AFC North: Cleveland Browns

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After huddling with team spokespersons, Johnny Manziel approached the podium for a news conference that barely lasted four minutes.

Nearly half the segment was Manziel stumping for the right to quarterback the Browns’ future, sounding like a guy who whose season just ended after 35 throws because of a hamstring injury. Manziel was making a case. He took direct questions – did you feel more comfortable this week – and, 90-plus seconds later, had covered why this year made him “more hungry” to work in the offseason and sustaining success and building on a talented roster.

“I want to be the guy,” Manziel said. “That’s what I want to do and that’s what I want to be for this organization, so for me, if anything, this has motivated me more to head into this offseason.”

Manziel probably said more in the news conference about his future than he did on the field. If the hamstring injury persists and Brian Hoyer starts in the finale against Baltimore, Manziel’s seven full quarters of rookie quarterback play didn’t resolve much of anything.

Starting from the Buffalo game, Manziel’s body of work is brief, mostly uninspired football that’s far too small a sample to define him as anything – a bust, an elite quarterback, a money sign.

This is what you got:
[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Mike McCarnIf a hamstring injury keeps Johnny Manziel from playing in the Browns' season finale, there were just seven quarters in which to judge the team's first-round quarterback.

  • 34 throws (35 if you count his one attempt early in the season in the Johnny Package)
  • 15 full drives
  • 18 completions
  • 68 plays
  • 10 three-play drives (nine three-and-outs, one resulting in an interception)
  • Two scoring drives
  • 12 first downs (three by penalty)
  • Two interceptions
  • One touchdown run
  • One field goal
  • And 175 passing yards

That’s 0.66 points and 0.8 first downs per drive. The Heisman Trophy-winning Manziel was hard to defend, but these numbers are just that.

The most important facts, however, are the first two listed above – drives and throws. There’s not enough information to make any sort of long-term determination. If going by the eye test, which many will do, Manziel needed to clean up his footwork and decision-making last week against Cincinnati and seemed to be doing some of that in Carolina, playing better despite missing on a few throws.

The Browns need to see whether Manziel can catch fire as a passer, and what he does when defenses douse that flame. They need to see how he handles a full offseason as the incumbent. They’ll need to see how he leads. They’ll need to see…everything.

What you can argue is this: Was he ready? That’s a fair question. After training camp and 14 NFL weeks, was he ready to be a starter or did he need the proverbial redshirt year?

Manziel’s four-week stretch complicates that answer. Either he wasn’t ready or he didn’t get enough reps to show he was.

“We’ve seen Johnny every day, all year; we know what Johnny’s capable of,” said wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who caught Manziel’s best pass of the day, a 28-yarder over the middle that Manziel delivered from the pocket. “He’s a great talent and can be a great quarterback in this league.”

The Buffalo game was the only glimpse into what Hawkins is saying. That’s why Manziel should stump for something else – the right to start against Baltimore. Rehab that hamstring and get back. There’s risk involved if Manziel struggles again, but ending with a good performance might quell some concerns within a reactionary fan base.

The stand-alone numbers won’t do that. The "Johnny Football" mystique is gone, and the only way to get it back is to answer the question those numbers present.

Is this who you are?
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Cleveland Browns have again gotten themselves into a sticky situation.

The result of the last month of the season, which has seen the Browns' record dip from 6-3 and 7-4 to a stumbling 7-8 after a 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers, is this: The Browns may have less clarity at the most important position on the team than they did before the season started.

Fifteen games ago, the Browns at least had Brian Hoyer starting the season coming off two wins in two full games in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonIn six quarters of play, Johnny Manziel hasn't done anything to suggest he'll be a successful starting QB in 2015.
Now they have Hoyer, who knows that the team really did not want him for the long run, and Johnny Manziel, who in his six quarters of play simply has not looked NFL-ready.

Do the Browns really believe that Manziel is the guy for '15 based on what they’ve seen?

If Manziel played that way in games, there’s little doubt that it's the way it went in practice. Manziel spent 14 games awaiting a chance, then looked like he just picked up the playbook that Monday.

Do the Browns revisit Hoyer and sign him before he becomes a free agent and spend many dollars to do so after they replaced him in 2014? Is it worth re-signing a guy they did not even commit to for 16 games?

