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Cleveland Browns' struggles mean it's time to see more Manziel

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CINCINNATI -- Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel wasn't budging from his talking points on Thursday night. As he stood in a cramped interview room -- speaking in rapid-fire bursts and with his gaze focused on a row of cameras perched across from him -- he explained what he saw in his team's 31-10 loss to Cincinnati. Manziel talked about not doing the little things, the game being a tale of two halves and the need to avoid excuses. What he didn't touch on was something that is becoming all too obvious: The Browns need to see, once and for all, what he can do as a full-time starter.

That really is the only issue that makes Cleveland interesting anymore. They're once again wallowing in a miserable season, as they now sit at 2-7 heading into their bye week. There also were reports that the team nearly traded its best player (Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas) to Denver while their second-best player (wide receiver Josh Gordon) has never touched the field this year because of a one-year suspension. That leaves the question of whether Manziel can ever do anything meaningful for this franchise as the sole reason to keep following Cleveland's fortunes.

When asked if he wanted the opportunity to play more after his second start of this season, the most Manziel would say was "absolutely." Browns head coach Mike Pettine was far less willing to jump into that conversation after yet another defeat. "When we get back (from the bye), we'll assess what pool of guys are available and we'll go from there," Pettine said when probed about the possibilities of Manziel continuing to start. "This will be a good time for us to step away and assess where we're at."

That assessment, in all honesty, can't require that much time. The Browns played Manziel this week because starter Josh McCown was still struggling with a painful rib injury. The thought process was that Manziel wasn't getting a chance to show what he could do. He was only keeping the job warm until McCown was healthy enough to return.

That's a nice sentiment when you're a franchise that is either an established winner or on the rise. It doesn't make much sense when you're a team that selected Manziel in the first round of last year's draft and has started him in all of four games now. McCown has been a nice story in Cleveland, as he has put up solid numbers (11 touchdowns and four interceptions) for a last-place team. The reality, however, is that he's a 36-year-old journeyman who is never going to help the Browns be anything more than what they are today.

Just going off portions of Thursday's action, Manziel is at least making a case for more opportunities. He actually played well in the first half, when he completed 11 of 18 passes for 128 yards and one touchdown. His brightest moment came late in the second quarter, when he led the Browns on a 92-yard drive that culminated in a 12-yard touchdown pass to running back Duke Johnson. Cleveland trailed 14-10 at that point.

The second half, as Manziel noted, was a far different story. The Bengals did a better job of keeping him in the pocket and limited him to four completions in 15 attempts. Manziel was openly frustrated by the second-half struggles but he also pointed to some positives. "I thought I stayed in the pocket," he said. "I kept two hands on the ball and didn't have any turnovers. It didn't change the outcome but those were things I wanted to work on."

"He was inconsistent," Pettine said. "I thought he did some good things. In the second half, when we fell behind, he tried to make too many plays instead of (taking) completions. But I've said this before -- it's how we play around him. And we didn't play well enough around him today."

The question the Browns have to start answering at some point is how far they're willing to go to see what they have in Manziel. It's hard to argue that he hasn’t progressed since last season, which is a case in itself for him to see more action. He's shown more discipline on the field and on Thursday he said, "things are slowing down." The same player who looked lost in 2014 entered the Bengals game with 93.2 passer rating in three previous appearances this year.

But let's be honest: This is more about all the baggage that Manziel has brought upon himself over the last two years. It's about the partying, the time in rehab, the cocky attitude and how easily he can make headlines off the field. Manziel's most recent incident involves an alleged domestic assault on his girlfriend, Colleen Crowley, on Oct. 12. The NFL is currently investigating that incident, which included a police report that claimed Crowley said Manziel hit her.

If the Browns feel like they can't deal with any more Manziel stories off the field, it's a perfectly sensible stance to take. But it doesn't feel like Cleveland wants to completely give up on this just yet. They want to keep playing games -- while acting like McCown is a real difference-maker -- and hope that this Manziel fever dies down eventually. The only way that can actually happen is if they finally decide to put him on the field for an extended period of time.

By the way, this is in no way an argument that stems from the belief that Cleveland could be sitting on a superstar. Manziel has struggled enough both on and off the field to show us that any success he enjoys in the NFL will not come easily. It is a case for basic fairness. If the Browns thought enough of Manziel to take him in the first round, they surely believed there was something he could do for their franchise.

This is why this team can't wait any longer. They've pushed this situation as far down the road as it can go and the truth is that there's no hope left in this season. It's time for the Browns to accept that the only real positive remaining this fall could be the chance that Manziel might continue to improve. The only way they'll know that for sure is by giving him a real opportunity to succeed.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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