BEREA — Now isn’t the time for Brian Hoyer to relax.
But he can smile.
The North Olmsted native that grew up cheering for the Browns was named the starting quarterback to open the regular season, beating out rookie first-round pick Johnny Manziel. Rookie coach Mike Pettine gave them the news Wednesday morning before a team meeting.
“It was exciting. When Coach Pettine told me, I’m sure I cracked a smile,” Hoyer said after practice. “But you realize all the work I’ve put in and now here is my shot and just go out and run with it.
“All you can ask for is an opportunity and then to go out there and seize it and now that it’s here, it’s time to work harder.”
Hoyer overcame long odds to win the job he grew up dreaming of owning. He tore his right anterior cruciate ligament Oct. 3 in his third start for the Browns and had surgery Oct. 18. If that weren’t enough of an obstacle, the Browns took Manziel — the most popular player in the draft by a mile — with the No. 22 pick and he became an instant fan favorite.
“I never thought of it that way,” Hoyer said. “I always felt that if I did the things I could do and I rehabbed, I always had the belief in myself that I could earn the starting quarterback job.
“I feel like I have and it’s good to know that my coaches and teammates believe in me.”
Hoyer will be the 12th quarterback to start an opener for the Browns since their return in 1999. It probably means more to him than the previous 11.
“Obviously it’s very special for me,” he said. “Did I believe this could happen after I got hurt? There was no doubt in my mind. But there were days when rehab sucked and I hated what I was doing, but I knew the feeling I had running out into that stadium or running off the field after we beat Cincinnati. It’s all worth it.”
Pettine cited experience and poise for picking Hoyer, a five-year veteran. He called Hoyer “the clear leader from the beginning” and didn’t see reason to change the depth chart after Hoyer and Manziel struggled in camp and the first two preseason games.
“I think he had a lot going on,” Pettine said of Hoyer. “We’ll see how things are for him now. Maybe there’s some sense of relief or some re-found confidence, but I just think he was dealing with a lot coming into camp.”
Hoyer is 8-for-20 for 108 yards and a 57.9 rating with three field-goal drives and no touchdowns in the preseason. He was hurt by drops from the receivers, but also struggled with accuracy.
“I don’t get wrapped up in the numbers,” Pettine said. “I think he had some drops that you could factor in, some routes that were run at the wrong depth, at the wrong angle. It’s easy to look at the numbers. I think when you look at the tape it tells a very different picture.”
That’s not to say Pettine was satisfied with Hoyer’s performance. But he was pleased with how Hoyer handled the pressure.
“I think if you asked him, there was some stress there, but that’s part of football,” Pettine said. “We want to distress our guys. We wanted to put them in tough situations. We talk to the team all the time about mental toughness and dealing with adverse conditions. I think it will only make them stronger.”
Hoyer disagreed with the idea that the pressure affected him and hurt his performance. He insists he always approached the competition like it was his job and he wasn’t going to lose it.
“I don’t think I haven’t been relaxed,” he said. “I think the other night things got a little messed up. People want to pin that on pressure. I just think we played poorly and we’ve got to be better than that.
“I don’t think it ever got to me. This is actually the most relaxed I’ve been in a training camp in my career because I was in the spot to be a starter and that had never been given to me before. So it’s good to have a decision and move forward.”
Pettine always wanted to name a starter before the third preseason game – Saturday night at home against the Rams – and stuck to his plan despite an inconsistent camp from both quarterbacks.
“We wanted to have a starter in place because there’s no substitution for live game reps with the guys that you’re going to be playing with,” he said. “There’s so many plays that involve being on the same page. We wanted to make sure it was finding that sweet spot between if you do it too early then they really didn’t compete at all and if you do it too late you run the risk of now nobody is ready for the opener and you don’t have cohesion, chemistry. That’s why we had targeted it and felt when we met last night that we had enough information to go ahead.”
The torn ACL last season ended an encouraging stretch for Hoyer. He had started only one game previously in his career, but replaced an injured Brandon Weeden and went 3-0. He led winning fourth-quarter drives against Minnesota and Cincinnati, then got hurt against Buffalo. He completed 59 percent for 615 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions and a 77.4 rating.
Nothing was guaranteed to Hoyer last year, and nothing is guaranteed this year. Pettine said the job’s his and there won’t be a package of plays for Manziel to open the season, but he doesn’t want Hoyer to get too comfortable.
“I don’t want to make a permanent commitment to any starter,” Pettine said. “I think you make more of a commitment to your quarterback because of circumstances that surround that position, but I think you need all your guys on your roster running scared a little bit that, ‘Hey, listen, if I don’t perform, I’m not going to be in here.’”
Since the schedule was announced, the bye in Week 4 has looked like a logical point for a switch to Manziel if Hoyer struggles in games against Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Baltimore.
“My entire career’s been looking over my shoulder,” said Hoyer, who was undrafted out of Michigan State. “The pressure you put on yourself is far greater than anything (else). You’re just trying to get on the team and I feel like I’ll carry that chip with me forever. Every day I come out here, I’m just trying not to get cut and when you have that mentality, you push yourself to the limit.
“Now that I’m a starter you have to take that mentality and enhance your play as a starter. It can only help you.”
The long-awaited decision should remove a distraction for the whole team.
“It’s cool, man,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “Now Brian can finally settle in because he knows it’s his team. He can settle down and look at this next game as a dress rehearsal, then start getting ready for Pittsburgh.”