Hoyer has struggled the past few games he has started as he's tried to win three games at once -- against himself, the looming presence of the phenom first-round pick and the other team.

How Hoyer has responded to the presence of Manziel will fairly be a factor in his evaluation. But to sell the idea that Manziel was more prepared to win was selling snake oil.

If Manziel played like he did with an entire training camp and preseason to prepare, well then, there’s trouble.

Barring a miraculous transformation, the ever-present possibility of a struggling Manziel and 5-11 record loom for next season.

It’s just a ridiculous mess, with visions of an offseason of adding Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace dancing in folks’ memory banks.

Manziel had one very nice throw in the loss to the Panthers, a stand-in-the-pocket, 28-yard completion to Andrew Hawkins on third down. Very nice play.

Other than that, he threw seven times, completed two passes and gained 4 yards. (The other first-round pick, Justin Gilbert, mainly watched as fourth-round pick Pierre Desir got the bulk of the playing time with Joe Haden out.)

The options for 2015 are not easy. Oregon QB Marcus Mariota probably will be drafted first, which means the Browns would have to give up all those first-round draft choices they have to get him -- assuming the team drafting first doesn’t want him. Only in Cleveland do folks talk of a near impossibility like Mariota as if it's a simple matter. Or, do the Browns want to bring Jameis Winston's off-the-field issues to the team?

The free agents? Hoyer is among them. Would Mark Sanchez be a step forward? Jake Locker? Blaine Gabbert? Do the Browns bring in a Matt Moore to back up Manziel and hope? Do they ponder Hoyer? And would Hoyer even re-sign with Cleveland?

There are so many questions that have grown the past few weeks, questions that should not be present after a 7-4 start. That kind of early-season play should have led to clarity.

But with the Cleveland Browns, there seems to be one annual tradition no matter who is in charge or involved: The season ends with uncertainty about next season’s quarterback.

It hasn’t gone on long.

Just the past 15
Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cleveland Browns' 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers:
  • Dansby
    Taking lumps: Karlos Dansby was asked after the game if the change in quarterbacks to Johnny Manziel had any kind of negative effect on the team. His response: "It’s what the coach decided to do, the organization decided to do. Once they made that move, we have to ride with it. Got to take our lumps in the process."
  • Speechless: Five weeks into a serious rut for the offense, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins still can’t quite figure out what’s changed with the offense (11.7 points per game during this four-game losing streak). The quarterback switch isn’t an excuse, Hawkins said, because the offense has to produce regardless. “Honestly, I can’t [explain it],” Hawkins said. “It’s a combination of things.”
  • Still optimism: Brian Hoyer points out the Browns still have a chance to finish 8-8. The franchise hasn't avoided a sub-.500 season since 2007. “The guys in that locker room, we’ve worked so hard and have to go out and finish this strong," Hoyer said.
  • Youth emerging: How about a shout-out for rookie Pierre Desir, who two weeks ago hadn’t logged one defensive snap. Against Carolina, because of injuries in the Browns' backfield, he played the entire game and acquitted himself well against Kelvin Benjamin, who finished with five catches for 47 yards. “It was a good matchup and I had fun out there,” Desir said.
  • Quote of note: “I’m laying on the ground just wondering if he’s gonna make it in.” –Hoyer, who got knocked to the ground on his 81-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Jordan Cameron.
  • Handoff that didn’t count: Defensive tackle Billy Winn said he protected the ball, rolled over and was “looking for a guy to give [the ball] to” on his interception that safety Jordan Poyer scooped up and ran back. A touchdown was overturned because Winn was declared down. “Obviously I’m not going to get up and run it in, so I was looking for a fast guy to give it to,” Winn said.

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

December, 21, 2014
Dec 21
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday:

What it means: The almost six quarters of Johnny Manziel were not a success. Manziel left with a hamstring injury late in the first half with one nice third-down throw to Andrew Hawkins and 4 yards passing on his other seven throws. The Browns seemed to try to tailor things to Manziel, but to little avail. He led a field goal drive in the first half, but two of his three full possessions ended after three plays.

Stock watch: Reading the Browns' quarterback spot at this point in time is like reading the stock market during the 2008 election: There’s no predicting. Manziel looked better than he did in his first start but still wasn’t terribly effective. Brian Hoyer came in and threw an 81-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Cameron but led a sputtering offense.

