Nothing is settled in the Browns quarterback derby.
But the clock’s ticking on a decision, and rookie Johnny Manziel is making up ground in chunks on incumbent Brian Hoyer.
First-year coach Mike Pettine reset the state of the competition Sunday afternoon in a conference call after watching film of the 13-12 loss to the Lions on Saturday in the preseason opener.
“We put Brian out there with the ones and that was for a reason, because he was ahead because of his edge in experience and the lead he had with the playbook,” Pettine said. “And he’s done nothing to have that taken away from him.
“But Johnny has made some improvement, a lot of improvement. And with the things where he was behind in the spring, I think he’s gotten a pretty firm grasp on. And as we said before, it was him versus the playbook and he’s handling it well. But Brian on the other hand has been solid.”
Hoyer got the start against the Lions, so it figures Manziel will get his chance next Monday night in Washington. Pettine expects both to continue working with the first-team offense this week in practice, but said the decision hasn’t been made on a starter vs. the Redskins.
He also called “untrue” an ESPN report that Manziel had passed Hoyer, and said nothing happened against the Lions to change his assessment of the race.
“To me, if there was a clear-cut favorite at this point, it would probably mean that one of them wasn’t playing very well,” Pettine said. “And it’s a good problem to have, having two guys that we think are both capable of being NFL starters.”
Hoyer has only four NFL starts — he went 3-0 last year with the Browns — but this is his sixth year in the league and he spent three seasons in New England with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. So he’s somewhat of a known commodity.
Manziel is anything but, although he’s starting to answer some of the questions about him.
He’s getting more comfortable with the complicated playbook, didn’t seem bothered by the occasion Saturday night – despite loud boos from the crowd – and has steadily gotten better after a poor start to camp.
The Manziel magic was obvious against the Lions, as he scrambled for 16 yards on third-and-8 and dodged a rusher to barely convert a fourth-and-1. He brings a running element to coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense that Hoyer can’t.
“Kyle likes to get me in looks I’m a little more familiar with and able to see the field a little bit better like I have the last few years in college,” Manziel said Saturday night.
Manziel said he’s working on “exhausting” his progressions before leaving the pocket, and Pettine said he didn’t bail too early. He ran six times for 27 yards — a lot of attempts in less than a half of playing time.
“Hopefully that will weed out,” he said. “The times I did take off I felt I got out of bounds, slid and tried to protect myself the best way I could.”
Living in and thriving from the pocket remain the biggest unknown. After spending a lot of time in the pistol formation Saturday, Manziel moved under center and made some nice throws from the pocket while absorbing a few bit hits. He played 25 snaps and went 7-for-11 for 63 yards and one field-goal drive.
“So far, just the view that we’ve gotten of him in the pocket, the reviews have been positive that he has a good sense of the pocket,” Pettine said. “He feels the rush without looking at it and I think that’s something that a lot of quarterbacks have an issue with. He’s definitely a work in progress with that, but he’s shown a solid improvement in it.”
Pettine was also pleased with Hoyer, who played 24 snaps and was 6-for-14 for 92 yards with two field-goal drive. He liked how both overcame a mental hurdle – Hoyer in a return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and Manziel in his first NFL action.
“I thought they were both solid,” Pettine said. “Different supporting cast but it was good tape I think for both of them. I think they both operated the offense efficiently, had a couple plays they’d want to take back.
“I think there was reason for both of them to be nervous and I think they both settled in quickly and operated efficiently.”
Pettine said before training camp started last month he wanted to name a starter before the third preseason game — at the latest — so the winner would have time to gain chemistry with the rest of the starters.
“I’m not going to say that’s 1,000 percent etched in stone, but I would like it (decided) before that,” he said. “If we do have a starter, he’ll play significant reps in the third game and then get all that practice time leading up to the Pittsburgh game and we feel we’ll have a quarterback that’s ready.”
Perhaps the highest hurdle facing Manziel is something he can’t control – his youth and inexperience. He’s never faced an NFL defense that game-planned to stop him. Or a Steelers zone blitz called by legendary coordinator Dick LeBeau. Or a fourth-quarter deficit on a Sunday afternoon.
As far back as before the draft Pettine expressed his preference not to start a rookie quarterback.
“I still believe that,” he said. “But I also believe that you can be successful with a rookie.
“There’s a lot of stories where that has worked and there’s been a lot of situations where a rookie has played right out of the gate and some people questioned whether it was too soon. And then you have situations where a rookie comes in and plays right away and is great, so you’ve seen everything. But I’ve always felt in an ideal situation that the rookie gets a chance to sit behind someone and learn.”
Pettine has plenty to consider and not much time to consider it.
“When we sit down and look at the big picture, it’s who gives us the best chance to win,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
- Pettine said receiver Josh Gordon’s undisclosed injury suffered Saturday is minor.
- Pettine complimented the play Saturday of the first-team offensive line, inside linebackers Craig Robertson and rookie Chris Kirksey and receiver Charles Johnson.
- On the disappointment of rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert, the No. 8 pick, sitting out with a groin injury. “It was, but if it had been a game week, he likely would’ve been able to go,” Pettine said. “But it was something that we decided with our first preseason game, we could be cautious with it. So, yeah, we would’ve loved to have seen him out there, but we just didn’t feel it was worth the risk.”