Manziel Replaces Hoyer in Loss to Bills

Johnny Manziel celebrates a touchdown after Brian Hoyer was pulled in the fourth quarter on Sunday against the Bills. (Photo: Getty Images)

Johnny Manziel celebrates a touchdown after Brian Hoyer was pulled in the fourth quarter on Sunday against the Bills. (Photo: Getty Images)

In an effort to try and spark his team’s offense, Browns head coach Mike Pettine pulled starting quarterback Brian Hoyer in favor of star rookie Johnny Manziel. Unfortunately, that effort came up short as the Browns fell 26-10 to the Bills in Buffalo on Sunday.

In addition to a disappointing loss, a newfound quarterback controversy has been stirred up between Hoyer and Manziel. Is Hoyer’s time as the starting quarterback at an end in Cleveland? Is it time to see if “Johnny Football” has what it takes to make it in the pros?

Hoyer vs. Manziel

As I pointed out last week, Hoyer’s recent performance has raised some red flags and cast doubts on his future as the Browns’ starting quarterback. He has not thrown a touchdown pass in three weeks and has only thrown three in his last five games versus eight interceptions in that span, including two on Sunday. It’s becoming glaringly apparent that Hoyer’s positive production is no longer outweighing the negative.

That doesn’t take away from Hoyer’s accomplishments to this point. He has stepped up for a team in a time of uncertainty and helped establish a new, winning culture. Under the guidance of Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Hoyer has also helped put an offensive system in place and turn a seemingly ragtag group of rookie and veteran receivers (minus Josh Gordon) into a sound corps that has only gotten stronger since Gordon’s return.

The problem, unfortunately, arises with Gordon’s return and the revival of the deep-pass game, which has proven to be Hoyer’s biggest weak spot. Without that arm strength, Hoyer’s game becomes more one-dimensional as he also has limited mobility.

That’s where Manziel comes in. While he only orchestrated a couple of drives at the end of Sunday’s game, he was 5-for-8 throwing the ball for 63 yards while also running for 13 yards and a touchdown on two carries. His multidimensional formula of attack may now fit in better with the offensive system now established and some NFL experience both on the field and on the sidelines under his belt.

Pettine and the Browns are making their decision at quarterback on a week-by-week basis, but now that the switch has been made, it’s hard to see them reversing it.

M*A*S*H Unit

Injuries continue to pile up for the Browns as they lost three more key players on Sunday in center Nick McDonald, tight end Gary Barnidge and wide receiver Miles Austin. Fortunately, McDonald’s ailment was temporary and was cleared to resume football activity following the game. The other two weren’t so lucky.

Barnidge left the game in the first half after suffering a rib injury and was listed as questionable for the remainder of the game. Miles Austin was rushed to a hospital after the game and remains there for precautionary reasons due to a kidney injury. Both injuries were regarded as serious by Mike Pettine in his postgame press conference.

The Browns depth chart has become noticeably thin as second string and even third string players have been called upon to fill roles vacated due to battered starters. With the wounded continuing to accumulate, one begins to wonder if this is all just a coincidence or if something is wrong with the training or conditioning programs in place under the new regime.

Football is a brutal game and certainly susceptible to those who partake getting hurt, but I don’t recall seeing this kind of misfortune on any single team in any single season.

Up Next: Browns (7-5) vs. Colts (8-4) @ FirstEnergy Stadium. Kickoff at 1:00 pm ET (Sunday).

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Gordon’s Return Sparks Last-Minute Victory for Browns

Wide-receiver Josh Gordon catches eight passes for 120 yards in his return from a 10-game suspension during Sunday's 26-24 victory in Atlanta. (Photo: AP)

Wide-receiver Josh Gordon catches eight passes for 120 yards in his return from a 10-game suspension during Sunday’s 26-24 victory in Atlanta. (Photo: AP)

Browns fans have been waiting 10 weeks for this and add to the fact that Cleveland is in a playoff race, the return of star wide receiver Josh Gordon from his suspension couldn’t be more welcome heading into Sunday’s game against Atlanta.