Designed run: Manziel was injured late in the first half on what looked like a designed run to the left. From an empty backfield, Manziel tucked the ball and immediately ran left. Hawkins was blocking, and the line blocked as if the run was designed. Clearly it looked like a run call by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly ran step for step with Manziel, and Kuechly and safety Colin Jones combined for a nasty hit on Manziel. The quarterback left the field with his head covered with a towel, and the news was relayed soon after that he had a hamstring injury.

“Johnny Numbers”: Manziel had the ball for three full possessions and one play of a fourth possession. He totaled 16 plays, completed 3 of 8 passes for 32 yards and had two runs for 3 yards. One of the completions was his best, on third down for 28 yards to Hawkins. On his possessions, the Browns had two first downs, one by penalty. In six quarters as the starter, Manziel has seven first downs, three by penalty.

Game ball: Cameron's fourth-quarter touchdown catch showed his value to the offense. Cameron can catch and run as well as most any other NFL tight end, and when he was not on the field this season because of his concussion, the offense suffered. Cameron's 81-yard score was the longest play by the Browns this season and the longest road touchdown reception by a Browns player since 1969, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

What’s next: The Browns conclude a season slowly slipping away next week against the Ravens in Baltimore. The Browns have one last chance to avoid a losing season for the first time since 2007.
The Cleveland Browns have acknowledged that Sunday did not go well for Johnny Manziel, but their public plan for addressing Manziel questions this week seems to be a strategic one.

Opt for a confidence boost over tough love.

This week's company line has been the entire offense must improve; that Manziel, despite struggling, didn't get the necessary help. This is coming from coach Mike Pettine, players and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who on Thursday said Manziel's a "real dude" who has the mental makeup to respond.

They've acknowledged Manziel looked indecisive at times, but that usually comes with the follow-up that the offense had similar problems.

Perhaps the tough love comes behind the scenes, but the Browns seem to recognize that now is the time for building Manziel up, not tearing him down.

This feels like a sound strategy -- the Browns had better hope it works.

Either Shanahan is an eternal optimist or he saw enough encouragement from Manziel through the nuances of studying the 38 offensive plays Sunday to suggest Manziel's problems are fixable.

Stepping into throws with conviction was Manziel's biggest issue, and Manziel has been earnest about improving in that area this week.

I said this three weeks ago and I'll say it again: It doesn't matter whether Manziel or Brian Hoyer are the quarterback if the Browns can't run the ball. Cleveland has hit its second run-game dry spell of the year, averaging 3.2 yards per carry in the last three weeks (242 yards on 75 tries).

That number is survivable if your offense is built on the pass. The Browns' offense is not.

The missed details in the running game are all around left guard Joel Bitonio. He sees guard-center double teams when it should be tackle-guard. He sees failure to account for a safety creeping up or "not quite making it to the linebacker" up the middle, he says.

This has been life for the Browns' offensive line, which Bitonio said actually graded out well Sunday. But when they missed assignments, they missed big.

"One play, one guy gets beat and it's a tackle for a loss, Then he does his job great and another guy gets beat -- it just looks terrible," Bitonio said. "We need to be on the same page every day...That’s the whole goal so Johnny has more time to be back there to throw the ball. We don’t want defenses teeing off."

For the factors Bitonio described, Pettine is right when he says it's "unfair" to judge Manziel on one game. But considering all the circumstances -- the timing, the Browns' chances at a winning season unraveling, the critics quick to bash -- now is the perfect time for the blocks to be tight, the tailbacks to be instinctive and Manziel's decisions to be crisp.
Tim Couch lived the struggles of a Cleveland Browns post-1999 quarterback.

Tuesday, he read the critical words of Bernie Kosar about the team's approach to the position (in an interview on WTAM-1100) and nodded.

"I thought everything he said was right," Couch said. "It's been a long 15 years of watching the same thing repeat itself over and over. The biggest that frustrates me is the lack of commitment and loyalty to let a coach see it out and a quarterback play it out."

Couch likes both quarterbacks on the team, roots for the Browns and speaks as an interested observer who has been through it.

