It’s too close to call. There is no clear-cut favorite. The locker room is split.
The competition for the Browns’ starting quarterback job between veteran Brian Hoyer and rookie Johnny Manziel is dripping with drama entering the final stretch.
Hoyer remains atop the depth chart in the wake of the team’s 13-12 loss to the Detroit Lions in the preseason opener, but he’s in danger of being leapfrogged by Manziel.
It’ll all likely come down to the Browns’ second exhibition game Monday night at Washington.
Coach Mike Pettine wants to name a starting quarterback before the third preseason game Aug. 23 against St. Louis, so the prime-time matchup against the Redskins should be one of this year’s most interesting and meaningful exhibition games because of what’s at stake.
Whoever performs better in the pressure-packed situation will have a significant advantage when Pettine, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains pick a starter for the Sept. 7 regular-season opener at Pittsburgh.
“I don’t change my approach at all,” Hoyer said Monday after practice. “To me, this is my team until someone tells me otherwise, and you come out here and just try to be the best quarterback you can. I just ignore the noise and hype and worry about what happens in that building and what I can control. For me, that’s practicing the best I can, and when I get the chance to play, playing the best I can.”
Manziel said he also realizes the importance of being able to focus on what matters most.
“I think I need to just continue to learn, continue to absorb everything I can in this short amount of time, and at the end of the day, it’s just play football,” said Manziel, the 22nd overall pick in this year’s draft. “Go out and go through your reads and execute and move the ball down the field and score points. I think whoever does that the best obviously is going to have a better chance at the end of the day.”
After starting the exhibition opener, Hoyer worked exclusively with the first-team offense Monday while Manziel operated the second unit.
Was the team making a statement about Hoyer still being ahead in the quarterback derby by giving him the starting snaps in the most recent practice?
“Yeah, I mean nothing’s changed,” Pettine said. “If there was a significant change on the depth chart, it would be reflected on the field.”
A change, though, could be on the horizon.
Pettine said the coaches have yet to decide which quarterback will start against Washington. “It’ll probably be a few days” before the decision is made, he said.
So what does Manziel need to do to receive the start against Washington?
“Just continue to master his craft, run the offense, be efficient,” Pettine said. “I don’t think there’s any one thing, a tangible thing you can say, ‘If he does this, then this will happen.’ ”Pettine said the coaches wouldn’t start Manziel just to see him with the first-string offense.
“If you’re going to put a guy in a starting role, I’ve always felt that needs to be earned,” Pettine said.
Still, no matter how the situation is portrayed, it would be surprising if Manziel didn’t start against Washington. Last week, Pettine said “it’s possible” Manziel could get the starting nod. Asked in June if Manziel would face starting defenses in the preseason, Pettine said, “If a guy has a chance to be a starter, I would think that you’d want to expose him to a starting defense if he was going to be the guy opening day.”
In the meantime, Hoyer and Manziel will take turns with the starters in practice, much like they did last week. Hoyer worked with the starters Tuesday and Thursday, Manziel Monday and Wednesday.
“We will mix the reps this week, but as far as starting the game, we’ll make that decision again as a committee,” Pettine said. “But it’ll be based on several factors.”
The defense got the best of both quarterbacks Monday.
Hoyer completed 5-of-15 passes in team drills, according to the Beacon Journal’s unofficial count. He threw two interceptions (cornerbacks Joe Haden and Buster Skrine picked him off) and one touchdown (Miles Austin had a 25-yard catch-and-run on a receiver screen).
Two of his passes were dropped and another two were broken up.
Manziel completed 4-of-14 passes in team periods. He threw a 2-yard touchdown to wide receiver Charles Johnson over K’Waun Williams in a goal-line drill. He also took two virtual sacks and fumbled a snap from under center.
Pettine said on a conference call Sunday there is no “clear-cut favorite” in the competition partly because neither quarterback has seized control of the competition and created substantial separation.
Hence strong safety Donte Whitner’s comments to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King. “It’s been fierce,” Whitner said. “Two guys fighting for their lives. It’s close. I’d say [the locker room] is split about 50-50. We know they both can play.”
Although Whitner’s teammates made it clear Monday he didn’t conduct a scientific survey by asking every player his opinion about Hoyer and Manziel, free safety Tashaun Gipson believes the “50-50” split is an accurate description.
“At this point, it is,” Gipson said. “Both of the guys bring their own elements to the game. Johnny Manziel, he can do a lot of things with his feet versus the things that Hoyer can bring. They’re both good quarterbacks, and I feel like we can win football games with either quarterback. As far as the quarterback race, man, I cannot tell y’all. I thought both of them played pretty good Saturday.”
The opinions of teammates is another potential distraction Hoyer and Manziel must overcome.
“I’m not really concerned about that because for me, I’m always going out there trying to prove to those guys that I am the guy,” said Hoyer, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Oct. 3 after leading the Browns to back-to-back wins. “So I’ve just to continue to improve and play better, and those decisions are over my head. Those will be made by the coaches. But in the same respect, I think you always want to go out and earn your teammates’ respect, and I did a little bit of that last year and now I’m just trying to build that back up this year.
“I think everybody has their opinions and, for me, [Whitner is] going against us every day and he can form whatever opinions he likes. But to me, that’s not a concern, because all I’m concerned about is being the best quarterback I can be and earning those guys’ respect, and the way you do that is going out on the field in a game and executing.”
Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron said describing the locker room as “divided might not be the right word” because “that has a negative connotation” and “it’s not a negative thing.”
“I don’t feel any rift like that or anything going on in the locker room,” Manziel said. “As far as my end, I think they see two guys coming out, playing football and competing as well as everybody else out on the field competing. So quarterback is obviously just a position that gets a lot of flash and gets a lot of attention, but at the same time there are guys battling all around. So I don’t really know if there’s an exact split like that. It’s not something I’m really aware of right now. I know two guys are going out and competing, trying to move the ball down the field for this offense, though.”
But only one of them will prevail, and Monday night’s game in Washington will be crucial.
By Nate Ulrich - Akron Beacon Journal (MCT)
©2014 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)
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