The end is near.
At least Browns coach Mike Pettine hopes.
Pettine wants desperately to name the starting quarterback for the season opener this week, and put a stop to the competition that has overwhelmed all other storylines in camp. It’s been his plan since before training camp and hasn’t changed despite a near-even battle of mediocrity from Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel through all of camp and the preseason opener.
He wants to stop the daily dialogue about the competition, empower the winner and shift the focus entirely to preparing for the Week 1 trip to Pittsburgh. Pettine allowed for the small possibility the battle will drag on for another week, but would greatly prefer to have clarity after tonight’s game in Washington and make the decision Tuesday.
Here are the most likely scenarios for the quarterback derby tonight, and how Pettine might react to them:
Getting a grip
Hoyer has maintained his spot atop the depth chart and will make his second straight start. He therefore has the first shot to end the competition.
If Hoyer takes the opening kickoff and leads an impressive drive capped by a touchdown — the offense failed to get in the end zone in the intrasquad scrimmage and against Detroit — he would give Pettine the evidence needed to proceed with his plan to start Hoyer in Pittsburgh.
Pettine has been against starting a rookie since before the draft, and Hoyer appeals to him as a more reliable alternative. But Hoyer must seize the opportunity tonight with a quality outing.
The Browns’ roster is set up to play low-scoring games. The defense is deep and talented, and the run game will be relied upon because of the questions at receiver.
That style of play works best with a game manager at quarterback. And no one can call Manziel a game manager.
Hoyer’s strength is his intelligence. He knows the offense, can read a defense and quickly determine where to go with the ball.
If he’s accurate with his throws — he was high a couple of times in Detroit — he can be an effective starter.
A rookie rises
Manziel’s offseason of partying put him well behind Hoyer entering camp. His missed meeting last week may have cost him the start against Washington.
His play can erase a lot of mistakes.
Manziel will get equal time with the first-team offense tonight, and a superlative performance could force Pettine to hand him the keys to the season. Manziel needs to prove plenty for that to happen.
He must run a smooth operation, including relaying the complicated play calls of coordinator Kyle Shanahan in a timely fashion.
He must throw well from the pocket. He must have success against Washington’s first-team defense. He must get the offense into the end zone.
“That’s what we need to do,” he said. “That’s the goal for every group that’s out there, score points.”
Manziel has proved he can rip intermediate throws, but has thrown some interceptions in practice on bad decisions outside of the pocket. He’s made strides going through his progressions, but it’s still a struggle for him to stay in the pocket if his first read isn’t open.
Manziel surprised some Saturday when he said he wasn’t ready to face Pittsburgh in Week 1. A breakout performance tonight would provide a boost of confidence, which seems to be lacking from the normally brash rookie. He would then have three weeks to devote his full attention to getting ready for the Steelers.
This scenario is only possible if Manziel thoroughly outplays Hoyer tonight.
Pettine and Shanahan would like the decision to be made for them with a big night from Hoyer or Manziel. They shouldn’t count on it.
Neither candidate has gained separation through three inconsistent weeks. Manziel is learning the difficulties of life in the NFL, while Hoyer is adjusting to Shanahan’s system and operating on a surgically repaired right knee.
The Browns can expect improvement from both tonight, but how much is unknown. Perhaps the likeliest scenario for Pettine is respectable games from Hoyer and Manziel but no definitive performance.
If that’s the case, Pettine might not sleep as he struggles with the decision. But without a statement from Manziel, Pettine seems inclined to move forward with Hoyer.
This dud’s for you
Pettine probably wakes up in a cold sweat dreaming of quarterback queries. The real nightmare would be a disastrous night for Hoyer and Manziel, followed by another week of questions.
Pettine has insisted he’s not disappointed neither quarterback has claimed the job. He won’t be able to say the same if both struggle tonight.
A string of three-and-outs, turnovers and no touchdowns from Hoyer and Manziel seems like the only way Pettine will delay naming a starter. Hoyer would be a tough sell coming off a clunker, and Pettine won’t reward Manziel for failure.
That would add a ton of stress to the week and push the pressure to the dress rehearsal Saturday at home against the Rams.
Pettine must have his starter in place before the preseason finale, even if he doesn’t love his choices.
He’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.
Elsewhere on the field
The quarterback being ignored in Cleveland is Washington’s Robert Griffin III. He’s the best of the bunch.
Griffin probably won’t run as much as he would during the regular season, but he’s a dual threat that stresses every part of a defense. Griffin is a Heisman Trophy winner like Manziel — with better size, a better arm and better speed.
Cleveland’s defense has dominated the offense in camp, but this will be its first real test after Detroit pulled its starting offense after a series.
- Rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert, who missed the opener with a groin injury, will get the start in his NFL debut because Buster Skrine is out with a thumb injury. Gilbert will be challenged by Griffin and receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.
- Rookie running back Terrance West will get time with the starters as he continues his quest to earn carries when the season starts.
- Receiver Josh Gordon (abdominal) is questionable to play, and his absence could benefit the rest of the receiving corps. Someone needs to step up, because there’s a good chance Gordon will miss considerable time with a drug suspension.
- Charles Johnson, Travis Benjamin, Willie Snead and Taylor Gabriel are fighting for spots in the rotation and need to produce in the preseason.