He joined the league as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft. He struggled with the team the first two seasons, but improved in his third. By his fourth season he started 14 games and led the Browns to the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeCouch
Andy Lyons/Getty Images"I thought everything he said was right," said former Browns quarterback Tim Couch of Bernie Kosar's comments.
But he broke his leg in the 2002 season finale and watched as Kelly Holcomb threw for more than 400 yards in a playoff loss to Pittsburgh. The next season, he and Holcomb -- who remain friends -- were yo-yoed back and forth until Couch was released when the team signed Jeff Garcia. It was one of many experiments that didn't work.

He now follows the Browns closely from his home in Kentucky, and attended the game in Atlanta as a fan.

"You're never great every week," he said. "This is just repeating the same process of the last 15 years, like Bernie said. Whether it was me, Kelly or on and on and on, the finger keeps being pointed at the quarterback.

"It's the team. Build a team and then worry about the quarterback."

Couch even chuckled in a here-we-go-again way at the criticism Manziel has received after his debut.

"Johnny played one game, and granted it was awful, but most people are writing the kid off already," he said.

Couch said the Browns would have been better off committing to Brian Hoyer for the entire season after the win over Atlanta.

"Every quarterback has ups and downs, no matter who it is," he said. "It's a tough league."

He said commiting to Hoyer after the Falcons would have put to bed all the talk and speculation. Without commitment, the pressure can be suffocating, something he said he was unaware of when he played but he understands now that he looks back at his playing days.

"I think Brian is a pretty good player," Couch said. "A solid player. Given the right situation I think he could be a really good player. Put him on a team with a defense around him and solid running game and weapons on the outside, I think he can be a good player.

"I was totally on board with Hoyer. He made such good decisions for so long. He was accurate. All that changed when the pressure mounted on him. He didn't play well the last month, and you can't get away from that.

"But I think it was the result of other influences creeping in on him."

Couch said he felt the same influences.

"Everyone expects a certain amount from you," he said. "It weighs on you when you don't have success. Then doubts creep in. You start to question yourself. And you can't do that at that level.

"Everybody says block it out, but that's just not reality. …It's almost like every throw I made I felt like I had to prove to everyone ‘This is why I was the No. 1 pick.' You don't realize it until you look back.

"I think that's kind of what got Brian a little bit, to be honest. He felt like he was playing for his job every week. If he missed an open wide receiver or threw an interception it got worse. That kind of pressure can eat away at you slowly over time."

Couch said that there was no way Manziel could live up to half his hype, and that his spot in his first start was as difficult as Hoyer's.

"I completely expected him to struggle," Couch said, "not to the degree that he did, but to struggle. I thought there might be flashes of plays, where you think, 'Whoa, unbelieveable.' That he'd extend a play and hit a guy. None of that happened.

"But I still definitely expected him to struggle. The situation, the playoffs, Cincinnati's defense is good, they do things to confuse you. It was tough to watch him and see how frustrated he was. He had only been used to success, but this was a different game."

Couch added he likes coach Mike Pettine a great deal, but he believes Pettine and many of the team's veterans think Hoyer gives the team the best chance to win. He also thinks there was front office influence to play Manziel, though that is his opinion and not from any inside source. (Pettine said "absolutely not" when asked if there was any pressure from ownership or the business side.)

Now, Couch said, the rest of the season is about evaluating Manziel.

"It's never going to consistently work when you're just plugging in guys," Couch said. "You're never going to have consistent success."
BEREA, Ohio -- One week ago the Cleveland Browns made a quarterback decision based, they said, on what gave the team the best chance to win.

After Johnny Manziel had a historically bad day in a 30-0 loss to the Bengals, that stance has changed.

Now, Manziel, in the words of coach Mike Pettine, “gives us an opportunity to win.”

The same really could be said of Connor Shaw, the team’s practice squad quarterback. Though obviously there are levels of opportunity.

Pettine will work like mad to win the final two games, and he’ll play the hyped rookie that the team decided to draft 22nd overall, but he makes it sound like he’s doing it almost by default.

Pettine stood by Brian Hoyer for longer than many would have given the celebrated player behind him. When the offense did next to nothing to win a winnable game against the Indianapolis Colts, the Browns coach flipped the switch. Then the Manziel-led offense did next to nothing to beat Cincinnati, and the reasons given were the same as they were for Hoyer -- nobody helped, have to play better around him, too much on the quarterback. And on and on.