After struggling for much of the game, quarterback Brian Hoyer marched his team down the field in the final seconds to set up a game-winning field goal for a key 26-24 victory.

American Hoyer Story

If the last two weeks have proven anything, it’s that Brian Hoyer may not be the long term answer at quarterback for the Browns. That doesn’t mean he should be benched immediately since he is a big reason why the team is in a playoff hunt this year, but heading into next year and beyond, he may not fit into their plans as well.

I’m not saying he won’t return as a quarterback for the Browns after this season, but he won’t be getting the big money contract extension as was speculated earlier in the season (at least not from the Browns) and he may not be the automatic choice to be the starter.

That all being said, he has been a crucial element in not just the Browns victories this season, he has also helped establish a winning culture on the team and in the locker room, which is no easy task considering the last 15 years of poor to mediocre football in Cleveland. If Hoyer is just a one-hit wonder here, it creates a more ideal situation for rookie Johnny Manziel to step in next season after a year on the sidelines watching and learning the NFL game and pace.

For now, though, let’s just enjoy the rest of the season and let Hoyer continue to live out his dream potentially into the playoffs. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s won more games than the Browns have won in the past six years.

Hoyer made unfortunate mistakes, including three interceptions, but his final drive of 61 yards in 7 plays to set up a field goal in the final seconds proved to be the difference in the game. He also became the first Browns quarterback since Brian Sipe in the 1980s to pass for back-to-back 300-yard games.

Return of the Flash

Let’s just say between a career in football and car sales, Josh Gordon made the right decision in returning from his 10-game suspension on Sunday. He and Hoyer had trouble getting on the same page at times, but his performance after 10 weeks off the field was nothing short of incredible. He caught eight passes for 120 yards and put his talent and athletic ability on full display.

His presence not only gave the Browns offense another weapon to work with, it also clearly opened up their options both in the running and receiving game as opposing defenses will no longer stack up heavily on the line while the size contrast between Gordon and the rest of the Browns receivers adds more balance.

Thinking about the Browns offense moving forward, in addition to a great corps of receivers (keep in mind they don’t have Jordan Cameron back yet), they also have a running game in Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, who both ran the ball well on Sunday, and possibly an explosive quarterback in Johnny Manziel if Brian Hoyer doesn’t prove to be a long-term solution. Even with Hoyer under center, it’s looking like a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

A Thinning Defense

The entire city of Cleveland held their breath when cornerback Joe Haden and safety Tashaun Gipson collided in the end zone while defending a pass from Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan that laid both out with apparent injuries. Fortunately Haden got up by himself and was able to remain in the game. Gipson, on the other hand, was not as lucky as he had to be carted off the field with a knee injury.

It was revealed on Monday following an MRI that Gipson had suffered a grade three MCL sprain, which would most likely sideline him for the remainder of the regular season. The good news is there was no further damage and he could potentially return during the playoffs if the Browns made it in.

It was an unfortunate turn of events for both Gipson and the Browns as he was likely on his way to a Pro Bowl season while an already-depleted defense will only get thinner. With Armonty Bryant, Phil Taylor and Karlos Dansby already sidelined, you wonder how many more losses the defense can sustain.

They already have a run defense that ranks at the bottom of the league while their secondary, which now ranks in the top 10 in pass defense, is a lot weaker without Gipson. Hopefully the newly-rejuvenated offense with Gordon can outplay the weaknesses of the defense moving forward.

Up Next: Browns (7-4) vs. Bills (-) @ Ralph Wilson Stadium*. Kickoff at 1:00 pm (Sunday)

*Weather permitting

Browns Fall Flat Against J.J. Watt and Texans

Texans linebacker J.J. Watt catches a touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Mallett in the Browns' 23-7 loss against Houston in Cleveland. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Texans linebacker J.J. Watt catches a touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Mallett in the Browns’ 23-7 loss against Houston in Cleveland. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

We saw this sequence play out earlier in the season against Jacksonville when the Browns were riding high after a key divisional drubbing of the Steelers. They went into the next game without preparing as well as they probably should have and the Jaguars took advantage of it.

