Ulrich: Browns’ starting QB job is Hoyer's to lose

Cleveland to play at Washington tonight.
Wire
Aug 18, 2014

Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel will audition again Monday night at Washington before the Browns meet the next day with intentions to pick one of them as the starting quarterback for the Sept. 7 regular-season opener at Pittsburgh.

Considering what’s at stake for Hoyer and Manziel, this won't be your average, boring, meaningless second preseason game.

The quarterback duel is not only the top storyline for the upcoming installment of ESPN's Monday Night Football, but it’s also one of the most interesting position battles in the entire NFL. Heck, it might be the most interesting.

Browns coach Mike Pettine wants to have starters set at all positions before his team hosts the St. Louis Rams for its third exhibition game Saturday.

Pettine’s reasoning is simple: He wants his starters to capitalize on extended playing time during the “dress rehearsal” — they’ll likely play into the third quarter _ by building chemistry and cohesion in preparation for Week 1 at Pittsburgh.

The Browns held their final practice of training camp Saturday and will break camp Tuesday after they return from Washington.

So it’s an appropriate time to reset and reassess the hottest competition in Cleveland heading into what should be its final stretch Monday night.

Hoyer entered camp July 26 as the favorite to win the starting job because he had rebounded well from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in his right knee Oct. 3 and had distanced himself from Manziel in terms of adjusting to the scheme employed by new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

He performed much better than Manziel, the 22nd overall pick in this year's draft, through the first week of camp.

But Manziel rallied.

The Aug. 2 intrasquad scrimmage at the University of Akron proved to be a turning point for him. Manziel built momentum with string of strong practices the following week, when he and Hoyer began to alternate days working with the starters.

That brings us to the preseason opener Aug. 9 at Detroit.

If you asked 10 people who played better, five would probably say Hoyer and the other half would likely answer Manziel. Both were just so-so, and the Browns didn't score a touchdown all night.

Hoyer started and worked exclusively with the first-team offense.

He led the Browns on two field-goal drives in three series, two of which were against the Lions' starters. He completed 6 of 14 passes (42.8 percent) for 92 yards, posting a passer rating of 65.2.

In four series with the second unit, Manziel completed 7 of 11 passes (63.6 percent) for 63 yards, finishing with a passer rating of 79. He also ran six times for 27 yards (4.5 average).

I gave the edge to Hoyer because his two best passes were dropped.

Receiver Miles Austin failed to haul in what should have been a 29-yard completion along the sideline at the Lions’ 5-yard line.

And his pass on third-and-goal from the 8 went off All-Pro receiver Josh Gordon's hands in the back of the end zone.

In the wake of the exhibition opener, Hoyer put together a better week of practice than Manziel and enters Monday’s showdown as a slight front-runner to win the job. If you don't believe me, consider what Pettine told NFL.com's Judy Battista after Saturday's practice after she asked if Hoyer is in the lead as the starting quarterback.

“Yeah, I would say that,” Pettine said. “Johnny has definitely closed the gap. But Brian has gone out and done his job. There were a couple of throws he had in the game he'd like to have back but that was his first live game back after the knee injury. That’s not easy. I thought he was very poised, very confident. I’ve heard people say when you have two quarterbacks, you don't have any. That's laughable to me. When you have two quarterbacks, you have two quarterbacks.”

Hoyer will start against Washington. But Pettine plans to give Hoyer and Manziel about an equal number of reps with the first unit, which is expected to play about a half.
Manziel can still win the starting job, but I believe he would need to outshine Hoyer by a considerable amount Monday night.

In the event of a tie, I think Hoyer would prevail because he went 2-0 as a starter last fall before the season-ending injury, he has earned the respect of the new coaching staff and Pettine is firm in his belief that starting a rookie quarterback is not ideal.

Pettine has said the decision will be made by a committee led by himself, Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains. He indicated there was no consensus as of Saturday.

“There are thoughts from everybody that are pro for both [Hoyer and Manziel],” Pettine said. “And that’s why it’s something that we're going to, I’m sure, have a lengthy discussion over and do what's best for us and what's best for our team moving forward into the Steeler game.”

At this point, Pettine favors Hoyer. And earlier last week, Pettine made it clear he’ll make the final call if there's a tie.

“I’m just not going to make a decision based on what I feel,” Pettine said. “If it’s unanimous, then that's easy. But if there's a tie that has to be broken, I’ll do it.”

Before camp started, I predicted Hoyer would hold off Manziel and start Week 1.

I still believe he will as long as he doesn’t choke at the finish line with Johnny Football on his heels.

If Hoyer does hang on, he must win to delay the inevitable insertion of Manziel into the starting lineup. Pettine has already stated he won’t commit to the Week 1 starter for the entire year and the Browns have a convenient out in the form of their Week 4 bye on Sept. 28.

After their opener at Pittsburgh, the Browns will host New Orleans and Baltimore. So Hoyer, provided he wins the job, would need to revive the magic he conjured last season in a hurry.

Otherwise, Manziel would seem destined to make his first NFL start Oct. 5 against the Titans in owner Jimmy Haslam’s home state of Tennessee.

By Nate Ulrich — Akron Beacon Journal (MCT)

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