There was a former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who stole the headlines in the Browns 28–14 victory over the Titans in Week 2, but it wasn't the player you probably expected.
Tennessee QB Marcus Mariota entered the game riding high after his near-perfect, four-touchdown NFL debut against the Buccaneers. Cleveland QB Johnny Manziel was replacing Josh McCown, who left the team's Week 1 loss to the Jets with a concussion. Manziel, taken at No. 22 in the 2014 draft, was making just his third NFL start after a rookie campaign that saw him falling short both on and off the field.
Mariota held his own against Cleveland's estimable defense, though he was constantly under pressure, fumbled too often (a problem from his days at Oregon) and was bailed out of an interception halfway through the fourth quarter by a penalty. The real story, however, was Manziel.
In many ways, it was a typical Manziel performance—moments of transcendence bordered by head-scratching moments. Manziel got the proceedings going with 12:51 left in the first quarter with a 60-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin, and closed the game out with another long pass to Benjamin, this time a 50-yarder, with 2:52 left in the contest. He finished the day with eight completions in 15 attempts for 172 yards and those two passing touchdowns, which didn't leave for much else on those other plays.
Mariota, who completed 21 of 37 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns of his own, was the more prolific quarterback in that sense, though Mariota's three fumbles (two of them were lost) made much of the difference. Manziel fumbled twice as well, but the Browns recovered both of them.
The real hero of the game was Benjamin, the fourth-year receiver out of Miami, who finished the day with three receptions for 115 yards, and 154 punt return yards on six attempts, including a 78-yard score. Benjamin became the second player in league history to have more than 100 receiving yards and more than 150 return yards in a game (Steve Smith did before), and the first player with three touchdowns of 50 yards or more in the same game since Chris Johnson in 2009. Benjamin certainly established himself, no question about that.
The Browns' question going forward is this: Does this game portend a future for Manziel as the Browns' main man?
After a rookie season in which he did not at all resemble an NFL quarterback, and an offseason in which he went to rehab and had to prove himself all over again to his teammates, it did not seem that way for Manziel. Not everyone on the Browns' staff was on board with the Manziel selection in 2014, and he's fallen far short of expectations. To top it off, Cleveland signed McCown, a career journeyman, to a three-year, $14 million contract in the offseason to give the team some kind of stability at the position. But could this game be a turning point?
Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reports that no matter what Manziel does while McCown recovers, the veteran will get his starting job back when he's ready. Apparently, the Browns won't let Manziel test out his readiness as a starter just yet, though Manziel wouldn't be the first quarterback in NFL history to surprisingly take a starter's job while said starter was recovering from an injury.
Coach Mike Pettine said after the game that he was impressed with Manziel's ability to play outside of structure when necessary, but also keep his throwing eye downfield instead of just defaulting to his old scrambling style. During the week of preparation, Pettine also mentioned that Manziel was doing all the right things off the field.
“He’s been a guy that has prepared like he’s the starter and it’s for these exact situations," Pettine said Friday. "I think from a mental toughness [standpoint], he’s been very, very focused, very dialed in.”
The Browns play the Raiders next Sunday, which will give McCown another week to recover and Manziel another week to make his case. At the very least, and somewhat unexpectedly at this point, he's re-entered the discussion.