BEREA — Johnny Manziel broke the huddle with Joe Thomas to his left, Alex Mack front and center and Mitchell Schwartz to his right. On the first snap of team drills, he dropped back and completed a 40-yard pass to receiver Travis Benjamin with Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden in coverage.
The crowd went wild.
Manziel took all the repetitions with the first-team offense, creating quite a stir for a Monday morning. He had been stuck exclusively with the second team for the first seven practices of training camp, as incumbent Brian Hoyer worked with the starters.
They switched huddles Monday, but rookie coach Mike Pettine cautioned against reading too much into the change and said Hoyer will likely start the preseason opener Saturday night in Detroit.
“It’s just part of our plan,” Pettine said of Manziel’s turn with the starters. “We said we were going to allow the quarterbacks to compete, (so) at some point you’ve got to mix up the supporting cast a little bit. It’s all part of it.”
Manziel didn’t exactly seize the opportunity.
His completion to Benjamin was one of the few highlights, and it should’ve been broken up by Haden. The next pass, into double coverage over the middle for receiver Josh Gordon, was tipped by safety Jim Leonhard and intercepted by safety Donte Whitner. Manziel threw an ill-advised pass back over the middle as he rolled right for an incompletion and threw behind Andrew Hawkins on the goal line.
He led a drive that ended in a 51-yard Billy Cundiff field goal, sparked by completions to Anthony Armstrong and Hawkins. Manziel’s second drive ended short of field-goal range, and his only attempt at the two-minute drill came up empty as he went 1-for-3 passing. He was 6-for-17 overall in team drills with an interception and two dropped passes.
Pettine wanted to watch the film and talk to his offensive staff before grading Manziel.
“I don’t want to evaluate guys coming right off the field,” he said.
Hoyer was 11-for-22 with a 71-yard touchdown to undrafted rookie receiver Willie Snead on a quick pass that beat the blitz. He had one pass dropped.
Pettine said both quarterbacks would spend days with the first team this week, and that the switch Monday wasn’t a reflection of Hoyer’s start to camp. The coach also said he wasn’t disappointed no one had grabbed the starting job.
“No, because they’re both competing and they’re both doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “It would be hard for there to be a clear-cut guy ahead anyway, when they’re both being efficient in their play when they’re in there.”
Before camp started, Pettine said it would be a “tall task” for Manziel to pass Hoyer and win the starting job for Week 1 in Pittsburgh. That seems like a long time ago.
Neither quarterback played great in the first week of practice, coordinator Kyle Shanahan called the competition even, then Manziel appeared to gain ground when he made several good plays and led a 17-play drive Saturday during the Family Day scrimmage.
And he showed up with the starters Monday.
“It was not a result of anything that happened in the scrimmage,” Pettine said. “I think both quarterbacks took steps. I thought they both played to their skill set. I thought Johnny did a good job making some plays with his feet, keeping plays alive, and Brian showed some poise in the pocket and stepped into some throws. Let’s not forget that he’s a guy coming off of a knee and that was really the first true live work that he had gotten, so I thought that was good work for him as well.”
Pettine was reminded any quarterback news is accompanied by incessant conversation and giant headlines.
“That’s great. That comes with the territory,” he said.
Steelers legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau told Cleveland.com he expects Manziel to be the starter Sept. 7. Pettine said he’ll rely heavily on input from Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains.
“Absolutely, that will be a committee decision,” Pettine said. “I’m not an expert. But I also feel like I’m in charge of the big picture. We’ll formulate a plan, not just with quarterback but with all positions, that we feel gives us the best chance to win.”
Neither quarterback talked to reporters following practice, but their teammates did. They said the right things and no one took sides.
“There’s a height difference, but as far as fundamentals, they both throw the ball the same,” veteran receiver Nate Burleson said. “They’re both making plays.
“We don’t take notice. It’s not, ‘Hold on, wait, Johnny’s in here.’ It’s just listen to the play, go out and be where we’re supposed to be and make the play when the ball is coming to us.”
“It’s a good, solid competition,” Haden said. “Just mixing it up and just seeing how players react.
“(Manziel’s) becoming more comfortable. You can see that he’s finally starting to relax. You can see finally he’s kind of moving around a little bit more, feeling a little more comfortable. And that’s the thing, when you understand the offense you can play a little bit faster.”
The next decision for Pettine is who will start Saturday against the Lions. He has three more practices, but expects Hoyer to get the nod.
“I can’t say it’s 100 percent at this point, but I would still say there’s a more than reasonable chance he’ll be the starter against Detroit,” Pettine said. “That had been the plan, I just want to confirm with Dowell and Kyle and see where they are with it.”