The quarterback debate reared its ugly head in Cleveland last week -- and it will surely intensify this week, as the Browns' offense flopped once again under the guidance of Brian Hoyer.
Cleveland scored two defensive touchdowns, forced four turnovers and sacked Colts QB Andrew Luck three times. The Browns held the league's top-ranked offense 76 yards and nearly seven points below its season averages. Given the opposition, it was the team's most impressive defensive performance of the season. And yet, Cleveland still lost.
Last week, during numerous media appearances, I referred to Hoyer as a backup quarterback. Technically speaking, that was obviously wrong, but I was alluding to the team's ceiling with Hoyer under center. In that sense, his impact can be equated to that of a second-string player. That's not to say he didn't deserve to win the starting gig for the season opener, or even to suggest that he wasn't worthy of keeping his job as the team found itself in the thick of the playoff race. And it should be stated right from the beginning that, by calling Hoyer "a backup," I did not intend to imply that Johnny Manziel gives this team the better chance to win. The fact of the matter is, we simply don't know whether that's true.
Rolling with the known commodity in Hoyer was understandable on Sunday, with the Browns in a three-way tie for second place in the AFC North, just behind the division-leading Bengals. Hoyer is definitely part of the reason the Browns are now 7-6 and still in a competitive position heading into the 15th week of the season. But he might also be the reason the Browns aren't 9-4 or even 10-3 and holding a comfortable edge in the division race with just three weeks remaining.
Against the Colts, Hoyer completed just 14 of his 31 throws for 140 yards. And while he didn't have a single touchdown pass, he did toss a pair of interceptions. Even that detrimental stat line doesn't tell the entire story of his ineptitude on Sunday. Hoyer missed on two deep balls that should have been easy touchdowns, and one of his picks came on a second-and-6 from the Colts' 9-yard line. That's at least 17 -- if not 21 -- missed points in a game that Indianapolis won by a single point, thanks to a touchdown with just 32 seconds remaining.
The pathetic offensive performance was reminiscent of the Browns' showing in the Week 7 loss to Jacksonville, when Cleveland scored just six points against a porous defense that currently ranks 29th in points allowed (27.4 per game). In that game, Hoyer and the Browns converted just four of their 20 third/fourth-down attempts and failed to score a touchdown in two red-zone trips. In Week 11, the Browns managed just seven points against the Texans, while Hoyer completed just 20 of his 50 throws. (That was a loss in which Hoyer was outplayed by Ryan Mallett, a quarterback making his first ever NFL start in his four years in the league.) Two weeks later, the Browns scored 10 points against the Bills, and Hoyer's final seven possessions produced 10 total yards. This, of course, was the game in which he was pulled in the fourth quarter in favor of Manziel, who proceeded to march Cleveland 80 yards down the field and score a rushing touchdown on his first full NFL regular-season possession.
In Hoyer's last three games, he has thrown seven interceptions without a single touchdown pass and is averaging just over 200 yards passing per outing. He has missed wide-open receivers by wide margins. And suddenly, the Browns find themselves in fourth place in the division, with two of their final three games coming on the road.
While I'm not certain Johnny Football gives the Browns the best chance to win, I do know he can be an eye-popping playmaker capable of providing a booster shot in the arm of a team that desperately needs a spark. I've been extremely critical of Manziel, both in the draft process and during his first season as a professional. I didn't think he was worthy of a first-round pick and don't believe he gives his craft the attention it needs. But the fact is, the Browns did determine he was worthy of the No. 22 overall selection. Why waste that pick on a player you're going to bury on the bench when the guy in front of him has done everything but politely hand over the starting job?
If you aren't going to play Manziel now, then when? At best, he sparks your team back into the playoff conversation. At worst, you have some real professional game tape to evaluate heading into the offseason -- an offseason in which Brian Hoyer can become a free agent.
Through the first 13 weeks of this season, I didn't completely agree with the Browns' rationale for waiting to make a change, but I certainly understood where they were coming from. Now, there is no debate -- they have to go with Manziel. While I'm not sure if it will be any better, it can't be any worse.