When the Browns opened training camp Saturday, the stands were filled with fans wearing Johnny Manziel jerseys. The souvenir stand was stocked with his familiar No. 2, as well, and doing brisk business.
It was quite a sight to behold, until Cleveland’s players ran onto the field for their first practice — led by starting quarterback Brian Hoyer.
Instead of preening to the crowd with the “Money Manziel” sign, the North Olmsted native warmly acknowledged their “Hoyer” chants with a smile and a thumbs-up.
The difference between the two competitors — and people — couldn’t have been more obvious.
“Like I’ve said all along, playing for this team was my dream as a child, so that was pretty cool for me today,” Hoyer said. “But being from here doesn’t make me the best quarterback for this team. No one is going to cheer for a good guy if the team is 4-12.
“It’s nice to know that people respect me and my character, but when it comes down to it, it’s all about what happens out on the field.”
Though NFL addicts around the country consider Hoyer an afterthought — a mere speed bump on Manziel’s road to superstardom — Browns coach Mike Pettine does not.
Neither do owner Jimmy Haslam III and general manager Ray Farmer, each of whom declared the lifelong Clevelander their top quarterback throughout the offseason.
Their stance has only grown stronger as Manziel — the No. 22 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft — has partied his way onto more and more gossip pages and websites.
Hoyer, meanwhile, logged hundreds of hours studying Pettine’s playbook while rehabilitating a torn anterior cruciate ligament. After spending all five of his previous NFL training camps as a third-stringer, he has done everything in his power to seize the moment.
“Is there a better story than Brian?” Haslam said following the two-hour workout in Berea. “First of all, he’s a hometown kid who is coming off a major injury. He’s also a quality guy and a class act, so we all want Brian to play well. He’s very easy to root for.”
Those weren’t just idle words from the Tennessee billionaire, who spent a portion of practice chatting with Hoyer between the fields. They shared a number of laughs, which both attributed to the friendship that began May 17, 2013, when the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder was signed by the Browns.
Haslam said he vividly remembers the Oct. 3 game when Hoyer’s right knee was torn to spaghetti on a sideline hit by Bills linebacker Kiko Alonzo, ending his season after just three starts.
No doubt, Haslam also recalls that Cleveland won all three of those games, but were a combined 1-12 with Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell under center.
“Brian’s been around, so we’ve gotten to know him well,” Haslam said. “We were actually joking about his weight. With a lot of guys, you want their weight to be lower, but with Brian, we wanted it to be higher. He actually came in higher than we expected, which is a good thing.”
Hoyer said his weight gain was intentional, as is his decision to wear a metal knee brace for the remainder of his career.
After attempting only 57 throws over his first four NFL seasons — split between New England, Arizona and Pittsburgh — and making one start with the Cardinals, the 28-year-old pocket passer hopes to be as durable as possible this fall.
“I’m not the most mobile guy anyway, so it doesn’t really affect me that much,” the St. Ignatius High graduate said, pointing to his right knee. “I’ll wear the brace, not just for the stability of the knee getting hit from the side, but because I think it’s something I can benefit from.”
Working with the first-team offense all morning, Hoyer commanded the huddle in his initial practice since undergoing reconstructive surgery Oct. 18. He demonstrated solid chemistry with wide receiver Miles Austin, didn’t hesitate to direct his linemen and smoothly rolled out of the pocket on bootlegs.
Neither Hoyer nor Manziel were especially impressive, but also did nothing to indicate they will be switching spots on the depth chart anytime soon.
Unfortunately, that won’t stop the outside world from pining over “Johnny Football,” which Hoyer fully understands. He’s perfectly fine being the pride of Cleveland and the starting quarterback of the Browns.
“They have every right to (overlook me) because I only played three games, then the injury happened,” Hoyer said. “But I’m not concerned with it. I don’t follow it that much.
“The opportunity is there for me, and I believe that I’m capable of being the starter at quarterback for this team. That’s what I’m working towards every day.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.