For the first five games Brian Hoyer could do no wrong as the Browns starting quarterback. Home wins over the Saints and Steelers, along with a fourth-quarter rally at Tennessee en route to a 3-2 start, had silenced Manziel Mania.
Hoyer has struggled though since then, especially over the past three games. It finally reached a breaking point during the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss at Buffalo when Johnny Manziel took over for the final three series following Hoyer’s second interception of the game.
After 13 weeks and with a 7-5 record it has finally arrived — a full-blown Category 5 Quarterback Controversy has reached Cleveland. Following the 26-10 loss to the Bills, head coach Mike Pettine will use the next couple days to decide who gets the start on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium against the 8-4 Colts.
"We’re all about competition," Pettine said. "I’ve said it all along we get together as a staff each week and we say ‘Who gives us the best chance to win?’ So far, Brian has been the answer to that question."
The so far was a little bit of an indicator that Manziel is likely to start. Pettine is also the first to realize that once you make a decision like the one he did with 12:01 remaining in the fourth quarter and inserting Manziel, you have to let things play out, especially after Manziel showed poise on his first drive and led the Browns to their lone touchdown.
In his three drives, Manziel was 5 of 8 for 63 yards and had two runs for 13 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown to cap his first drive.
Even though Pettine did his best coachspeak to local reporters, he didn’t with ESPN’s Sal Paolontonio. Pettine admitted to Paolontonio that going back to Hoyer is not a given and that "This has been a cumulative thing where discussions about a change at quarterback have been more and more lively."
In his first five games, Hoyer had seven touchdowns, only one interception and a passer rating of 99.5. In his past seven, starting with the Jacksonville loss, he is 132 of 246 for 1,832 yards with four touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 68.0 rating, which according to STATS LLC is the second-lowest rating in the league over that span. Only Carolina’s Cam Newton is worse at 66.8. Hoyer’s completion percentage of 53.7 is the worst.
While in the past Browns quarterbacks could get some benefit of a doubt due to a lack of quality at the skill positions, Hoyer does not. Even before Josh Gordon came back last week at Atlanta, the receiving corps has done well with Taylor Gabriel, Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins.
Hoyer also has the benefit of something that past Browns quarterbacks would have loved — an actual running game. The game-winning drive last week at Atlanta also masked a lot of ills and might have given Hoyer one more chance to alleviate any doubts. He didn’t do that.
A second-quarter interception by Da’Norris Searcy on Sunday was a result of Hoyer and Gordon not being on the same page. In the fourth quarter, Hoyer did not see Searcy dropping back into coverage and was again picked off. In the third quarter, Hoyer took a sack that knocked the Browns out of field goal range.
In the first half the Browns had the ball for 18 minutes, six seconds but couldn’t get the ball in the end zone. In the first quarter, Hoyer overthrew Austin in the back of the end zone on third-and-goal from the Bills’ four, resulting in a Billy Cundiff field goal.
In the second quarter, another drive stalled at the Bills’ 19 but Cundiff was wide right from 37 yards. Hoyer completed 13 of his first 18 passes for 150 yards. After that he was 5 of 12 for 42 yards and a pair of interceptions.
"I thought we were going well and we were moving the ball but we needed to be able to finish in the red zone," Hoyer said.
Hoyer said he was shocked about being replaced by Manziel but with a team still in the playoff race, Pettine’s patience as the season reaches its final quarter is cleary running thin.
Pettine also did not want to lay all of the offense’s shortcomings at Hoyer’s feet. A Terrance West fumble in the third quarter was returned 18 yards for a touchdown by Jerry Hughes, giving the Bills two TDs in 14 seconds, a 14-3 lead, and control of the game.
Fast forward to next Sunday and, when it comes to who start at quarterback, Pettine said it will be strictly a football decision, meaning Manziel’s recent off-field episodes shouldn’t weigh into it.
Along with the Browns, the Steelers and Ravens also lost on Sunday to fall to 7-5, giving the victorious and now 8-3-1 Bengals a firm grip on the division lead. The Browns, however, remain part of a logjam for that final wild-card spot, a game behind the Chargers.
With home games against the Colts and Bengals next on the schedule, these final games become even more of a must win.
"I think at this point it’s by all means necessary, by all costs go out and win these games to make a push at the end of the season," Manziel said of the final four games. "All the guys in this locker room are extremely hungry to win, I don’t think there’s a person in there right now that’s happy with the outcome of today, because we really wanted to win this game, I think we really needed to win this game. but I don’t think this completely shuts the door on what we want to do as a football team moving forward. and I think everybody is extremely determined and extremely hungry to finish the season the right way, since it has been a better season for us so far than it has been in the past."
Hoyer might be happy if he never has to play the Bills again. Last year he suffered a season-ending knee injury and then came Sunday’s benching. When asked about his approach to the upcoming week, Hoyer sounds determined to fight to keep his spot.
"I just have to press on. I’m not making the decision," he said. "You guys know me that I’m not going to hang my head and feel sorry. We have four games left and whatever coach decides to do I’ll be here to support this team but I feel like this is my team and this is my job. We’ll see what happens going forward."
At least in the short term, going forward might mean Hoyer on the bench.