The Browns have been looking for the long-term answer at quarterback since the day they returned to the NFL in 1999.
The fans know all too painfully the list of 20 that began with Tim Couch and is paused on Jason Campbell. No. 19, Brian Hoyer, is the only one who remains on the roster. While he’s a strong candidate to be the starter in 2014, the search for the ultimate solution will continue in the draft.
The Browns hold the Nos. 4, 26 and 35 picks among their 10 selections, and Hoyer recently called the drafting of a quarterback “inevitable.” New coach Mike Pettine called improving the position a “priority.”
Thousands of words have been written and said about the top prospects, and tens of thousands more will be added before the draft kicks off May 8. They all have significant strengths, and their weaknesses are just as obvious.
After 10 years on the Browns beat I feel I’m an expert in bad quarterbacks. I also believe I have an idea of what makes a successful one.
There’s no exact recipe for greatness. Peyton Manning has different ingredients than Aaron Rodgers, who’s different than Ben Roethlisberger, and so on.
But there is a list of desirable qualities, and there’s an order to that list. As Browns general manager Ray Farmer, Pettine, coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains tour the country holding private workouts with Fresno State’s Derek Carr, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo, Pittsburgh’s Tom Savage, Ball State’s Keith Wenning and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, they should be formulating their opinions with these priorities in mind.
This is broader than simply a good score on the Wonderlic test.
In order for a quarterback to have success, he must quickly grasp the intricacies of his playbook and be able to convey them to the rest of the offense. He also needs to look at the defensive alignment at the line of scrimmage and instantly process the information.
So much of today’s NFL is based on pre-snap reads and decisions. Manning’s gyrations and gestures at the line have the sole purpose of learning what the defense will do once the play begins. When he has the information he needs, he knows before he gets the ball where he’s going to throw it.
Intelligence belongs at the top of the list because it’s the common denominator among the game’s best quarterbacks. Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Rodgers, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson beat teams with their minds as much as with their arms.
The Browns have seen a lack of sufficient practical intelligence sabotage at least a few names on the list of 20. Derek Anderson and Brandon Weeden had many of the physical tools, but couldn’t identify the weaknesses in the defense well enough to take advantage.
THE PROSPECTS: Bridgewater leads the draft class in this area. He’s a film junkie who had a ton of responsibility at the line of scrimmage at Louisville. Bortles has reportedly impressed NFL coaches with his work on the blackboard, while Manziel needs to prove he isn’t just an improviser but can outthink the opponent.
THE INCUMBENT: This is one of Hoyer’s strengths. His ability to process information was evident during his days at St. Ignatius and Michigan State and only got stronger in his years in New England with Brady and coach Bill Belichick.
Being smart isn’t enough. If it were, Harvard and Yale graduates would dominate the Hall of Fame.
The position at its core is about throwing the ball to a target. Even when the quarterback knows exactly what the defense will do, he must deliver the ball to a specific spot.
The best defense can’t stop the perfect pass, which is why accuracy is so important. We’re not talking about in-the-vicinity accuracy. We’re talking about in-stride, over-the-left-shoulder accuracy with pass rushers bearing down.
The best do just that, and they do it on third down in the last minutes of the fourth quarter of a playoff game. Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Brady, Brees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger have made such memorable throws on the way to winning championships.
But it’s not only one perfect throw in a big moment. It’s the easy throws on first and second down that sustain drives and get the offense into a rhythm. It’s the high completion percentage that allows the coordinator to stay out of bad down-and-distance situations and open up the playbook.
Flawed mechanics, nerves and the fear of taking a hit will sabotage accuracy. Good coaching can only fix so much.
THE PROSPECTS: Bridgewater’s completion percentage improved each year in a pro-style attack, peaking at 71 percent as a junior in 2013. Bortles was at 68 percent last season and Manziel at 70, but their numbers are inflated by the volume of quick hitches and receiver screens.
THE INCUMBENT: Hoyer made several pinpoint throws in the clutch during his two-plus-game stint last year. He can be inconsistent, but has the requisite accuracy.
Welcome to the “Johnny Football” portion of the article.
Intangibles is an umbrella term that covers a lot of areas. Dedication, work ethic, trustworthiness away from the facility, leadership in the huddle and locker room.
Owners, general managers and coaches want their franchise quarterback to be the hardest-working, most charismatic person on the roster and have a singular focus. No one in Denver, New England or New Orleans worries about Peyton Manning, Brady or Brees — ever. An organization needs to trust implicitly its highest-paid and most important player.
