It’s going to be a fun week at Browns’ headquarters this week as Cleveland coach Mike Pettine begins to earn his money the hard way. Facing the media with a tough decision to make,
The first question in all news conferences this week will be, and should be, “Who is your starting quarterback? Who will start against Indianapolis next Sunday?”
After Brian Hoyer all but played himself out of the starting role he won in training camp last August and held through the last day in November, which happened to be Sunday in Buffalo, the specter of Johnny Manziel now looms on the Cleveland professional football horizon.
The offensive coaching staff, whose loyalty to Hoyer’s early-season success had spawned a 7-4 record entering Sunday’s 26-10 loss to the Bills, has to at least think about making a switch at quarterback following Hoyer’s fourth and fifth interceptions in the last two games and sixth in the last three games.
And while the interceptions have come at inappropriate times, the Cleveland offense is now stagnating with Hoyer in charge. That side of the ball needs to be addressed and Manziel has to be given more than token consideration.
For the third time in two games, the Cleveland defense gave the offense the ball in plus territory when Joe Haden picked off a Kyle Orton pass at the Buffalo 20-yard line on the third play of the third quarter and the Browns clinging to a 3-0 lead.
Three plays and minus-eight yards later, Spencer Lanning dropped back in punt formation. The Browns’ offense turned a gift from the Bills into a three-and-out and a punt. Backward march. Pathetic.
That should have been the coaching staff’s first clue that Hoyer needed to be escorted to the bench and instructed to stay there. Instead, Pettine stuck with him and paid the price.
Hoyer, a minimally talented National Football League quarterback whose forte has been playing relatively mistake-free football until now, removed all doubt as to his ability to help the Browns any more this season with another mistake-laden afternoon against the Bills.
Will Pettine shrug off Hoyer’s poor performances the last two games – even though the Browns did knock off Atlanta last Sunday – and stick with his man? Or will he correctly make the move to Manziel, who looked good on one drive and awful on another in his debut, to be the man to take it home in the next four weeks?
The Browns are 7-5 at this point of the season and still in the hunt for a post-season appearance. Does the coaching staff trust and then turn to the unpredictable Manziel, whose reputation as a gambler preceded him to the NFL, or stay the course with the more conservative, but less talented, Hoyer?
This is how bad Hoyer was against the Bills. In the seven series leading up to his eventual benching and Manziel’s entrance with 12:01 left in regulation, the Browns gained a net total of 14 yards. Hoyer’s two picks – Bills defenders dropped at least two others – were the direct result of an offense marching in reverse.
In the third quarter alone, the Browns gained (using the word loosely here) a net total of six negative yards on nine plays. That’s when the game turned as quickly as one can blink.
The Cleveland defense hammered the Buffalo offense in the first 30 minutes, playing stout against the run and in the secondary, but gave up an eight-play, 84-yard scoring drive to the Bills following Lanning’s punt despite failing to pick up a first down on a third-and-four at the Cleveland 38.
It was the Bills’ eighth straight failed attempt at converting a third down – they would go 0-for-11 before finally converting their first – and Buffalo coach Doug Marrone had seen enough.
Why not gamble? He had nothing to lose. The Buffalo defense had pretty much neutralized the Cleveland offense, anyway. So on a fourth-and two, Orton hooked up with Robert Woods, who fought off Buster Skrine to make the catch at the Cleveland 3.
Orton then hit Chris Hogan in the right flat on the next play, giving the Bills a lead they would not relinquish. But the best (or worst depending on your perspective) was yet to come. Suddenly.
On the ensuing possession, Buffalo linebacker Preston Brown raked the ball out of the grasp of Cleveland rookie running back Terrance West and defensive end Jerry Hughes picked up the loose ball and rambled 18 yards to the end zone. Two touchdowns 10 seconds apart.
And yet, Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan kept sending Hoyer back out onto the field. The Bills, most likely frothing at the mouth with a 14-3 lead that probably seemed much larger considering how inoffensive the Cleveland offense was, threw everything at Hoyer, who was 18-of-30 for 192 yards and the two picks.
Manziel finally discarded his baseball hat, grabbed a helmet and began warming up following Buffalo cornerback Da’Norris Searcy’s second theft of the afternoon with 12:59 left in regulation.
After entering the game, he smartly and smoothly marched the Browns 80 yards for their only touchdown of the afternoon, scoring on a 10-yard scramble with 8:47 left. Then he foolishly flashed the money sign to the Buffalo fans. Enough already.
On his second series with the Browns down, 23-10, and the ball at the Cleveland 18, center Ryan Seymour snapped the ball on third-and-six to Manziel lined up in the pistol, but the rookie was not ready for it.
He bobbled the snap, scrambled after the ball, picked it up and clumsily tried to throw it, but defensive tackle Kyle Williams slapped it into the end zone where cornerback Nickell Robey recovered for an apparent touchdown. Replay reversed the call to an incomplete forward pass.
So why did it take so long for Pettine to yank his starting quarterback’s leash when it was obvious the Cleveland attack was awful? Having coached the Buffalo defense last season, he certainly knew how aggressively the Bills played on defense and that Manziel, much more mobile than Hoyer, couldn’t do any worse.
And now, he’s going to face daily interrogation and criticism no matter which way he goes with his choice. The longer he holds back his decision, the worse it will get.
Following the game, Pettine indicated it was too early to tell to make a call. On who gets the call against the Colts next week, he said, “Sometimes, you just need change for the sake of change. We’ll scope it out to a staff decision.”
Is that a hint? He won’t say for sure.
If he stays with Hoyer, critics will rail and wonder what it will take to finally get a look at Manziel at the beginning of a game. And if he goes with Manziel, Hoyer supporters will accuse him of panicking.
Why pull the trigger on the guy who got you to 7-4? You’re still in the playoff hunt. Why not give him one more game? Maybe this was an aberration.
The difference is that Manziel is the club’s future, not Hoyer, who was adequate before the league finally caught up to him. Manziel is a fresh face. He brings excitement to the game in a variety of ways.
We don’t know what he can do in the NFL. The question has raged all season, but Hoyer stemmed that tide. Until now. And now we get a chance to find out. Maybe. That, of course, depends on Pettine’s decision.