This time around, Cleveland was coming off another victory against a divisional foe in the Bengals after defeating them 24-3 in primetime two Thursdays ago. The Texans and their new starting quarterback Ryan Mallett treated the formerly first-place Browns to a 23-7 beating in front of their own fans in Cleveland.

So the question is what went wrong for the Browns this time around? Were they underprepared? Was the winter weather on Sunday a factor? Did the 10-day break between games throw them off their rhythm?

What Went Wrong?

  • Injuries: It’s fair to remind fans that the Browns are playing without several key players on both sides of the ball and lost more before and during the game to injury. Nose tackle Phil Taylor was ruled out before the game and for the rest of the season with a knee injury while linebackers Billy Winn, Jabaal Sheard and Karlos Dansby all suffered injuries during the game, of whom the latter two are expected to miss significant time. On an already-thin defensive line, that’s bad news.
  • Dropped Passes: Quarterback Brian Hoyer had arguably his worst performance throwing the ball as far as completion percentage connecting on only 20 of his 50 pass attempts. He did pass for 330 yards, which is a new career high for the Cleveland native with the Browns, but that also included an interception and several dropped passes by his receivers, including two key drops by veteran receiver Miles Austin which would’ve extended late-game drives for the Browns. The good news is star receiver Josh Gordon is now officially activated from his 10-game suspension.
  • No Rushing Defense: The Browns have put together a surprising season winning six games up to this point and staying in the playoff race. Their NFL rankings on offense are middle-of-the-pack as well as their pass defense. Their run defense, on the other hand, has been a nagging problem as they have been ranked at the bottom of the league in that category. Of course, the aforementioned defensive line injuries don’t help, but the Texans were without the services of their star running back Arian Foster and still rushed for 213 yards, including 156 by backup running back Alfred Blue. Even with the injuries, there’s not much excuse for those totals.
  • Lack of Coaching Adjustments: Throughout the year, Cleveland and rookie head coach Mike Pettine have proven to be a much better team in the second half due to halftime adjustments. This week, there appeared to be minimal adjustments nor any variance in plays run. The lack of defensive adjustments was clear and the lack of offensive adjustments mindboggling. I lost count of how many times offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan would call for run-sweep plays right in the general direction of superstar linebacker J.J. Watt, who overmatched the Browns offensive line in almost every way. This may still be a first-year coaching staff, but at this point in the season, fans should expect better from them.

In summation, it was about as complete a team loss as you can get for the Browns, who must now hit the road for their next two games. They went from first place to last place following the game, but remain in the playoff hunt in the AFC. The defensive line has its work cut out for them over the remainder of the season while the offense and coaching needs to get back to making plays and adjustments when needed.

Up Next: Browns (6-4) vs. Falcons (4-6) @ The Georgia Dome. Kickoff at 1:00 pm ET (Sunday).

Browns Take Division Lead with Primetime Win in Cincinnati

Quarterback Brian Hoyer celebrates after Thursday's 24-3 Browns win in Cincinnati. (Photo: Joshua Gunter)

Quarterback Brian Hoyer celebrates after Thursday’s 24-3 Browns win in Cincinnati. (Photo: Joshua Gunter)

For the first time since the team relocated to Baltimore and became the Ravens in 1995, the Cleveland Browns are in first place in their division after week 10 of the season.

Who would’ve thought that they could win a key division matchup without their star receiver in Josh Gordon, their pro bowl center in Alex Mack or tight end in Jordan Cameron or their leading receiver this season in Andrew Hawkins. They not only defeated the Bengals, they handed them a 24-3 drubbing on Thursday.

Thanks to the Steelers falling to the Jets on Sunday, the Browns now have sole possession of first place and put themselves right in the middle of the playoff discussion. Their six wins are the most since the team clinched a wild card spot in 2007.

The Run Game is Back

The reemergence of the Browns once-potent rushing attack on Thursday was not just because of the growth of rookie backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. It was also due to the offensive line stepping up and finally offering some protection for quarterback Brian Hoyer and opening up some running room for Crowell, West and Ben Tate, who rushed for a combined 170 yards on 52 carries.

