns came oh-so close to registering the largest comeback victory in franchise history -- the previous record, a 20-point rally against the Giants in December 1966 -- but they couldn’t close the deal against the Steelers, who posted 364 yards and 16 first downs by halftime, but added just 126 yards and eight first downs in the second half.
"We just came up short," West said. "You can’t start off slow in the NFL like that. If we came out like we did in the second half, against anybody, we won’t lose."
The Browns switching to a no-huddle, up-tempo approach in the second half seemed to shock the Steelers, given Cleveland had not run any no-huddle in the preseason or in any of their practices that the media or the public attended, Hoyer said. But they won’t take the Saints by surprise next week, when New Orleans (0-1) travels to Cleveland (0-1) for the Browns home opener.
"I felt like we had them, they were tired, and we were obviously moving the ball very well throughout the entire second half," Pettine said. "We kept tempo. That’s one where we just wanted to keep that ball."
After Sunday, I’d look for the Browns to keep the ball in Hoyer’s hands, and their celebrated rookie quarterback on the sideline. After Hoyer almost made history, Manziel Mania can wait. At least for the time being. Hoyer didn’t win the game, but he won the respect of his teammates and coaches with his ability to make the best of a desperate situation. For now, that passes as progress in Cleveland.
"I’m just honestly happy to play with these dudes," Haden said of Hoyer and the rest of his Browns teammates. “They just showed the heart we have. To be down 24 at the half and come back out there and push them, push them, push them, I can’t take that from us. Definitely it sucks [to lose]. It hurts. But we were out there fighting and we didn’t give up. That’s how we need to play. I like the way our team came out in the second half. Now we know what we’re capable of."
Another discovery made on Sunday in Pittsburgh? Based on Week 1, Hoyer may not be just a short-term caretaker quarterback in Cleveland after all.