Back in July, when the Vikings and the Cleveland Browns reported to their respective training camps, both teams had a similar scenario going on as it pertained to the quarterback position. Training camp and the preseason were going to decide who would be the starter and who would be the backup waiting in the wings.
The Vikings resolved that question by an unorthodox means – pushing both of them to backup status by signing a future Hall of Fame veteran. Any battle that was going to have taken place between Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels was shelved when Brett Favre came on board.
Cleveland's quarterback question, however, still hasn't completely been answered just days before the start of the regular season. Crafty head coach Eric Mangini has taken a page from the Bill Belichick coaching bible, claiming he knows who the starter Sunday against the Vikings will be, but he has no intention of making that information public to the media or Browns fans. The guessing game is on – even though it will be hard to mask which quarterback is getting first-team reps as the practices heat up heading into the weekend. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has reported that Brady Quinn will be the starter, but Mangini has remained silent on the subject.
Will it be Quinn, whom most observers of the Browns during training camp seem to believe will be named starter, or will it be Derek Anderson?
According to most of the Vikings defensive players, the simple answer to that question is, "Who cares?"
With a new season, a new offensive scheme, a new head coach and a new outlook after a dismal finish to the 2008 season, the Vikings expect to see a lot of things they haven't seen on film. Everything changes from one opponent to the next, so the new-look Browns should be no different, especially early in the season.
"It's always different from week to week as to how you defend that opponent," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "Teams don't show all their wrinkles during the preseason, so it's hard to really get a gauge as to what they're going to do. I don't think who the quarterback is will be an issue. Those quarterbacks are obviously very equal, because neither one of them has been named as the starter even this late to the start of the season. The good thing is that they have similar styles and won't change our game plan at all."
Therein lies some of the confusion. When the Vikings made a playoff run in 1987 with Wade Wilson filling in for an injured Tommy Kramer, Jerry Burns was justified in not naming a starter. At that time, Wilson was an adept scrambler who, if a receiver wasn't open, would take off and potentially pick up significant yardage. Kramer never left the pocket and would wait until the receiver cleared – even if it meant absorbing a big hit. They had two completely different styles – a poor man's version of the 1987 San Francisco 49ers, with wily veteran Joe Montana and run-happy Steve Young as his backup.
The same isn't true in Cleveland. While Quinn has more athleticism to move around in the pocket and, if needed, tuck the ball and run, both Quinn and Anderson's calling cards are strong arms to deliver the ball not only deep but into tight spots with zip to allow their receivers to make plays. Preparation for the Vikings isn't on two contrasting styles, which somewhat negates the mystery of not naming a starter.
"If you were talking about two completely different skill sets for quarterbacks – a drop-back guy as opposed to a Mike Vick type of guy – then, yeah, you're going to have some problems," linebacker Ben Leber said. "But in this situation, it looks like Quinn is a little bit more athletic, but it doesn't look like they're going to change the whole game plan and change the plays just for him or Anderson. Our mindset right now is not to worry about it."
The wild card in all of this could be Mangini. While it seems clear the new coach is letting every player in locker room know who the boss is by holding back the identity of the starter, it's his offense the Vikings are trying to key on, not what they did last year. Watching film of last season's collapse would have only instilled more confidence. The main reason Romeo Crennel was run out of Cleveland was because of an offensive collapse of epic proportions for the NFL. In the final six games of the 2008 regular season, the Browns offense didn't score a touchdown – a stretch that began the Sunday before Thanksgiving and didn't end until three days before New Year's Eve.
Because of that, the Vikings coaching staff has broken down film not only of Mangini's Jets, but all the way back to his days in New England. That, combined with the work being done in the film room to detect the strengths and weaknesses of both quarterbacks, has many of the Vikings spending an inordinate amount of time staring at a video screen.
"For us, it's been a matter that you just have to watch a lot more film – you have to watch and see what both quarterbacks do well and what they like to run with each guy in there," cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "It's all about putting in the time studying film and learning what we can about both them."
Each quarterback clearly has variables in his own favor, which explains why neither was able to pull away like so many other quarterback competitions during the preseason. Defensive end Jared Allen said both quarterbacks have the talent to be starters, but the Vikings are focused more on making Mangini's decision even more difficult by harassing and pounding whomever wins the starting job.
"I've played against Derek and he's pretty good," Allen said. "He's got a strong arm and can make all the throws. Whichever one they put out there, our goal on the line is the same – get to him as fast as we can and don't give him time to let plays develop down the field. It doesn't matter who they have back there, if we can put pressure on the quarterback, he will have problems."
As with most early-season games, it will take a couple of regular-season game tapes to get a handle on what tendencies the Browns offense may have. For the Vikings to get off to a strong start despite playing their first games on the road, Sunday's game may not be a matter of who starts at quarterback. It could depend more on the battles between the other 10 players and the Vikings defense.
Safety Madieu Williams is no stranger to the Browns, having played his first four seasons with cross-state rival Cincinnati. He's seen Anderson light up his Bengals defense and knows that Quinn has a lot of athleticism. But, he believes the key won't be who is behind center, but the Vikings defense taking away his offensive weapons and keeping the Browns guessing instead of the Vikings defense.
"At the end of the day we still have to go out and execute our defense," Williams said. "We still have to go out and stop the guys that the quarterbacks are trying to get the ball to – the skill players, the playmakers. Regardless of who the quarterback is, we have execute, play our style of defense and do the things we know we're capable of doing."
Who starts for Browns? Who cares?
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