The Browns scored three touchdowns on Thursday all on the ground with the three running backs splitting up the three scores between them. Terrance West led the charge with 94 yards on 26 carries, which was his best single game performance since he rushed for 100 yards on 16 carries in the season opener against Pittsburgh.

Isaiah Crowell saw his first live-game action in nearly a month and rushed for 41 yards on 12 carries including a touchdown.

Following Thursday’s win, the Browns have moved back up to 11th in the league in rushing at 117.8 yards per game. Head coach Mike Pettine stated after the game that the team will be sticking with the three-headed running attack for the time being.

Defense Stepping Up

The Browns defense, which has been inconsistent at times this season has become a factor in recent matchups as they have forced 12 turnovers in their last four games, which leads the NFL over that span. Cornerback Buster Skrine caught two interceptions against the Bengals while linebacker Craig Robertson caught one.

Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton had a historically bad night with the three interceptions and two sacks forced by the Browns defense as well as a completion rate of only 30% giving him an overall rating of 2.0.

The Browns also recovered a fumble by Bengals running back Jeremy Hill as they held their run game to only 86 yards on the night.

Could everything be coming together at the right time for the Browns? Jordan Cameron and Andrew Hawkins are set to return from injury within the next week or two while Josh Gordon’s reinstatement from suspension is less than a week away. I don’t want to jinx anything, but the playoffs may not be a pipe dream anymore.

Up Next: Texans (4-5) vs. Browns (6-3) @ FirstEnergy Stadium. Kickoff at 1:00 pm ET (Sunday).

Browns Hold Off Tampa Bay in Ugly Win

Taylor Gabriel runs in a touchdown reception during the second half of Sunday's 22-17 win over Tampa Bay. (Photo: Getty Images)

Taylor Gabriel runs in a touchdown reception during the second half of Sunday’s 22-17 win over Tampa Bay. (Photo: Getty Images)

It was not a textbook game. Between blocked punts, blocked field goals, turnovers and injuries, it appeared the team who made the last mistake would be the loser. A win is a win, though, and with their tough 22-17 victory on Sunday, the Browns now have a 5-3 record at the halfway mark of the season for the first time in seven years.

With a short week and a key divisional matchup against the Bengals looming ahead for Cleveland, they’ll need to iron out the rough patches sooner rather than later if they want to stay in contention.

Whose Line is it Anyway

For the past three weeks since the loss of center Alex Mack to injury, the Browns offense has been consistently losing the battle at the line of scrimmage failing to protect quarterback Brian Hoyer and block for the running backs.

Opposing teams have clearly taken advantage of this since the Jaguars manhandled Cleveland’s offensive line two weeks ago by stacking their defenses heavily up front and ordering blitz plays more often than not. Hoyer has managed to adjust as best as he can, but the once-vaunted running attack of the Browns has fallen from 3rd in the league to 16th in less than a month.

Could Alex Mack’s absence really have an effect this drastic on the line? Well, the centers who have started in his place have not been quite up to par with three-year lineman Nick McDonald getting the call on Sunday.

Hoyer was sacked three times on Sunday, but when there are 20 attempts to bring him down throughout the game, that’s not too bad and says a lot for Hoyer’s improved poise. In comparison, the Browns defense recorded two sacks on Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon, but only on eight attempts.

At some point, leadership has to step in and take control of the situation. Mack is done for the year. No changing that. Pro bowler and eight-year veteran lineman Joe Thomas seems like an ideal candidate for this. There has to be nowhere to go but up for this group, right?

Johnny Who?

Is Brian Hoyer an elite NFL quarterback? No. Will he ever be an elite quarterback? Probably not. Is he the long-term franchise quarterback that the Browns have been waiting years to find? It’s too early to say, but the odds right now are leaning toward no.

So who is Brian Hoyer? A quarterback who wins football games. You don’t need the aforementioned qualifications to do it. He’s inconsistent, sure. He’ll have drives when he throws three passes well off the mark and look lost at quarterback. But then he has those drives where he’ll complete almost every pass and methodically lead his team to a touchdown.

