The Cleveland Browns' long-anticipated quarterback controversy may have arrived, right as their push for the playoffs shifts into desperation mode.
With his team mired in an offensively inept showing against the Bills, Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine pulled the trigger on a QB change, benching Brian Hoyer for Johnny Manziel after a fourth-quarter Hoyer interception. Manziel promptly led a touchdown drive in his first meaningful regular-season action, capping it by scrambling for a 10-yard score.
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Manziel's second possession was far less productive. He was saved from coughing up a touchdown when referee Jerome Boger ruled upon review that Manziel had been attempting a pass when Buffalo's Kyle Williams knocked the ball loose. Seconds later, though, the Browns turned the ball over on downs, sealing Buffalo's 26-10 win.
With that result the Browns dropped to 7-5 on the season, a game-and-a-half back of Cincinnati in the AFC North and outside of the wild-card picture. Next up is a Week 14 home game against Andrew Luck and the Colts. Will it be Hoyer or Manziel under center for that all-important matchup? Pettine said after Sunday's loss that he would not make a decision until mid-week.
"We'll have more on Wednesday," Pettine said in his postgame press conference. "We're not going to overreact.''
He had been adamant from training camp up through Sunday that Hoyer was his starting quarterback, despite the Browns using a first-round draft pick on Manziel.
"I think the guys realize we wouldn't be where we are right now without Brian and that nobody is perfect," Pettine said just this past Monday, via Cleveland.com. "When you see a guy who's that hard on himself and is that much of a perfectionist it means a lot and they are going to play for him."
Pettine's remarks came after Hoyer shook off a miserable 59 minutes or so versus Atlanta in Week 12 to lead a game-winning drive. On that drive, Hoyer completed four passes for 61 yards, setting up Billy Cundiff's 37-yard field goal.
But Hoyer returned to the doldrums Sunday. Before being pulled for Manziel, Hoyer was 18-of-30 passing for 180 yards with a pair of interceptions. The second INT led to a Buffalo field goal; the Bills also scored a defensive touchdown off a Terrance West fumble, as part of Cleveland's offensive unraveling.
The Browns now sit at 1-2 over their past three games, following a huge Thursday night win in Cincinnati back in Week 10. Hoyer has six interceptions to just one touchdown during that drought.
"The door is definitely open for a change at the quarterback position," Pettine told ESPN's Sal Paolantonio, via Adam Caplan. "It's not like we're just going to go back to Brian. ... We'll evaluate both quarterbacks and have a decision soon."
Another variable still at work in this situation: Hoyer's contract. The veteran QB is set to be a free agent at the end of this season, and Hoyer reportedly had been eyeing an Andy Dalton-like contract as of early November -- Dalton recently signed a deal worth $17 million guaranteed that also essentially gives the Bengals a year-by-year option to move on from him.
It looked entirely possible that Hoyer could receive that type of offer from the Browns earlier this year, as he played well amid Cleveland's surprising start. Now, the answer is far less clear.
First thing's first: Cleveland has to pick a starting quarterback for Week 14, with the added pressure of the wild-card race hovering over the choice.
"I still feel like it's my team," Hoyer told Cleveland.com. "We'll see what happens."