CLEVELAND — He is always just one play away from being the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback — that’s what they keep reminding Johnny Manziel — and here, it appeared, was that one play. Deep in the fourth quarter last Sunday, Brian Hoyer, the current starter, was writhing on the ground after a huge hit. He was staggering to his feet, dropping back to his knees, rising up again. On the Browns’ sideline, Manziel retrieved his helmet and started warming up, adrenaline coursing through him.
But Hoyer stayed in the game, Manziel put his helmet back down and the Browns’ season reached the 10-game mark with barely a sighting of the cultural phenomenon once known as “Johnny Football.” His aborted scramble to get warmed up was the most he had participated in a game in months as Hoyer, a sixth-year veteran and beloved local product, has tightened his grip on the starting job by leading the surprising Browns to a 6-4 record despite Sunday’s unsightly home loss to Houston.
On Monday, the skies darkened and the first snowfall of the year hit Cleveland, announcing the unofficial start of winter. The euphoria of spring, when the Browns took Manziel with the 22nd overall pick of the NFL draft, felt like ages ago, as did the promise of summer, when Manziel’s unmatched star power drew tens of thousands of fans and hundreds of media members to training camp before Coach Mike Pettine and his staff chose Hoyer as the starter in August.
At times such as these, it is worth reminding yourself: Manziel chose this. A year ago, he was the king of a vast swath of Texas, as well as a national icon — the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, magazine cover boy, wing man for Drake.
That he chose to forgo his final two seasons of eligibility as Texas A&M’s quarterback was no surprise given his obvious and sometimes public dissatisfaction with his fishbowl existence in an insular college town. But now, as Manziel sits on the Browns’ bench, staring into the teeth of a Lake Erie winter, it is fair to wonder: Would he have left College Station if he knew this awaited him?
At one point in the pre-draft run-up, he seemed to be in play for the Texans with the No. 1 overall pick. Had that been the case — instead of linebacker Jadeveon Clowney going first — Manziel probably would be starting by now. Houston benched veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick last week and gave backup Ryan Mallett his first NFL start (which turned into a thorough 23-7 win over Hoyer and the Browns).
“There’s been enough drama around me and my life for a couple of years now,” Manziel told reporters last week about his approach to life as a backup in Cleveland. “I’m just staying in my own lane, trying to get better. . . . I did what I needed to do to try to put myself in the best position to go as high as possible [in the draft], and this is where I ended up, and I'm very happy about it.”
Each week seems to alter the calculus that will determine when, if ever, Manziel gets his shot with the Browns.
On one side of the equation sits Manziel himself, plus the residual value of the first-round pick they spent on him and the huge marketing potential of a player who, after all, has some 1.2 million Twitter followers — more than all his teammates combined, according to data at www.tweeting-athletes.com — and multiple commercial campaigns airing nationwide. You don’t learn much about his ability and future prospects when he’s on the bench.
Asked one day recently about Manziel’s readiness to play in the NFL, Pettine gave a notably tepid endorsement, telling reporters, “He’s shown the ability in glimpses to be a starting quarterback here in the NFL.” Another person familiar with the coaching staff’s assessment of Manziel put it more bluntly: “He isn’t ready.”
On the other side of the equation sits Hoyer, plus the sentimental value of the homegrown star (he was born and raised in the area, attended Cleveland’s St. Ignatius High and married his high school sweetheart) and — multiplied by a factor of infinity — the Browns’ 9-4 record with him as a starter dating from last season, when he went 3-0 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Nothing matters in the NFL, particularly with quarterbacks, more than winning.
“We’re 100 percent behind Brian,” receiver Andrew Hawkins said Monday. “He’s our guy. I think the results speak for themselves.”
But underscoring the entire equation is the fickle nature of the NFL quarterback dynamic. In all but a handful of cases, a starter is only a few bad Sundays away from the whole city clamoring for the backup. And if that backup happens to be Johnny Football? Maybe it takes only one bad Sunday.
Hounded by an underpinning of let’s-play-Johnny sentiment around town, which grew stronger after losses, Hoyer appeared to have crossed a threshold with a convincing, season-defining, 24-3 win at division-rival Cincinnati on Nov. 6, one that helped the Browns move into first place — the first time the franchise had held the top spot in its division that deep in a season in 19 years.
“You stopped hearing about Manziel at that point,” said Doug Dieken, a former offensive lineman who played 14 seasons for the Browns and is now their radio color commentator. “But everyone knows better: It will only stay away until Hoyer has another bad game.”