One thing no one can take away from Hoyer is his commitment and determination to help his team win. After all, he’s living his dream – playing quarterback for the team he’s loved since childhood. And he takes his failures and shortcomings very personally.

By the numbers, Hoyer didn’t have a terrible game at all on Sunday passing for 300 yards with two touchdowns completing 21 of 34 pass attempts. He did have two interceptions, although one was on a bad luck deflection. Once again, though, the calls for Johnny Manziel were deafening at points during the game as well as even some boo birds at times when Hoyer wasn’t looking so good.

The fact of the matter is Hoyer is now 8-3 as the Browns starting quarterback dating back to last year and has won four of his last five games under center. It may not be a pretty formula, but it’s a working formula. And until it stops working there’s no reason to abandon it now.

Up Next: Browns (5-3) vs. Bengals (5-2-1) @ Paul Brown Stadium. Kickoff at 8:25pm ET (Thursday).

Browns Bounce Back At Home Against Oakland

Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins celebrates with fans after catching a touchdown pass in Sunday's 23-13 win over Oakland. (Photo: Joshua Gunter)

Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins celebrates with fans after catching a touchdown pass in Sunday’s 23-13 win over Oakland. (Photo: Joshua Gunter)

After a harsh wakeup call against the Jaguars, Brian Hoyer stepped up and put the Browns back in the win column with a 23-13 victory over the Raiders. The defense, although depleted, held rookie quarterback Derek Carr and Oakland in check for most of the game and forced three turnovers, including safety Tashaun Gipson’s fifth interception of the season.

Where’s the Run Game?

Just two weeks ago, the Browns were ranked third in the league in rushing. Since then, they have averaged just under two yards per carry. Between the three running backs and two carries by Hoyer himself, the Browns racked up 39 yards on 25 carries, which averages out to just 1.6 yards per carry.

Ben Tate led the way with 26 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown while rookie Terrance West got back into regular action with seven carries for 11 yards. And just like that, the run game has fallen from third to 12th in the league in just two weeks.

Why the drop-off in production? Perhaps it’s just been a natural progression of adjustments in scouting by the opposition that the Browns just haven’t figured out yet. Or maybe opposing teams saw how much the Jaguars devastated Cleveland’s offense and are just stacking their defensive lines against them. Also with a thinner offensive line without Alex Mack, some drawbacks had to be expected.

Tashaun Gipson: Pro Bowler?

One of the most impressive developments for Cleveland this year on defense has been the evolution of free safety Tashaun Gipson into an impact player in the secondary. In just his third year in the pros, Gipson has already racked up 11 career interceptions, including an NFL-leading five so far this season.

Of his five pickoffs so far in 2014, one has been returned for a touchdown and his return yards following an interception this season total 146 with an average of 29 yards per interception return. He has also knocked away six passes this season, bringing his career total to 18. He has already matched his career high in interceptions from last year and is projected to pick off 11 passes by season’s end.

I was one of the fans questioning the Browns letting T.J. Ward walk to sign with Denver during the offseason, but with Gipson’s emergence, it’s looking like a loss we can live with.

A Dependable Quarterback

Brian Hoyer took last week’s embarrassing loss in Jacksonville just as hard as any Browns fan, if not harder. Even his wife admitted he was hard to be around during this past week in all his frustration and determination to improve on easily his worst performance of his NFL career.

Well give the hometown kid credit for putting in the work to get his game back on track because Sunday was one of his better games statistics-wise as he completed 19 of his 28 pass attempts for 275 yards and a touchdown.

Andrew Hawkins is quickly becoming a vital weapon in the Browns’ passing game as he caught seven passes for 88 yards and the team’s lone touchdown reception of the game. Outside of Hawkins, the passes were once again spread fairly evenly. Tight end Jordan Cameron had three catches, but left the game early due to a concussion.

Seems like every time the criticism and calls for Johnny Manziel to take over at quarterback get loudest, Hoyer steps up the most. He isn’t and probably will never be an elite quarterback, but he’s a guy who never gives up and most often will do just what it takes to give his team a chance to win. And after the 15-year quarterback carrousel, I don’t think Browns fans can ask for anything more than that.