The Bengals game could hardly have gone worse.

Manziel looked like a junior high school kid trying to play a professional team.

Manziel did not read well, played without confidence and had the jitters. In short, he played the way his critics said he would play as he made the transition to the pros. Manziel had 11 weeks to watch, learn and assimilate, and he looked like a player signed six days before his first start.

He did do much better against Buffalo when he was thrown into the game. That’s the hook on which to hang a hat. He did show it against the Bills -- though he also had that fumble that was inexplicably ruled an incomplete pass as well.

Sunday was a debacle. To present him as NFL ready in that game was an insult.

Why it went wrong is up for debate. Pettine said nobody in the building saw it coming, and they’re having a hard time wrapping their minds around it.

Perhaps the team let down, perhaps Manziel wasn’t ready, perhaps the Bengals were inspired, perhaps it was a bad day, perhaps Manziel is not an NFL quarterback, or perhaps Manziel was not fully preparing to play while he was the backup. Maybe it’s some or all or none of those reasons. Maybe the moon was in the seventh house.

Pettine deserved the benefit of the doubt when he made the decision. The Colts loss was excruciating. It almost seemed that Pettine had held off the wolves howling for Manziel as long as he could, and he couldn’t do it anymore. He had made a lot of sensible decisions during the season, so to question or rip him for the change in quarterbacks before Manziel even played seemed a tad unfair.

Monday, though, Pettine said there will be doubts if Manziel plays better, and more doubts if he doesn't. He talked about Manziel being effective “running the cards” in practice and on the few reps he got. That means he ran the other team’s offense off cards to help the Browns defense get a look at the opposing offense. As for reps, Hoyer came from the Tom Brady school, so he took the vast majority of the reps. Which means Manziel got most of his work in half-speed work off cards.

Factor in that the Browns revamped a lot of the offense with Manziel. Some say it was to help him find his “comfort zone,” others say it was because the Browns don’t trust Manziel to stand in the pocket and make a throw.

Either way the game was a Browns-level-since-1999 disaster. To the point that it actually raised questions that probably shouldn’t be raised after one game -- except for the past 15 years very few rookies who initially struggled for the Browns turned into Brian Sipe or Bernie Kosar.

If the Manziel experiment -- which has been quirky from the get-go -- does not work out, Cleveland is back to Square Zero at the most important position on the team. The good that has been built with seven wins will be offset by another offseason and 2015 season filled with uncertainty about the quarterback.

As for the rest of this season, Carolina and Baltimore are both in playoff chases. They’re both playing at home.

It’s tough to see things improving by leaps and bounds before this season ends.

CLEVELAND -- The Cincinnati Bengals reminded Sunday that money signs and jersey sales aren’t enough. The NFL is about cold, hard cash, which for NFL quarterbacks means making tough throws into tight windows.

Cleveland Browns QB Johnny Manziel's progression in the league was never about the Johnny Football persona, but about becoming a quarterback in order to complement the other things he does well.

That’s still possible, even if the haze from Sunday clouds the fact like a gray Cleveland winter sky.

After watching back Manziel’s successful series against the Buffalo Bills and reviewing the Cincinnati game, here’s what we know: Buffalo clearly hadn’t game-planned for Manziel and gave him space to operate on the perimeter, whereas Cincinnati cut that off, stopped the running game and forced Manziel to make plays from the pocket. That’s where the trouble began.

Time for adjustments. There's no turning back.

