It's clear after one preseason game that Johnny Manziel and Brian Hoyer are tied in their pursuit of the Cleveland Browns' starting quarterback job.
That makes it clear Manziel is in line to win it.
"There is not a leader," said Browns quarterback coach Dowell Loggains on Tuesday, which in itself is a huge change from the offseason, when Hoyer was declared the No. 1. It's not that Hoyer has done anything to lose the job; it's just that an even battle allows the Browns to eventually choose Manziel with less fear of appearing hasty. If the preseason ends in a draw, nobody can say the Browns went with the inferior option. That leads straight to Manziel, even if he's unproven.
Loggains' appearance before the press on Tuesday is a sign in itself. It was Loggains who famously revealed to an Arkansas radio station after the NFL draft that Manziel texted the team asking to be picked by Cleveland and vowing to "wreck this league."
In another part of that interview, Loggains said, "I think we can throw [Manziel] out there right now and he's going to be one of the most exciting players in the NFL and run around and make plays like he did at Texas A&M."
Loggains didn't give any other interviews until Tuesday, the weekend after Manziel’s largely successful debut in a Browns uniform. The coach was more careful this time, yet he still called Manziel "exceptional" in his decision-making against the Lions. Exceptional? That's debatable. But that word would never come from someone who is hesitant to vouch for Manziel as the starter.
And there has been no reluctance to support Manziel in the locker room, either. Defensive back Donte Whitner's comment that the locker room is "split about 50-50" was interpreted in some circles as a rift, when it's far more likely the bulk of the team is supportive of both candidates for starter.
"Two guys can be our starter," Nate Burleson said Saturday night after Manziel’s debut. The wideout also said he’d be surprised if either man wins the battle by a wide margin. "It might be by a hair," he said. That too gives an edge toward Manziel. If it’s not clear, why not go with the guy who creates the most havoc for defenses on the field (and creates the most buzz off it)? Why not go with the guy who can make up for a lack of offensive weapons?
The team is ready, the city is ready, and the record ratings reeled in by NFL Network on Saturday show the fans are ready.
Is Manziel ready?
Well, there are two ways to answer that.
On Saturday night, Manziel wasn't patient in the pocket. He didn't wait before taking off. That's what makes him a thrill, but it also makes him more predictable to defenses. "Take away his first read," said Lions linebacker Travis Lewis, "and he'll start running."
Yet this supposed weakness isn't an overwhelming concern to coaches, it seems.
"The fine line with coaching Johnny is, you can't take the best part of him away," Loggains said. "And that's his ability to extend plays with his legs, and there's a fine line of going through your progressions and making plays with your legs."
Manziel was widely panned on Saturday for going for the first down with a scramble on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter instead of passing to wide-open fullback Ray Agnew, yet Loggains gave Manziel a "plus" in the grade book because he got a first down. That's a pretty good window into how Manziel is being graded, even against backup defenders. Even if Manziel's decisions are unwise by traditional standards, the Browns' coaches aren’t scared off. They don’t even seem ambivalent.
"He's fine," Loggains said. “He’s starting to get to the third and fourth progression."
Hoyer's strength is his ability to get to the third and fourth progressions very quickly. Manziel is tied with Hoyer on the depth chart even though he’s only starting to get to the third and fourth progression against backups. So if there's a little more progress against Washington next Monday night – with a huge audience watching Manziel vs. Robert Griffin III – that would put the rookie ahead even if Hoyer plays well.
Let's look at another quarterback situation for a comparison: In Jacksonville, rookie Blake Bortles looked far ahead of schedule in his first appearance as a pro on Friday night against the Buccaneers. He stepped into his throws, he had velocity on his passes, and most important, he didn't look like the game was too fast for him. Starter Chad Henne, like Hoyer, looked decent in his start without dazzling anyone.
The fallout? There is none. Henne's still the starter. Coach Gus Bradley has done nothing to stoke any possible debate. He has raved about the progress Henne has made in the offseason. He is going to protect his No. 1 draft pick. Any potential controversy in Jacksonville is likely to materialize only if Henne falters during the regular season.
In Cleveland, on the other hand, Hoyer gets no such assurances.
There is risk to this. If Manziel doesn’t take that next step, and goes from a deadlock to "losing" to Hoyer, it will look as if he hasn't progressed. Then there's the (much bigger) risk that Manziel will be named the starter and then seem overwhelmed when he plays a full game against top talent. As Peter King pointed out in Manziel’s postgame interview on Saturday, the amount of times the quarterback ran – when extrapolated to a full four quarters – projects to an inordinate amount of rushing. By starting Manziel in Week 1, it's a rubber stamp on his proclivity to leave the pocket. If he is pressured (which is inevitable), Manziel will rely on that option often and arguably too often. It will be Griffin III all over again, which is both exciting and potentially troublesome. And if Manziel doesn’t continue to make progress (or if he gets injured), the fault will rest with head coach Mike Pettine and his staff for rushing the rushing quarterback. Many will ask how Manziel pulled into a tie for the lead in this race after only a short stint against the Detroit backups.
For now, how Manziel has earned his new status isn't as important as the fact that he has earned it. Another positive step on Monday could very well get him the starter's job when the Browns open the season against Pittsburgh in September. The faster guy is on the fast track. And even if both he and Hoyer impress coaches on Monday, an old baseball idiom will likely dictate what happens in Cleveland:
Tie goes to the runner.
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