It makes sense that the Cleveland Browns are hoping that quarterback Josh McCown can start on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, despite McCown missing practice time this week with shoulder and rib injuries he suffered last week against the St. Louis Rams. While officially listed as questionable, and while head coach Mike Pettine still considers McCown “truly day-to-day,” ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler wrote on Friday that McCown will be the Week 8 starter.
There’s no doubt that McCown gives the Browns the best chance to win, or at least the best chance to move the ball down the field and score points. Though the Browns are 2-5 through seven games, the team as a whole ranks eighth in the league in passing yards, 13th in pass attempts and 11th in passing touchdowns, most of which belong to McCown. And despite the Browns’ record, McCown is having the best season of his NFL career, with a 66.8 percent completion rate, 1,686 passing yards, eight passing touchdowns to three interceptions in six starts. And even with the beating he took against the Rams (four sacks, seven hits, leading to two lost fumbles) he still completed 81.25 percent of his passes in the game.
The only problem, though, is that beating—one that is becoming ever more common for McCown. The hope for the quarterback this year is that he’d fare better behind a higher-quality offensive line than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ he played behind last season and that led to him being sacked 36 times in 11 games played. But he’s already taken 21 sacks so far this season and the Browns’ line has given up 26 total (five taken by Johnny Manziel). While Arizona’s defensive front isn’t as aggressive as the Rams’, with 12 team sacks this season to St. Louis’ 23, Cleveland’s porous offensive line is a problem given McCown’s shoulder and ribs.
And it only takes one hit for McCown’s day—or even season—to be negatively affected, or even to be over. Hence, still choosing to take it one day at a time and to list McCown as officially questionable. But McCown is a very competitive person and will do as much as he can to assure starting on Sunday. That’s in the basic nature of a professional athlete. But it also does appear that the Browns are prepared to protect McCown from himself if need be. It’s not that it is a guaranteed loss if Manziel gets the nod on Sunday, but the Browns may have to weigh the possibility of a McCown-less loss in Week 8 to assure McCown can suit up for Week 9 and beyond.
Believe it or not, but Cleveland’s season is still salvageable. Granted, that’s becoming less and less the case with every additional loss, but there may be nothing good coming from McCown tempting an extended absence. Manziel can provide a spark—he’s certainly a different type of quarterback than McCown—and while he’s far more game-ready than he was as a rookie, he’s still not at a place where the Browns feel like he’s more game-ready than McCown at this point. If the Browns have any doubt about McCown’s health and what it could mean for the offense in the long-term, there’s nothing wrong with turning to Manziel for just one game while McCown continues to get healthy. If this offensive line was as advertised, then perhaps the concern would be less. But with the beatings McCown has taken this year plus the injuries he’s already nursing, the Browns would not be wrong to err on the side of caution on Sunday.