Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine has told his team that Johnny Manziel will start at quarterback against the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday. The move from Brian Hoyer to Manziel had been speculated for some time as Hoyer has become more and more ineffective -- after the Browns lost to the Buffalo Bills on Nov. 30 and Hoyer completed 18-of-30 passes for 192 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, Pettine let it fly that it might be time for Manziel to get more of an opportunity.
The rookie, who the Browns selected with the 22nd overall pick, came in late in the Buffalo game and gave the Browns a bit of a spark, completing 5-of-8 passes for 63 yards and gaining another 13 yards (and scoring a touchdown) on two carries. Of course, Manziel was doing it against a Buffalo defense that had pulled a lot of its starters, and he'll be facing the best possible defense the Cincinnati Bengals can put on the field this Sunday. Cleveland stands at 7-6, at the bottom of an AFC North race that still seems to be anyone's for the taking.
As far as the demotion is concerned, Hoyer has nobody but himself to blame. He was given the starting job at the beginning of the season by Pettine although it could be argued that Manziel outplayed him in the preseason, and his recent performances have been nothing short of abysmal. Over the last five games and 29 drives, he has had exactly one passing touchdown, with eight interceptions and a 51.4 completion percentage. The loss to the Colts was especially galling, because Cleveland's defense has been playing so well of late, and that defense hit its apex against Andrew Luck's team. The Browns scored two defensive touchdowns and still lost, becoming only the second team since 2008 to do so and lose -- the 2013 Browns also did that in Week 15 of the 2013 season, per ESPN's Stats & Info. In that game (a 38-31 loss to the Bears), Cleveland couldn't stop a Jay Cutler comeback, and Jason Campbell couldn't match Chicago's numbers.
Now, a season later, the same franchise is dealing with a defense that can make things happen, and an average-at-best quarterback who's not helping at all. Whether Manziel can break that cycle or not early on, it's clearly time to give him the opportunity to do so.
Manziel will be the team's 21st different starting quarterback since the NFL regifted Cleveland with the Browns franchise in 1999. The Browns have cycled through coach after coach and front office after front office, but questionable decisions at the quarterback position in the draft and free agency have been the one constant. Now, the Browns have assembled a quality running game, an offensive line that still performs well even without injured center Alex Mack, an inconsistent but completely explosive playmaking receiver in Josh Gordon, and the aforementioned defense. With the right quarterback, it's easy to imagine a bright future.
"I think he's had a little bit of time to learn the position," former quarterback Kurt Warner told the NFL Network Tuesday afternoon about how Manziel might do right off the bat. "He's seen Brian play and he's learned the offense, so those things will be beneficial to him. But it's also hard for a young guy to step in, especially in this situation, because there's so much hype around Johnny. We can't expect him to come in and play inside the pocket, play outside the pocket and score every time they get the ball. That's not what we're going to get. But the biggest question is, can the playmaking ability of Johnny Manziel -- what we saw in college -- can it translate to every down, every series, every game in the NFL?"
The Bengals defense, which has seen a serious downturn in overall effectiveness since defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer left to become the Minnesota Vikings' head coach before the 2014 season, has faced one truly mobile quarterback all season -- and the results were not good for Cincinnati. They played the Carolina Panthers to a 37-37 tie on Oct. 12, and Cam Newton completed 29-of-46 passes for 284 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. More disconcerting was the fact that Newton gained a season-high 107 yards on the ground on 17 carries.
How does Manziel fit in Cleveland's current offense? Hypothetically, it should be a good fit. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan understands how to use a mobile quarterback well -- he ran the Washington Redskins offense in 2012 when Robert Griffin III worked his way to the NFL's Rookie of the Year award. Shanahan combined motion and boot action with a strong running game and shot plays downfield, and Manziel has the potential to thrive in that kind of offense. When Manziel starred at Texas A&M, it didn't matter that Mike Evans' routes were simple, because Evans could beat cornerbacks downfield. Evans has shown that he can do the same thing in the NFL, with an unspectacular Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense, and as good as he's been in his rookie season, Gordon is even more dangerous.
The Browns probably waited too long to make their most recent quarterback switch, but if Johnny Manziel can live up to his potential in a big hurry, it might not throw the team out of a potential postseason run.