Roundtable: Should the Browns have stuck with Manziel as their starter?
Johnny Manziel's chance as the Browns' full-time starting quarterback is coming, but Wednesday's announcement that veteran Josh McCown had fully recovered from his concussion and would start in Week 3 against the Raiders put Manziel's breakthrough on hold for at least one more week. Even in the wake of the former Heisman winner's solid performance in a 28–14 win over the Titans on Sunday, the Browns haven't seen enough in his development to hand him the reins for the rest of 2015.
Should the Browns have stuck with Manziel as their starting quarterback? Our writers and editors weigh in for this week's roundtable.
Don Banks: As I wrote in my Week 2 Snap Judgments on Sunday, I didn’t expect the Browns to stick with Johnny Manziel at quarterback if Josh McCown was healthy, but it’s a mistake not to. This really isn’t a complicated call: It’s time to find out if Manziel really is the guy the Browns saw as their quarterback of the future when they drafted him—and that future should be now.
If you get that critical question definitively answered while still winning—and that’s what Cleveland did last week at home against Tennessee with a maturing, playmaking Johnny Football in the lineup—all the better. In that scenario, it makes absolutely no sense to turn back to the veteran McCown for simply short-term potential gain.
Playing McCown is about today, with little or no future upside to be gained. And that’s obviously important if you’re the coach or general manager of a team that changes those as routinely as socks. By comparison, playing Manziel is about balancing the need to win now with developing a quarterback who can finally be the long-term answer in Cleveland. Manziel’s game obviously isn’t all the way there yet, but it’s certainly not going to get there if he’s biding his time in the backup role. He needs to play, he needs to learn on the job, and he needs an offense that’s built around what he does best at the moment, which is often making something positive out of a play that breaks down around him, as he did last week in thrilling fashion against the Titans.
I get why the Browns would start McCown and take what seems like the surer bet for a steadier, more experienced hand at quarterback against the visiting Raiders this week. If Cleveland can win and improve to 2–1, the season is on an upward trajectory as September gives way to October. But it’s worth a roll of the dice on Manziel in the lineup, giving him the chance to build on the positives of his performance against Tennessee, when he completed 8 of 15 passes, for 172 yards, with two huge scoring strikes of 60 and 50 yards to receiver Travis Benjamin.
Safe but sorry can’t be the Browns’ mantra in a division where they’ve been doormats forever. They were bold enough to take Manziel, and now they need to be equally bold enough to play him. Sending Manziel back to the bench now sends the wrong message, namely that Cleveland is willing to wait for either ineffectiveness or injury to sideline McCown before it gives its first-round pick another chance to further develop his game. The Browns should be flagged for a delay on that decision, and it’s a penalty that could be even costlier in time.
Greg Bedard: Mike Pettine knows how Manziel is acting in the quarterbacks' meeting room, whether he's watching enough film or knows the playbook well enough. Pettine knows how Manziel is playing in practice. And Pettine knows where Manziel's mind and maturity level are, less than six months from being released from a treatment facility.
We know none of this.
So if Mike Pettine doesn't think Manziel is ready to be the starter, he has his reasons. And they go well beyond “Who gives us the best chance to win in Week 3?” Pettine doesn't think Manziel should have remained the Browns' starting quarterback, so I'm going to agree with him.
Joan Niesen: I'm going to have to say yes. In the end, the Browns' decision essentially says that they're more interested in the proven but mediocre veteran who can execute their scheme than in a younger quarterback who can make the big play and potentially turn a game in their favor. That's a decision I can respect—when the young quarterback isn't a first-round pick. Manziel has to be given a chance to play consistently, or Cleveland will never really know what it has, even if what it has doesn't end up being a franchise quarterback.
To me, it seems like the Browns could have followed a much simpler plan of action: Continue with Manziel, and if he were to struggle, turn back to the healthy McCown. After all, Manziel's performance in Week 2 was an improvement over what he did in relief of McCown in Week 1, when one great pass preceded a whole lot of mediocre football. Why kill Manziel's momentum?
Michael Rosenberg: No, and here is why: The Browns got burned last year because Manziel was given too much too soon. He was a star before he played a down, and he acted like it. This helps explain why the Browns were so determined to hand their starting job to McCown last month. McCown is a journeyman who has never started over a full 16-game season. Nobody could reasonably expect him to be healthy enough and good enough at age 36 to hold onto the job all season. Yet the Browns made McCown the starter, and it was easy to infer that they wanted to make sure Manziel earned everything he got.
Does Manziel give Cleveland the best chance to win this weekend? Probably. But the Browns have to do everything they can to a) convince the world that Manziel is not the golden child and b) keep Manziel as humble as possible and make him earn his keep. He remains an intriguing talent: a gutsy, gifted player with a knack for creating plays. But to become a reliable NFL starter, he needs to learn when to be Johnny Football and when to just take what is there. He also needs to learn (if he hasn't already) that the world does not revolve around him. I'm pulling for Manziel long-term because he is so much fun to watch, and football will be more interesting if he becomes a star. But the best way to make that happen is to make him earn it every day.
