Here at the dawn of another training-camp season, the biggest battles will once again be waged at the sport's most important position. Once again, too many coaches will make the safe choice. And they will be wrong. Good thing I'm here to provide some predictive assistance with a little Reckless Shekulation.
Johnny Manziel is the Browns' best hope.
Whatever happens in Northeast Ohio over the next month or so, Johnny Manziel must start come September, and that's that. I don't understand what the counterargument is. Yeah, he was lousy, unfocused and downright troubled last year. But he's also Johnny Football. He's the guy who won the Heisman Trophy, who dragged the moribund Texas A&M program back to relevance, who made those dynamic, unscripted plays against big-time bullies 'Bama, Oklahoma and LSU. More importantly, the Browns used a first-round pick on him in 2014 to see if he could be the transformational hero the franchise needs. He's a scrawny 6-foot vessel of electricity and hope. Then again, maybe he's a bum. One thing's for sure: Cleveland needs to play him to find out.
I know the Browns can't be relied upon to make sound decisions -- as their silly new JUCO-inspired getups prove -- but I'm hoping they get this one right. No matter how well things go this season, the high-water mark does not include a February trip to Levi's Stadium, so why even bother with Josh McCown? McCown is a 36-year-old journeyman who's been with nine NFL teams and the UFL's Hartford Something-or-others. His claims to fame are being Ivan Drago's doppelganger and playing well for a few weeks in 2013. Mike Pettine might try to convince us McCown's the right choice, but that's because McCown is the less risky play. It's the same choice Pettine made in 2014 with Brian Hoyer, and it's similar to what lots of other coaches do in order to survive another season. For the fan base, though, it feels like treading water.
Sorry, I don't mean to rip McCown. He's had a fine football career for a Sam Houston State alumnus, but he represents no future -- and here in the present, defenses know what he is. He's shown all he has to show; there are no adjustments coming to counter the tactics defenses have developed to slow him down. In spite of this fact, maybe McCown can provide a steady hand, take care of the ball INSERT OTHER GAME MANAGER CLICHES HERE] and help the [Browns have a respectable season.
Even if that happens, though, how far can that carry the Browns in a division with big-time bullies Pittsburgh and Baltimore? Besides Pettine, who benefits from McCown going 9-7 or 10-6? Certainly not the fans, at least not long-term. Let's say everything breaks right and Cleveland nabs a wild-card spot. So what? The Browns still have zero chance of winning the Super Bowl this year. Will a saltine cracker really be enough to satiate the growling hunger of Browns fans, who have been starving in a desert of ineptitude for half a century? Ohio already has one pro football team that aspires to and celebrates merely making the playoffs. Roll the dice, Browns. Don't just survive. Like Andy Dufresne said, "Get busy livin' or get busy dyin'."
Off-field shenanigans aside, the non-passing-game portions of the roster look strong. The defense is loaded. The offense is built to pound the ball on the ground with Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson and Terrance West. The pieces are in place for Cleveland to play so-called "complementary football," grinding it on offense and letting the defense keep things tight. The quarterback, whoever he is, will primarily need to hand the ball off and hopefully make a few meaningful throws over 60 minutes.
And again, if that's the case, why go with McCown, who's got the pedigree of a backup and the future of salted caramel in my presence? Sorry to be a cynic, but at this late stage in McCown's career, he's not about to reenact Kurt Warner's Cinderella story. Manziel might not be poised to spin a Dufresne-esque tale of redemption, either, but at least there's a chance. And as Andy told Red, "Hope is a good thing." Especially in Cleveland.
Someone other than Andy Dalton is the Bengals' best hope.
Whether or not they choose to acknowledge it, the aforementioned Bengals are doomed to something between mediocrity and pretty good, so long as they continue to stick with mediocre-to-pretty-good quarterback Andy Dalton. No matter how low the expectations in Cincinnati were set over the preceding decades, how much longer can seasons ending with first-round playoff losses be considered successful? For that matter, how much longer can Marvin Lewis -- he of the 12-season-long streak of not winning a postseason game -- keep his job? Lewis deserves tons of credit for the many wise personnel choices he and Mike Brown and the rest of the Bengals brain trust have made over the years, but they're now all victims of their own relative success. They need to get to a higher level than where Dalton can take them.
I know the more patient among Bengals fans will point to Joe Flacco as evidence their guy can make a similar January run, but there's a difference between these two: Dalton's nickname aside, the Ravens signal caller has an actual rifle attached to his right shoulder. Crazy as it sounds (and admittedly probably is), I think the Bengals would be better off with Mike Vick. That's not gonna happen, so maybe AJ McCarron -- you know, the guy who has two national championships and countless torso tattoos -- oughta be given a shot. Yeah, yeah, crazy. But unless Lewis and company believe deep down that Dalton can win a Super Bowl, I think it's crazy to enter another season with him as the starter.
Ryan Mallett is the man to take Houston to the playoffs.
Word out of Houston is, Bill O'Brien is leaning toward Brian Hoyer as his starting quarterback. By the end of August, though, I suspect he'll come to his senses and give Ryan Mallett the job.
I don't have to list the Texans' (super)human assets ... This team is ripe, talented enough at every position -- yes, quarterback included -- to be a legitimate threat in the AFC this year. Mallett was a first-round talent who fell to the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft because of some off-field naughtiness at Arkansas. He also has one of the five best arms in the NFL. He learned at the knee of Tom Brady in New England for three years. And in his first year with the Patriots, his offensive coordinator was ... Bill O'Brien. If O'Brien makes the right choice coming out of training camp and anoints Mallett No. 1, the Texans will win the AFC South -- and they just might go as far as the Super Bowl, a.k.a. pro football's Zihuatanejo.