Those words — spoken before the loss to Houston last Sunday, in which Hoyer completed just 20 of his 50 pass attempts — proved prophetic. By Monday afternoon, as snow blanketed Cleveland, “The Really Big Show” on ESPN 850 posed a question that said more about the situation than the answers it garnered:
“Where do you stand on Brian Hoyer?”
Hoyer is, in many ways, the anti-Johnny: steady but unspectacular, more a game-manager than a rocket-armed, elite quarterback. Signed by New England as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, he spent three seasons as Tom Brady’s backup, by all accounts absorbing every lesson he could at the elbow of the future Hall of Famer. His arm is neither spectacularly strong nor accurate, but he almost always makes the right reads and rarely commits a turnover.
Hoyer’s rise with the Browns was one of the best stories of the NFL season’s first half: the unsung, undrafted, local kid leading the lowly Browns to first place in the treacherous AFC North, if only briefly. Sunday’s loss to Houston dropped them back into a tie for third.
But Hoyer’s success, in itself, is a complicating factor in the Manziel equation. For one thing, it precludes the Browns from playing Manziel simply for the sake of seeing what he can do. To this point, Manziel has thrown exactly one NFL pass — an incompletion in Week 2 — and the Browns appear to have scrapped the “Johnny Package” of plays, designed around Manziel’s elusiveness, that they used occasionally in September.
More importantly, Hoyer’s success in 2014 greatly affects the Browns’ 2015 outlook. Hoyer is a free agent at the end of the season, and neither the Browns nor Hoyer appear inclined to discuss a long-term deal until after the season. If Hoyer, as reported, is really looking for Andy Dalton money — the Bengals’ quarterback signed a six-year, $96 million deal in the offseason, with $17 million guaranteed — can the Browns afford to give it to him, especially with Manziel awaiting his chance?
Or to flip the equation around, if Hoyer leads the Browns to the AFC North title and/or the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 12 years, can they afford not to?
“We drafted Johnny in the first round,” Pettine said recently, giving a remarkably thorough and honest outline of the equation as he sees it. “Brian Hoyer, at that point, was very much a question mark, coming off [knee surgery] and [in the] last year of a contract. It was important for us to address that position. . . .
“We don’t know what the future holds with Brian. I hate talking about contract stuff, but that’s the reality of the NFL, and we’ll see how it plays out down the road.”
It used to be that NFL quarterbacks, even the best ones, spent at least a year and sometimes several backing up an established veteran before getting their chance, but those days are mostly gone. In the past few years, well-regarded rookie quarterbacks, especially those drafted in the first round, have come to expect to start in Week 1 of Season 1 — the way Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III did.
“Even if you’re a top pick, the best situation to be in [is to] sit and learn for a while before they get thrown in,” Hawkins said. “That’s how you learn to be a professional, and I think Johnny is going to benefit from that. He’s a great teammate. He comes in, he works his butt off and he does his job. That’s what a professional is.”
This year, the two other quarterbacks taken in the first round — Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater — already have worked their way into the starting lineups for Jacksonville and Minnesota, respectively, while Derek Carr, taken in the second round by Oakland, has started every game.
Pettine said he can sense Manziel’s frustration over not playing “because you know what kind of competitor he is. Here’s a guy who has gone from . . . being out there making plays to standing there and having to watch. [His competitiveness] is one of the biggest reasons we brought him here. So if he didn’t feel [frustrated], I’d be shocked.”
But Billy Liucci, one of Manziel’s College Station friends, said the frustration angle is being overblown and equates the current situation to Manziel being redshirted his first season at Texas A&M following a legendary prep career.
“It wasn’t like he went into [the NFL] completely oblivious of the possibility he would sit his first year,” said Liucci, who owns the Texas A&M fan Web site TexAgs.com. “He knew how Hoyer finished last season. . . . Make no mistake: The dude wants to play football and be a star quarterback in the NFL in the worst way. I just think he has a real sense of perspective about it.”
Manziel still has his endorsements and his enormous Twitter following, but his absence from the playing field appears to have dimmed his star. His replica Browns jersey led the NFL in sales throughout the summer, but according to Dick’s Sporting Goods’ jersey report, which tracks sales nationwide, it had slipped to 18th as of Friday. (Hoyer’s, incidentally, has climbed to fifth.)
Years from now, it may seem incomprehensible that a team had the great Manziel on its roster and actually chose not to play him. Or it may seem incomprehensible that a team actually spent a first-round pick on a guy who was all hype and no game.
That perception may be tipped by what happens the rest of this season, as the Browns push toward the first meaningful December around these parts in a good, long while and Johnny Football sits and waits off to the side, forever one play away from getting his chance.