BEREA — Brian Hoyer can’t relax, but he can exhale.
Hoyer kept his lead over rookie Johnny Manziel throughout the OTAs and mandatory minicamp and will enter training camp as the favorite to win the starting quarterback job.
Don’t freak out, Johnny Football fans. Rookie coach Mike Pettine said Manziel will get his chance to knock off the incumbent when the team reconvenes in late-July.
“Brian is securely ahead of him right now, but we will compete and we will decide,” Pettine said Thursday afternoon. “I don’t think it’s insurmountable.”
Pettine dismissed the veterans following the final practice of minicamp. Within minutes he had fast-forwarded six weeks to what the highly anticipated quarterback battle will look like, as all eyes will be on local hero Hoyer versus national celebrity Manziel.
Pettine made it clear Hoyer would be No. 1 on the depth chart. He was equally emphatic Manziel would get his opportunities with the first-team offense.
“I don’t know how even we’ll get (the repetitions), but there will definitely be times when Johnny will be with the ones,” Pettine said. “It would be hard to evaluate if we didn’t do that. If there wasn’t a competition, then it would just be strictly ones and twos.
“We haven’t met to go over that. Kyle (Shanahan, coordinator), Dowell (Loggains, quarterbacks coach) and I are going to all think of it over the summer and as we get closer, probably at some point get together and figure out how we want to do it.”
Pettine expects Manziel to also see time with the starters during the preseason.
“If a guy has a chance to be a starter, I would think that you’d want to expose him to an (opposing) starting defense if he was going to be the guy opening day,” he said.
General manager Ray Farmer said shortly after drafting Manziel with the No. 22 pick that Hoyer had a “substantial” lead. Pettine said that’s a bit misleading.
“I think when Ray made the comment, he talked about the lead being just because of the circumstances, that Brian had been here for those seven, eight weeks before the draft even started,” Pettine said. “That was essentially a head start and I don’t think it’s insurmountable.”
Hoyer was limited to a few 11-on-11 repetitions in each practice as the coaches and trainers took a cautious approach to avoid incidental contact to his surgically repaired right knee. Pettine said that was one of the reasons it was difficult to judge the pair of passers.
“We haven’t really been in the mode of thinking: ‘He’s this far ahead today. How much was the gap closed?’” Pettine said. “They’re still learning the basics of the offense. The rookies haven’t been here very long. They’re playing catch-up from a playbook standpoint. So at this point, we really weren’t keeping score. We’ll be much more apt to do that once we get to training camp.”
Pettine is in a similar spot to many of his predecessors. He will enter the run-up to the regular season not knowing the identity of his starting quarterback.
The uncertainty was disastrous for Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur, who all struggled with the setup and length of the competitions. Pettine is aware of the challenges.
“The issue for us as a staff is finding the right time to name a starter,” he said. “If you wait too late, then nobody’s ready for the opener. If you do it too soon, then it wasn’t a true competition. That will be part of our discussions as well, as far as, OK, here’s the plan, here’s a date that you want to go ahead and name him.”
The team prevented the quarterbacks from talking to the media this week in an attempt to contain the circus around Manziel. They will be available July 25 when the team reports to training camp. In minicamp it was up to their teammates to discuss the battle.
Left tackle Joe Thomas was asked if he agrees with the evaluation that Hoyer is ahead.
“It’s tough for me to say,” he said. “I’ve always had a hard time evaluating quarterbacks. I know the best player will play and I’m excited to see that competition play out in training camp.”
Hoyer has the edge in experience with five seasons in the NFL, including three with Tom Brady in New England. He’s learned complicated systems and digested playbooks.
Manziel didn’t have a playbook at Texas A&M and is still getting used to a professional installation.
“I don’t think he should concern himself so much with where Brian is but where he is,” Pettine said. “I think if he gets in his — it’s hard to say get into his playbook because it’s get into his iPad, which is odd to say. He’s going to have plenty of tape to study, his own work, what the rest of the offense has done, even in the time before he got here, the work that we were able to do on the field, start to study some opponent tape. I think the more he just familiarizes himself with that, the better off he’ll be.”
Manziel ended minicamp with a good day. He had a string of completions during team drills and continued to show his mobility. But the full range of his heralded improvisation won’t be on display until the preseason when he will or won’t be able to avoid the pass rush, extend the play and work his magic.
“Some of his biggest strengths are moving around, running around,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “We can see it sometimes when we’re doing 11-on-11 moving the ball and he gets out of the pocket. Dude, he’s fast. I don’t know if he’s 4.6, but he’s pretty fast.
“I know that some things are handicapping him a little bit as far as staying away from the quarterbacks, as soon as somebody gets around him the whistle’s blown dead, but I think he would be able to escape that. But what they’re just trying to teach everybody now is pocket presence, making sure you do your work in the pocket.”
“You can tell every week he’s improving,” running back Ben Tate said of Manziel. “You can definitely tell he’s in the playbook, so that’s important. It’s just about how much he can learn from now to training camp to bridge that gap that he does have between him and Brian. I’m excited to see the competition. I’m excited to see what’s going to happen.”
Pettine is more anxious than excited about seeing what will happen in the month-plus while the players are out of his sight. Manziel immediately comes to mind after three straight weekends with his partying caught on camera.
“It’s nervous anytime your entire team is dismissed,” he said. “As a coach, you hear your phone ring and you kind of look at it with one eye, hoping it’s not an issue coming up.
“We talked to them about it. We wanted to make sure that they handled themselves well. The advice was learn the system, stay in shape, stay out of trouble.”