Up Next: Buccaneers (1-6) vs. Browns @ FirstEnergy Stadium. Kickoff at 1:00 pm ET.

Jaguars Defense Baffles Browns

Allen Robinson runs for a touchdown in Jacksonville's 24-6 victory over the Browns. (Photo: Getty Images)

Allen Robinson runs for a touchdown in Jacksonville’s 24-6 victory over the Browns. (Photo: Getty Images)

The box score says everything. Sunday’s game was pretty much a testament to Murphy’s Law for the Browns. Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong did, especially for the offense, which had its worst performance of the season to date. The question is, did the Browns come into this game riding too high after their blowout victory over Pittsburgh and let their guard down?

At any rate, the Jaguars were ready and waiting as they claimed their first win of the season with a 24-6 victory. From muffed punts to mistimed snaps, Brian Hoyer and the Browns defense only managed a pair of field goals despite three interceptions against Jacksonville rookie quarterback Blake Bortles.

Missing Alex Mack

The offensive line took a serious beating on Sunday as the absence of injured starting center Alex Mack was felt immediately. The defensive line of Jacksonville certainly took advantage of the weaker line of the Browns holding them to just 266 total yards, including just 69 yards for the previously third ranked rushing offense.

Brian Hoyer then obviously had his trouble with the lack of protection from offensive line as he completed only 16 passes in 41 attempts. He also threw an interception, lost a fumble and had to deal with 18 sack attempts by the Jaguars pass rush with three of them being successful.

Veteran offensive lineman Paul McQuistan and John Greco stepped in to cover for Mack, who is sidelined for the remainder of the season with a leg fracture. They had several key miscues including failing to stop the Jacksonville pass rush and snapping the ball too early on a key fourth down play. How the team plans to compensate for Mack’s absence moving forward is a tough task, but Sunday’s performance was unacceptable.

Porous Run Defense

If one thing has become apparent six weeks into the season, the Browns run defense has given up more rushing yards than the team’s own strong running attack can account for. After Sunday’s loss, Cleveland is now dead last in the league in opposing rushing yards giving up over 155 per game.

Former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, now turned running back in the pros, rushed for a career-high 127 yards and his first NFL touchdown. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles also managed to rack up 37 running yards of his own as his dual-threat style of play has translated to the pro level. Ironically, the Jaguars came into Sunday’s contest averaging just 69 rushing yards per game this season and that’s exactly what they held the Browns to.

Of course, the defense is somewhat depleted without Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin and Billy Winn, but to allow nearly 50 more yards per game compared to last year is still a hefty spike.

Manziel Time?

After last week’s victory, folks in Cleveland were talking about a contract extension for Brian Hoyer. Now after a poor performance in Jacksonville, the Johnny Manziel bandwagon is loading up once again as many fans will be campaigning this week for the rookie backup quarterback to get his shot as a starter.

Personally, I think it’s too early to jump ship on Hoyer. His numbers so far this season don’t stand up to the Tom Brady’s and Aaron Rodgers’s of the league, but he has given his team a chance to win every week aside from this matchup even dating back to last year prior to his season-ending knee injury. After all he has provided for the Browns, it wouldn’t be fair to at least give him a chance to respond over the next week or two.

The Browns went 15 years without an adequate starting quarterback, so it would certainly be hasty to pull the plug on the first one who has shown signs of life after one bad game. (Put the extension talks on hold, though.)

Up Next: Browns (3-3) vs. Raiders (0-6) @ FirstEnergy Stadium. 4:25 pm ET kickoff.

Fortunately for Cleveland, they have another winless team on schedule for next week in the Oakland Raiders, which should give them a chance to polish up their game again. However, they cannot and should not let their guard down again just because the opposition has not yet won a game.

The offensive line needs to figure out a better gameplan in order to offer more protection for the quarterback and open up lanes for the run game while Hoyer needs to realize he does not have Alex Mack to work with anymore this year at center and adapt as best as he can to whatever the line can give him from now on.