December 22, 2014

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Scott Petrak: Browns’ quarterback competition was an unnecessary distraction

Cleveland Browns quarterbacks Johnny Manziel and Brian Hoyer pass during practice Tuesday. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Cleveland Browns quarterbacks Johnny Manziel and Brian Hoyer pass during practice Tuesday. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)hoyer

Mike Pettine learned quickly the painful lesson Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini and Rob Chudzinski know all too well from their days in Cleveland.

Quarterback competitions are distracting, exhausting and largely counterproductive.

Each of the aforementioned fired Browns coaches tried a different method when running a quarterback competition. None resulted in an empowered starter who clearly won the job while gaining the support of the locker room.

Neither did this one, although Brian Hoyer was named the starter by Pettine on Wednesday morning.

The closest was Brandon Weeden’s “win” last year over Jason Campbell, when no one considered Campbell a legitimate threat. Chudzinski designed the derby for Weeden to emerge, and he did. The trouble didn’t come until the regular season, when Weeden flopped and Chudzinski was ripped for not giving Campbell and No. 3 Hoyer more of a chance in camp.

Mangini was on the opposite end of the spectrum. He was obsessed with his quest to make sure the competition was fair.

He refused to designate Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn as first on the depth chart, and instructed his staff to chart every practice repetition in order to keep things even. Both wound up playing during the season, both failed and both were quickly headed out of town.

Pettine, in his first stint as a head coach, tried to find the happy medium between Chudzinski and Mangini. His approach seemed reasonable, and didn’t include Crennel’s trademarked coin flip.

He labeled incumbent Hoyer the front-runner but said rookie Johnny Manziel would have the opportunity to pass him.

When Hoyer had a lackluster first week of camp, Pettine further opened the door for Manziel by having him work with the starting offense every other practice.

Pettine got himself into a serious pickle, then extricated himself when he gave the job to Hoyer. That doesn’t mean the competition was a success, or Hoyer was a clear-cut victor.

Pettine had said for a long time he wanted to name a starter by this week — at the latest — allowing the focus to shift entirely to preparing for the season. Last week he reiterated his desire, but added that Wednesday’s target date wasn’t “1,000 percent etched in stone.”

We almost got to see the 999th percent.

A postponement seemed like a logical choice. The quarterback play has been that bad throughout camp and the preseason, with the nadir Monday night in Washington.

How could Pettine stand in front of the other 88 players and anoint Hoyer or Manziel as the man to win Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh following the debacle on ESPN? It would be hard to trust his sincerity, and many would question whichever choice he made.

He did it anyway. And said it wouldn’t be a tough sell in the locker room.

“Football players, they’re a lot more resilient than you think,” Pettine said Tuesday. “You say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing, here’s the plan and we’re moving forward.’”

His hope is that Hoyer settles down knowing he won the job, and can find a rhythm and comfort level with the rest of the first-team offense.

I believe Pettine always wanted Hoyer to win the job. He doesn’t trust rookie quarterbacks, especially those who roll up dollar bills in restrooms and flip the bird on national TV. He just would’ve preferred the North Olmsted native lead a couple of touchdown drives, or even string together a few completions.

I understand why Pettine handled the competition the way he did, but it came back to bite him. He was left to pick from a pair of underwhelming candidates.

Hoyer has talked a good game, but the pressure of trying to hold onto the job looked like it got to him. Meanwhile, Manziel was right when he said he isn’t ready to face Pittsburgh. The transition to the NFL is just too big for him right now.

If Pettine had declared Hoyer the opening-day starter on the first day of camp, he would’ve made a bold statement, empowered Hoyer, sent a message to Manziel and removed a giant distraction from the entire team. He would’ve upset the Manziel lovers, but that’s not his concern.

And Pettine could’ve always changed his mind if Manziel wowed, just like Seattle’s Pete Carroll did with Russell Wilson. He just would’ve avoided a month of turmoil in the interim.

The defined roles also would’ve led to better performances from both passers in camp and in the first two preseason games. Hoyer and Manziel could’ve settled in with the first and second units, respectively, and developed the necessary chemistry that will be tough to conjure in the time left before opening day.

Pettine has done a good job handling some difficult issues in his first seven months on the job. He simply made a misstep setting up the quarterback competition — and didn’t get any help from the competitors.

It’s led to a stressful preseason, and could make for a rough start to his first regular season in charge.

From Tim Couch vs. Kelly Holcomb to Charlie Frye vs. Anderson to Anderson vs. Quinn to Hoyer vs. Manziel, there’s just never a good way to handle a quarterback competition in Cleveland.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.

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