Marcus Mariota began his NFL career by outshining a fellow Heisman Trophy winner. He will get a chance to do the same to another.
While Mariota aims to replicate a dazzling and record-setting debut, Johnny Manziel has an opportunity for redemption when the Cleveland Browns host the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
With Josh McCown going through the league’s protocol after sustaining a concussion in a 31-10 season-opening loss to the New York Jets, Manziel received most of the work with the first-team offense during the week. The Browns announced Manziel will make his third career start before Friday’s practice was opened to the media.
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”Josh is injured, so I’m the next guy up,” said Manziel, who will face a Tennessee defense under the direction of Hall of Fame coordinator Dick LeBeau. ”My role here is to go out and play well and try to lead us to a win. I’m not looking at anything past this game, anything past the next week. It’s really, go into this game, do my best and from there on we’ll see what happens.”
Manziel’s second pass after replacing McCown in the second quarter went for a 54-yard touchdown to Travis Benjamin, but he had three turnovers thereafter while finishing 13 for 24 for 182 yards. The Browns had five giveaways in all, including a fumble by McCown at the goal line that caused his injury.
Manziel has already faced his share of adversity during the controversial quarterback’s brief NFL tenure. He struggled mightily in two December starts as a rookie, ended last season on injured reserve with a strained hamstring and spent 2 1/2 months of the offseason at a rehab facility for a reported alcohol problem.
Mariota, on the other hand, had as smooth an NFL intro as possible. The reigning Heisman recipient became the first rookie to throw four touchdown passes in a half and produced a perfect passer rating in leading a 42-14 road rout of Tampa Bay that halted a 10-game skid the Titans ended last season on.
The No. 2 overall pick completed 13 of 16 throws for 209 yards and tied Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton’s record for TD passes in a first game. Mariota also became the first player since at least 1933 to record a perfect passer rating in his debut.
"That kid is going to be special," said wide receiver Kendall Wright, who caught a 52-yard touchdown pass and finished with 101 yards on four receptions. "I told him at one point in the game that he might break a rookie record. I don’t know if he did, but it seemed like he threw like eight touchdown passes."
A Tennessee defense that ranked among the league’s worst in nearly every major category during last year’s 2-14 season also impressed. The Titans sacked Bucs rookie Jameis Winston four times and forced three turnovers, including Cody Sensabaugh’s first-quarter interception return for a touchdown.
Cleveland still has some areas to clean up on the defensive side after yielding 154 rushing yards and allowing the Jets to convert 7 of 13 third downs. Additionally, the Browns were penalized 12 times for 109 yards en route to an 11th straight season-opening loss.
”We can’t get no worse,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. ”Five turnovers, you’re going to lose 100 out of 100 games. Every time we made plays, we got penalties. It was just bad football.”
The Titans ran the ball effectively last week behind the tandem of Bishop Sankey (74 yards, 1 TD) and ex-Brown Terrance West, traded to Tennessee a week prior to the opener. Tight end Delanie Walker, who caught one of Mariota’s TD passes, is hopeful to play after exiting last week with an injured right hand.
Tennessee can record its first win streak since ending 2013 on a two-game run and avenge a painful 29-28 home loss to the Browns in Week 5 of last season. Brian Hoyer threw three touchdown passes – two to Benjamin in the final seven minutes – as Cleveland scored 26 unanswered points.
"I don’t think that’s even really going to be something that we talk about," Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "It could have been any team that we took a big lead and didn’t finish. I don’t think that it has anything to do with the fact that it was Cleveland.
"You certainly have to do a better job of finishing it, but (last week) we did a good job of finishing that game, so hopefully we’ll build off of that."