Here's an ugly but very plausible scenario: It's mid-October, the leaves have turned, the pumpkins are out, and the Browns are well below .500. Johnny Manziel is running the offense because new coach Mike Pettine has given the quick hook to their more experienced but less celebrated quarterback, Brian Hoyer.
If this comes to pass, the long-suffering Cleveland fan base—which had been so energized by Johnny Football's arrival—will soon revert back to its downtrodden state, as the reality that many experts had observed earlier sinks in: Manziel is simply not an NFL quarterback. At best the faithful will be in denial, rationalizing that the reason Manziel isn't succeeding is that restrictive coaches are not letting Johnny be Johnny.
The Browns, unfortunately, are in a position where their quarterback must play well enough to elevate bad players around him. For that they have Josh Gordon to thank. The league's leading receiver in 2013 decided that being around pot was more important than playing football and earned a suspension for the entire year (appeal pending). That left Cleveland with a collection of receiving castoffs such as ex--Bengals slot man Andrew Hawkins and injury-prone former Cowboy Miles Austin. The exception is fluid tight end Jordan Cameron. How likely is it that Manziel can save the day? Forget the Johnny Football aura for a moment: When you break down the rookie's tools, you find merely decent speed, good quickness and adequate arm strength. (Sorry, but "playmaking moxie," whatever that is, is not an actual virtue.) In short, Manziel offers nothing the NFL hasn't seen before. Since everyone agrees that his 6-foot, 210-pound frame is not outstanding, it's easy to conclude that the reason we haven't seen a player like Manziel before is that a player with his skill set isn't capable of succeeding in the NFL. This feels like Tim Tebow all over again—except Tebow at least had the size and strength to withstand the pounding that mobile quarterbacks incur, and there were never concerns about his character or maturity.
Manziel played an unstructured brand of football at Texas A&M, and he runs a real risk of injury or midseason breakdown if he continues with that style as a pro. Some observers compare Manziel to Seattle's Russell Wilson because of their similar heights and propensities to run, but the cerebral Wilson entered the league as a highly disciplined and decisive quarterback.
New Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, at 34, one of the league's best young builders of offenses, will have to adjust the zone-blocking, play-action-based system he used in his offenses in Houston and Washington to accommodate his callow quarterback. But no matter how many rollouts or moving pockets Shanahan installs, he won't be able to anticipate his quarterback's freewheeling tendencies with any consistency. That complicates game-planning and also practices.
But this is what general manager Ray Farmer and owner Jimmy Haslam signed up for when they drafted Manziel. The experiment will be fun at times, but to win games the Browns will have to lean on their rushing attack. Newly signed Ben Tate played in a Shanahan-style scheme under Gary Kubiak the last three seasons in Houston and has the natural downhill power—and just enough wiggle—to thrive behind what should be an excellent offensive line headlined by All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas and Pro Bowl center Alex Mack.
Without Gordon, any production through the air—especially on the third-and-longs that pop up frequently for a run-first offense—will have to come from play design. The problem is that such designs only work if you have a patient and intelligent quarterback. (Many believe the 28-year-old Hoyer, who won all three of his starts in 2013 before tearing his right ACL last October, is that guy.)
The best news for the offense is that Pettine, who was previously the defensive coordinator for the Jets and the Bills, might have the dominant defense that's mandatory for winning with a run-first approach, and that will keep the Browns in games. And, for whatever it's worth, the first-time NFL head coach will have, for at least the first few weeks of the season, that energized fan base (!) behind him. But once the honeymoon ends, he's still likely to be faced with tough questions at quarterback and a team on track for last place.
2013 Record: 4--12
CIN THUR [AWAY]
The pass rush
Mike Pettine likes to manufacture pressure on the quarterback through presnap disguise and blitz exchanges that make rushers hard to identify; offenses that guess wrong wind up with linemen blocking air. But the coach might not need to be that creative. He has an excellent bull-rusher in fourth-year outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard. If last year's No. 6 overall pick, Barkevious Mingo, takes a significant step forward (last year he badly needed to learn some NFL moves and increase his strength), Pettine will have a dynamic speed-rusher as well. Complementing those two at outside linebacker is 2013 free-agent pickup Paul Kruger. The former Raven is not quite as good as his five-year, $40.5 million contract, but he's capable of splashy plays and, like Sheard, he can set the edge in run defense. Typically these three players have rotated; it will be interesting to see if Pettine designs any third-down packages that have all three on the field.
THE CASE FOR
Joe Haden & Justin Gilbert
For Mike Pettine to run the hybrid 3--4, blitz-heavy scheme that he learned under Rex Ryan, he must have a cornerback who can handle opposing receivers one-on-one, allowing for the safety on his side of the field to rove elsewhere or blitz. Pettine so values this kind of corner that the Browns have invested in two of them: fifth-year pro Haden (left), who signed a six-year, $74.7 million contract ($45 million guaranteed) this off-season, and Gilbert, whom Cleveland took out of Oklahoma State with the eighth pick in this year's draft. Haden is as good as his price tag suggests. He has the quickness and fluidity to shadow receivers both outside and in the slot. And he can be a dangerous playmaker when challenged. (Just ask Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, whom Haden intercepted twice, running one back for a score, in Week 11.) Gilbert will begin his NFL career matching up with the opposition's No. 2 receivers. With quarterbacks likely to avoid Haden, the 6-foot, 200-pound rookie will see plenty of balls come his way. But Pettine believes that by making good use of extra men in his pressure packages, he can help his top pick handle the onslaught.