Browns coach Mike Pettine insists rookie Johnny Manziel has not surpassed veteran Brian Hoyer in the race to become the team’s starting quarterback and neither player should be labeled an obvious leader of the derby because it’s too close to call at this point.
ESPN’s Bob Holtzman reported a team source told him Manziel is ahead in the quarterback battle in the aftermath of the Browns’ 13-12 loss to the Detroit Lions on Saturday night in the preseason opener. Pettine, though, refuted the report.
“It’s untrue,” Pettine said Sunday afternoon during a conference call. “I’m not sure who his team source would be, but to me, the people most involved in the decision are myself and [quarterbacks coach] Dowell Loggains and [offensive coordinator] Kyle Shanahan. So it’s something that I’m not going to pay a lot of attention to because I don’t like being in the business of anonymous sources.”
So is one of the quarterbacks ahead or is the competition a dead heat right now?
“No, we put Brian out there with the ones [Saturday] and that was for a reason because he was ahead because of his edge in experience and the lead he had with the playbook,” Pettine said. “He’s done nothing to have that taken away from him, but Johnny has made some improvement, a lot of improvement. With the things where he was behind in the spring, I think he’s gotten a pretty firm grasp on.
“As we said before, it was [Manziel] versus the playbook, and he’s handling it well. It was his first live-game situation of an active play clock and having to get the call and repeat it and get everybody lined up and the motions executed, which we do a lot of. He’s really gone from one extreme to the other, and I think he’s handled it well. Brian, on the other hand, has been solid.”
Manziel’s coaches believe he’ll be best prepared to succeed once his pocket presence fully develops.
“He’s definitely a work in progress with that,” Pettine said. “But he’s shown a solid improvement in it.”
The coaches have not decided which quarterback will start in the second exhibition game Aug. 18 at the Washington Redskins, Pettine said. Still, it would be surprising if Manziel, the 22nd overall pick in this year’s draft, doesn’t get a shot to show what he can do with the first unit in game action.
Pettine expects both quarterbacks to work with the first-team offense during practices this week. Hoyer worked exclusively with the starters in spring practices and through the first week of training camp, but he and Manziel began splitting time with the first-string offense last week.
Pettine said Hoyer and Manziel were “solid” against the Lions, even though the Browns failed to score a touchdown.
Playing with the first-team offense, Hoyer led the Browns on two field-goal drives in three series, two against the Lions’ starters, and completed 6-of-14 passes (42.8 percent) for 92 yards, posting a passer rating of 65.2. At least two of his passes were dropped, including one that went off the hands of All-Pro receiver Josh Gordon in the back of the end zone.
In four series with the second-string offense, Manziel completed 7-of-11 passes (63.6 percent) for 63 yards, posting a passer rating of 79. He was the victim of one dropped pass. He also ran six times for 27 yards (4.5 average), including a long gain of 16 yards. He led the offense to a field-goal drive and orchestrated another potential scoring march that fizzled when the Lions recovered running back Dion Lewis’ fumble at their 31-yard line.
So did anything happen in the exhibition opener that changed Pettine’s assessment of the quarterback duel?
“No, and to me, if there was a clear-cut favorite at this point, it would probably mean that one of them wasn’t playing very well,” Pettine said. “And it’s a good problem to have, having two guys that we think are both capable of being NFL starters.”
Browns strong safety Donte Whitner told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King he believes the locker room is split 50-50 on the Hoyer-Manziel debate and would be OK with either one starting.
Pettine said he still wants to name a starting quarterback before the third preseason game Aug. 23 against the St. Louis Rams, but he conceded that deadline is not “1,000 percent etched in stone.”
He is definitely sticking to his belief, though, that starting a rookie quarterback in the NFL is not ideal. But at the same time, he knows some have succeeded out of the gate.
“I’ve always felt in an ideal situation that the rookie gets a chance to sit behind someone and learn,” Pettine said.
When Pettine, Loggains and Shanahan make the final call on which quarterback will start the regular-season opener Sept. 7 at the Pittsburgh Steelers, they’ll try to pick the player they believe is the best man for the job this year.
“When we sit down and look at the big picture, it’s who gives us the best chance to win,” Pettine said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Does Manziel give the Browns the best chance to win because his mobility adds a dimension to the offense and the team lacks playmakers, especially if Gordon is lost to a suspension?
“I don’t see it that way,” Pettine said. “[Manziel] does have a certain skill set that we hope to take advantage of if he is out there, but that’s not the way we look at it. It’s what I said before: We’re going to look at everything involved and whoever gives us the best chance to win, will be out there.”
Rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert, the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft, did not play against the Lions because of a groin injury.
Pettine acknowledged it was disappointing for the franchise’s top selection to have his NFL debut delayed, but he stressed the team chose to err on the side of caution.
“It was [disappointing], but it’s not a serious injury,” Pettine said. “So it was something that much like [Pro Bowl tight end Jordan] Cameron. If it had been a game week, he likely would’ve been able to go. But it was something that we decided with our first preseason game, we could be cautious with it. So, yeah, we would’ve loved to have seen him out there, but we just didn’t feel it was worth the risk.”
Cameron was sidelined with an AC joint issue in his shoulder. He suffered the injury Aug. 2 in the team’s intrasquad scrimmage at the University of Akron.
Pettine said he didn’t have an update regarding the injury Gordon suffered Saturday against the Lions.
“No, but it’s minor,” Pettine said.
Of course, the Browns are more concerned about the NFL’s impending ruling on Gordon’s appeal of a drug suspension. The Pro Bowler led the league in receiving yards last season despite serving a two-game suspension.
“We know that whatever does come down from the league about Josh, as I’ve said before, you can’t just replace him with one guy,” Pettine said. “We’re going to have to do it by committee. We’re going to have to do it by scheme.”
Wide receiver Charles Johnson had three catches for 30 yards Saturday, a better showing than his rough outing in the scrimmage at UA.
“I think he did some good things against man coverage, that it was a definite improvement over the scrimmage and he’ll certainly be in the mix with those other guys [competing for roster spots],” Pettine said.
The starting offensive line stepped up as well. After the game, Hoyer said he wasn’t hit at all.
“As a group of starters, I thought they played pretty well,” Pettine said. “I thought they handled a defensive front that a lot of people consider to be one of the better ones in football.”
And rookie inside linebacker Chris Kirksey, a third-round pick, continued to impress. He had three tackles and a pass defensed.
“We’ve been thrilled with that linebacker room, especially the development of the rookie,” Pettine said. “I think Chris has shown that the game is not too big for him. And some of the question marks that we had about him coming in, coming out of Iowa that we really didn’t get a chance to see on tape in college, he’s answered those questions very easily in the NFL.”
Retirement on horizon?
In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, veteran receiver Nate Burleson hinted he might retire after he spends the 2014 season with the Browns.
“The goal is to have a career year and really ride off into the sunset the way I need to,” Burleson, who spent the past four seasons with the Lions, said Saturday after the preseason opener. “A full 16 games. I want to give Cleveland what I wasn’t able to give to Detroit, which is a healthy Nate Burleson for a whole season.”
Burleson was asked if his “ride off into the sunset” comment meant he planned on retiring after the upcoming season.
“Ride off in the sunset, man. Why not?” Burleson said. “If I can help this team and do it the right way, why not? Year 12, age 33, still got my limbs intact to play with my babies.”
By Nate Ulrich - Akron Beacon Journal (MCT)
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