NFL history does include successful quarterbacks with spotty backgrounds. Brett Favre, Roethlisberger and Bobby Layne weren’t choir boys, but they had enough talent and made enough big plays in big moments.
That’s not the norm, and it’s a terrible model for today’s social-media world. A quarterback who does and says all the right things has the ultimate value.
The difficulty is that intangibles are the toughest area to judge. They’re not obvious on film and there’s a lot of subjectivity involved. Farmer could just as easily find someone in the know who believes Manziel is a leader and a winner as someone who thinks he’s a train wreck waiting to happen.
THE PROSPECTS: It’s been less than a year since Manziel was portrayed in an ESPN The Magazine article as a petulant, spoiled kid. He was also arrested after a bar fight, suspended for the first half of a game for signing autographs for memorabilia dealers and left the Manning Passing Academy early as a counselor.
Others will point to the “magic” Manziel brings as the right kind of intangible. Teams in the top 10 must determine if the magic supersedes the red flags.
Bridgewater and Bortles look like clean prospects that should easily transition to face of the franchise.
THE INCUMBENT: Hoyer proved in his abbreviated stint last year that he has all the necessary intangibles. Despite no track record of success, he instantly convinced the rest of the team it could win with him and provided an unlikely spark.
4. Big arm
This used to be higher on my list. The failures of Anderson and Weeden have dropped it down two or three notches — who says I never learn? — but there’s still a place for a big arm and it shouldn’t be dismissed.
On my first year on the beat, Super Bowl quarterback and TV analyst Phil Simms stopped by the media room and said something that’s stuck with me. He said every week he talks to coaches who wish their quarterbacks threw the ball better. Then he said that’s easy to fix: Go get someone who throws it better.
Other skills can be taught, but a quarterback either has a big arm or he doesn’t. And it shows up on Sundays.
Flacco has relied on his enormous arm strength on critical throws to beat the Browns and win the Super Bowl. Rodgers is athletic, smart and accurate. He also spins it as well as anyone in the league, and the combination makes him my No. 1 choice among quarterbacks in the league right now.
There are times when a big arm is needed — to push the ball downfield, or fit it in a tight window. If the quarterback doesn’t have the power, it ties the hands of the play caller. Anticipation can make up for a lot, but not everything.
THE PROSPECTS: Fresno State’s Derek Carr has the best arm when compared to the “Big Three” and is a sneaky pick to surpass them as first quarterback taken. Bortles and Manziel have adequate to above-average arm strength but won’t rank among the tops in the league. Bridgewater is a notch below.
THE INCUMBENT: The worst category for Hoyer. He has an average arm, but former coordinator Norv Turner repeatedly said it was good enough to make the necessary throws and win in the league.
While both are nice to have — see: Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, John Elway — size is the more important of the two.
The most successful quarterbacks continue to play the game from the pocket, and size matters in those close quarters. The offensive line is tall, the pass rushers have height and long arms, therefore the ability to see and throw over the top is an advantage.
Brees is an exception to the rule, but when he struggles it’s because defenses make his lack of height an issue.
The other side of size is bulk. Roethlisberger has made a living absorbing hits, breaking away and throwing game-changing completions. He can only do that because he’s 240 pounds.
A Roethlisberger scramble is different from a Wilson scramble or a Manziel scramble. The latter two use agility and elusiveness to get away, then they’re a threat to run for first downs. Both ways are effective.
Ideally you’d have a guy who can do it all. Elway comes to mind.
But making plays outside the pocket is last on the list. It’s nice and gives defenses headaches, but more important is to read the defense correctly, stand tall in the pocket and make an accurate throw.
Preferably with a big arm while not partying the night before.
THE PROSPECTS: Bortles (6-foot-5, 232 pounds) is the closest thing to Roethlisberger physically, which is what makes him attractive to the Browns in the cold-weather, rugged AFC North. He’s also a good athlete who’s effective as a runner.
Manziel (5-11¾, 207) has wonderful movement skills but is short with narrow shoulders. Bridgewater (6-2 1/8, 214) is tall enough, but his skinny frame makes him vulnerable to the big hits routinely taken by NFL quarterbacks.
THE INCUMBENT: Hoyer (6-2, 215) has average size and athleticism, but he’s shown enough movement skills to buy time and get out of the pocket when necessary.