Melissa Jacobs: No question. First off, with Manziel under center last week, the Browns won in electrifying fashion. Given the franchise’s recent track record, that feat alone should come with a prize in the form of a starting gig. But the argument really boils down to whether or not the Browns believe Manziel is their future. They’re crazy if they don’t.
By all accounts, post-rehab Manziel is a different quarterback this year in the ways that count. Teammates have gushed about his dedication to practice and midweek progress, especially once he relieved Josh McCown and practiced with a unit he hadn’t had the luxury of coalescing with for months. Leader in the locker room is probably a stretch at this point, but unlike last year, Manziel is not a distraction, nor has he been despondent.
Mike Pettine thinks the best way to continue Manziel’s maturation is to let him simmer behind McCown, which is absurd. This is a first-round quarterback in his second year who needs to mature by getting reps.
This isn’t 2005, when it was still commonplace for rookies to play apprentice for a couple of years. And let’s be real. Josh McCown may be the greatest guy ever—I’m sure Manziel can learn a lot from McCown on how to compose himself with the media or handle locker room disputes. But McCown isn’t exactly a soon-to-be Hall of Famer like Brett Favre who Aaron Rodgers was forced to spend a few years behind. Nor is he even Alex Smith, who was atop the league in passing efficiency in 2012 before losing his job to the more electrifying Colin Kaepernick after a concussion knocked Smith out for a few weeks.
Manziel is a grown man who no longer needs a helicopter coach. He still needs to develop, and the best way to do so is by playing.
Chris Burke: Should Manziel have kept his job? Yes. Not that the Browns are necessarily a playoff team this season, but sticking with McCown for any extended period lowers the odds of that further. He is what he is as a quarterback, and the ceiling is rather low.
All that said, though, I also get what the Browns are doing here. Mike Pettine decided long ago that he wanted McCown to be the starter this season, with Manziel learning by watching. Let's not forget that when he made that call back in the preseason, Manziel was not all that far removed from his tumultuous rookie year and an off-season rehab stint.
Whatever the plan has been to date, it's clearly working. Manziel has handled everything extremely well so far, from his relegation to the No. 2 spot to being thrown into the fire when McCown was injured to now. Even prior to his Week 2 start, Manziel said he didn't view the game as an opportunity to win the job from McCown—a grounded, appropriate comment far from the brashness Manziel displayed in 2014.
There's nothing wrong with slow-paying your hand when it comes to a young quarterback. Ideally, a first-round QB can thrive early while learning on the job, but we've also seen plenty of examples where the opposite rings true.
Plus (and I think I made this argument last year with regard to the Browns), it makes better sense to play McCown with the option to pull him should he struggle. What if Manziel starts and bombs? They bench him for performance reasons? That could be far more damaging to Manziel's psyche than the alternative.
Cleveland has made far too many rash decisions in its recent history. This time, Pettine is staying the course. It won't help short-term. It could pay dividends in the long run.
Doug Farrar: Yes. As I detailed in this All-22 piece after Cleveland's Week 2 win over the Titans, Manziel isn't just about explosive plays anymore. Yes, he had his share of those in his three touchdown passes to Benjamin so far. We already knew that Manziel could create big gains outside of structure. What I saw in the 2015 version of Johnny Manziel was a quarterback who was starting to get the little things down: running with throwing in mind, timing his throws to his receivers' routes, taking the short first-read pass when it's there instead of engaging in foolish heroics. Put simply, Johnny Manziel is starting to grow up on the field, and it's showing.
Are there still issues with his game? No question. Manziel still doesn't have a full sense of field reads, and he's still occasionally irresponsible with the ball. He's not ready to command a high-volume passing attack, and he attempted just 15 passes in Week 2, completing eight for 172 yards and those two deep touchdowns.
But the Browns need to ask themselves what they're trying to accomplish here. If it's true that Josh McCown was going to be the starter when he returned from the league's concussion protocol no matter what, that's a missed opportunity, in my opinion. Pettine has said that it's his job to win games as much as it is to develop quarterbacks, and that's very true. But doesMcCown really give the Browns a better chance to win? Listen to the Titans' defenders after the Cleveland game describe how Manziel forces defenses to prepare in unusual ways. McCown is the surer thing, but it's a sure thing with a very low ceiling. Outside of one good half-season with the Bears in 2013, he hasn't done anything of note. As the starter for the Buccaneers last season, he threw 11 touchdowns to 14 interceptions, so it isn't as if he's a flawless game manager. Instead, he's most likely the kind of veteran quarterback who allows his coaches to feel better about his mistakes, rooted as they are in athletic limitations and not youthful indiscretions.
But the Browns could use a bit of indiscretion in their offense right now. They're a borderline wild-card contender at best with a pretty good defense, a fair running game, a tremendous offensive line, and a still-unresolved crater at the game's most important position. Right now, Manziel doesn't fill that crater any more reliably than McCown does, but with further development in actual game action, he could be on the verge of something good.
Pity we may not find out until Josh McCown's limitations inevitably resurface.
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