The winds of change are blowing in Cleveland.
Brian Hoyer's inconsistent play will eventually cost him the balance of the 2014 season and possibly his future in Cleveland. That isn't to say Hoyer is the reason the Browns are 7-5, or is a total picture of his season.
Johnny Manziel came on in after head coach Mike Pettine pulled Hoyer in the fourth quarter Sunday in Buffalo, with the Browns losing 20-3. Manziel drove the Browns for a touchdown on his first drive to get them within 20-10. The Browns eventually lost 26-10.
Hoyer earned the starting nod coming out of training camp in what was a closer competition that even the Browns expected. Hoyer had played pretty well in the Browns first four games, sitting at 2-2 with the Pittsburgh Steelers at home.
Then, the turning point in Hoyer's season occurred.
During the Browns 31-10 thrashing of the Steelers, starting center Alex Mack was lost for the season with a broken leg. Little did the Browns know the running game would also exit along with Mack.
Already seeing some struggles in third-down efficiency and Hoyer’s inaccuracy, the Browns had been able to overcome them because of some excellent offensive football in halves of games early in the season.
But as the Browns running game struggled, the play of Hoyer began to follow suit.
Early in the season, the play-action off the rushing attack made the Cleveland offense difficult to stop, even as Hoyer would go through spells of inaccuracy.
While many Browns fans loved the story of the hometown kid making good and leading the Browns, it should be said that the scheme and some special talent enabled Hoyer to play the game at a level he never had achieved previously.
With each passing week, as Hoyer and the Browns offense fought inconsistency, Pettine and members of the staff and organization discussed the state of the quarterback position. The meetings would enable those people to state their thoughts and at times the discussions would lead to debate.
“There had been some noise that the coaches were talking about getting Manziel on the field,” one Browns player told theOBR. “He would get a few reps here and there, so many of us thought it was possible.”
It was clear — going back to the Week 8 game against the Oakland Raiders — that the Browns had discussed the starting quarterback position in some capacity. Some within the staff voiced their concern about the Browns inability to handle a physical and aggressive defensive front, while Hoyer clearly struggled.
With the running game and quarterback struggling against the Raiders, a 23-13 Cleveland win, Hoyer and the offense didn't play particularly well, but did enough to get the win.
This had become the common theme for the Browns as the 2014 season progressed. Pettine would openly support Hoyer, as did his teammates.
In the weeks to follow, the Browns played well in a victory over the Bengals and got by in a win over Atlanta while they were disposed of by the Texans and Bills.
“As a unit we had the belief in Hoyer leading us when down, he has done it a few times this year,” the anonymous Browns player said. “It seems like he played better with our backs against the wall. But, it was harder, we failed to execute, he missed on passes and we couldn’t run the ball.”
Against Houston, Atlanta and Buffalo, Hoyer struggled and the Browns offense struggled. In nearly each instance teams continued to pressure the Browns with the front-seven, attempting to eliminate the running game, forcing Hoyer and the inconsistent Browns passing game to beat them.
The Johnny Manziel Factor
In a nutshell, the Browns did not select Johnny Manziel in the 2014 NFL draft to be a token figure. The Browns knew going in with Manziel he would need some time to develop his game.
Playing only two seasons at the collegiate level, Manziel proved to be an exciting playmaker at Texas A&M. His ability to improvise and run with the ball captivated the college football nation in winning the Heisman Trophy in his freshman year.
After some rough patches where the rookie quarterback displayed immaturity and questionable decisions, Manziel worked diligently in the weight and film rooms to improve his skill-set.
“The kid came in with all the notoriety and fame, which a young guy can get to accustomed to,” one player tells theOBR. “Once he got here in the summer, he was all-in and was in the building as much if not more than most guys.”
Fast forward a few weeks into the regular season and the changes in Manziel had become evident. He wasn’t wild. He was attentive. He was cocky to a degree, but humble. Manziel was, for the first time, in a structured setting and the adaption process took a little time for the “have-fun” personality.
“You can see him (Manziel) growing in front of our eyes,” the player continued. “Everything is coming quicker to him; he has gotten a voice and confidence. Today, Manziel could step on the field and play, that couldn’t have been said over the summer when most guys were apprehensive.
“The kid (Manziel) was getting better in practice, making better throws, more decisive with the ball and at times taking chances that he shouldn’t. I think that’s when most guys realized that kid has the chance to be special.”
During the course of the season the Browns gave Manziel reps in practice sessions to help in his development and keep him mentally sharp. At times, Manziel would give the team trouble in sessions when he improvised.
“You could sense the coaches were getting pissed when he would do it (something other than the play), but they also were intrigued because he is unique and can do some amazing things on the field,” the player said. “Most people didn’t think much of it, but a handful of us believed he was getting prepped foe when his number was called.”
For Pettine, the rookie had to show him enough to bench Hoyer in Buffalo, because that’s not the type of move Pettine would make without plenty of thought beforehand.
And, Pettine officially let the cat out of the bag during his post-game press conference when he acknowledged he and the staff had discussed this move for some time.
At 7-5 and the possibly of a playoff berth at stake, Pettine will either be a genius if he goes with Manziel and the Browns succeed, or he will have thrown away hope of a playoff season in Cleveland.
With the way this Browns offense has performed in recent weeks that playoff opportunity under the direction of Hoyer was becoming about as unlikely as the quarterback not throwing multiple interceptions on Sunday.
Enter Manziel at home in front of a crazed crowd this Sunday.