BEREA, Ohio (AP) They are barely visible in the back of Brian Hoyer's locker, buried under caps, shirts and a knee brace.
At first glance, they appear to be ordinary cleats. However, these are symbolic.
They are the shoes Hoyer wore last season on Oct. 3, when the Browns quarterback tore knee ligaments while sliding at the end of a run against the Buffalo Bills. The injury ended Hoyer's season and threatened his career, but instead of throwing out the grass-stained cleats, Hoyer hung on to them as a reminder of his comeback.
And as he prepared to play in his first Thursday night game since that fateful game a year ago, Hoyer joked about the keepsakes.
''Maybe I'll wear them this Thursday,'' he said with a smile before practice.
Although the cleats may have contributed to Hoyer's injury, he won't part with them. To him, they represent the end of one chapter and start of another - his personal halftime.
''It's just a significant moment in my career,'' Hoyer said. ''Everything that led up to that moment - really I blame the cleats because my cleat got stuck in the ground - maybe it was the grass. But I think to keep that and realize that getting to that point in my career, it took everything to get to that point, and then to keep those because that's kind of the second part of my career.''
Hoyer could be facing another pivotal moment in his football life when Cleveland (5-3) faces AFC North-leading Cincinnati (5-2-1) on Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium. For the Browns, this is a chance to validate a surprising start aided by a favorable schedule the past few weeks. For Hoyer, it could mean much more.
Although he's 8-3 as Cleveland's starter, it's still not clear if Hoyer will be Cleveland's quarterback beyond this season. He's in the final year of his contract, and with first-round draft pick Johnny Manziel backing him up, Hoyer's future with the Browns remains cloudy.
With every win, Hoyer would seem to strengthen his grip on the job, and a victory on national TV over the Bengals, who are 13-0-1 at home since 2012, would give him another bargaining chip to stake his claim as the Browns' future QB.
However, Manziel's shadow looms over Hoyer.
General manager Ray Farmer would not directly discuss Hoyer's contract situation, but indicated there's a chance the 29-year-old could land a deal before the end of the season.
''We'll see what happens with Brian between now and then,'' Farmer said.
Farmer said the Browns are comfortable in not rushing Manziel, who has only been on the field for a handful of plays this season. However, Farmer, who offered little clarity on a number of issues, seemed to indicate the team is looking toward Manziel - and not Hoyer - as the quarterback it intends to build around.
''I want Johnny to play when Johnny's ready to play,'' he said. ''We're comfortable with where we're at and how we want to play him with what the total organization looks like around him. The result is for him to be successful for a long period of time and not just for a moment or a flash but for an extended period of time.
"So we're going to put together the right group and make sure everything is in place and he's going to be ready and we're going to be ready when he does get the opportunity.''
From the outside, the Browns appear to have a tough decision to make on Hoyer, who could test the free-agent market or wind up being given a franchise or transition tag by Cleveland.
Farmer said he'll do what's best for the Browns.
''No challenge at all,'' he said. ''I think it's pretty simple. At the end of the day we sit down and make decisions that are good for our football team.''
Farmer said Hoyer has not exceeded expectations this season, and has shown he's a winner - on and off the field.
''I've always talked about guys that study it, learn it, love it, breathe it, and he's done that,'' Farmer said. ''So to his credit, he's demonstrated not only to those on the outside world, but those interior, his commitment and his drive to be as good as he can be.''
NOTES: With suspended Pro Bowl WR Josh Gordon due back in two weeks, Farmer said it's not a certainty he'll be given a major role when he returns. ''He is a talented young man and he can do a lot of good things,'' Farmer said. ''But do you kind of disrupt what you are to just make sure that one person gets the ball? Teams win. Talent doesn't. It's really about building a team and people have to find a way to fit into the team.'' ... Browns coach Mike Pettine said WR Andrew Hawkins will be a ''game-time decision'' with a leg injury. ... Pettine said it's possible TE Jordan Cameron (concussion) could return to face the Bengals.
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