Here’s how Manziel and the Browns might help each other starting Sunday at Carolina.
  • Manziel
    When someone's open, "let it rip": Create quick, safe throws for Manziel to make so that when he's inside the pocket, he’s not treading water. His first interception Sunday, on the throw to the sideline intended for Andrew Hawkins, was a good example. If Manziel reads that a second earlier, that’s a nice gain. But he hesitated, then didn’t put enough on the throw, and Dre Kirkpatrick undercut it. Watch Manziel’s Chick-fil-A Bowl performance last season against Duke (college is different, I know) and you’ll see Manziel can rip it toward the sideline. He has arm strength when in rhythm and decisive. He needs to show it. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan told the media Thursday he hopes Manziel "lets it rip" when someone’s open. Manziel should heed that advice against Carolina.
  • Know when to throw it away: That ugly across-the-body interception in the end zone could have been an easy toss out of bounds to set up a field goal, avoiding the shutout and giving at least some life to the Browns entering halftime.
  • Clean up the zone read: The Browns didn’t run the zone read a bunch, but they had a few opportunities off it and didn’t capitalize. On Manziel’s first sack, he kept the ball when Isaiah Crowell had an opening to the right side. That left the Browns in another third-and-long, which rookies usually can’t overcome.
  • Clean up mechanics: Manziel was showing good arm strength in pregame warmups but didn’t during the game. I’m no scout, but it seemed fairly obvious his footwork was not clean for a portion of the Bengals game. Clean that up, step into throws with confidence and maybe the Browns can improve.
  • Take a few more shots: Manziel throws a decent deep ball, but the Browns didn’t take any shots. Yes, Josh Gordon is struggling. But a lofty pass to him, either in the red zone or deeper downfield, allows him to use his size and strength. It’s an easy call for him. Run straight and jump. Don’t overthink it.
  • Create bailout options with tight ends and running backs: Terrance West has had his struggles, but he could be a reliable pass catcher in this offense. Give Manziel an easy screen outlet when the pocket collapses.
  • Have amnesia: Pretend Sunday never happened. Watch the game video, learn from it, then burn it. Burn it to a crisp.
CLEVELAND -- Random thoughts following the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-0 drubbing of the Cleveland Browns on Sunday:

  • Coach Mike Pettine said he chose Johnny Manziel because it gave the Browns the best chance to win. He added that Manziel had been getting better in practice, which is not open to the media. The last time anyone other than the team saw Manziel was late in preseason. What the coaching staff saw that led them to believe the Browns' best chance to win was Manziel will remain a great mystery of 2014.
  • [+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
    Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsDespite not facing many Bengals blitzes, Johnny Manziel was on the run for much of Sunday's game.
    Manziel, in the words of his coach, looked and played like a rookie. No argument on that one. He looked like every other Browns rookie who had struggled since 1999. Worse than some, better than a few, but like a rookie.
  • Read the words without the name and Manziel in his postgame news conference sounded a lot like Brian Hoyer after losses. “It’s going to take time. It’s a process for sure.” … “I never felt overwhelmed or that it was too much for me.” … “It’s an all-around team thing.” … “It’s tough for a young guy to come in and get accustomed to this league.” … “Even the guys who play their best every week come out and struggle at times.”
  • This was not a struggle, though. It was a diplodocus egg in the middle of FirstEnergy Stadium. Manziel said he never felt the game was too difficult for him. Hate to see a game that is truly difficult.
  • The Browns' run defense was as disappointing as Manziel. Cincinnati ran through and over the Browns' defense, totaling 244 yards. Nine teams since 1999 have run for more on the Browns. Only 29 teams have topped that mark since the Browns joined the NFL in 1950.
  • Would the Browns have been better off had Pettine simply stated after the Atlanta game that Hoyer was the quarterback the rest of the season? The benefit: It would have removed doubt and allowed the team to concentrate on winning and the playoffs. With the situation lingering, doubt crept in, which affected Hoyer. The negative: Hoyer had to play better. Still, it’s hard to imagine a 30-0 loss with Hoyer playing.
  • ESPN Stats & Information produced a wealth of insight into Manziel’s game. Among the analytics: Manziel left the pocket on 10 of his 24 dropbacks (41.6 percent). The NFL average is 10 percent. He was 2-of-7 with an interception out of the pocket, and is 3-for-11 for the season.
  • The Stats folks also pointed out that the Bengals blitzed twice on 24 passes. Only eight times did teams have a lower blitz percentage this season. So … it’s not as if the Bengals were throwing the house at Manziel.
  • They also got one one-handed sack, which came from observation, not analysis.
  • The Browns had five first downs, two by penalty. Which means the offense generated three. Any time a quarterback is used in the same sentence with Spergon Wynn on a comparison level, it’s not good.
  • Manziel’s 27.3 rating was the 23rd lowest by a Browns quarterback since the team returned in 1999. That’s in 254 games. It’s also the lowest since Ken Dorsey posted a 27.2 rating in a shutout loss to the Bengals in 2008.
  • The Browns have been shut out 13 times since 1999. This was the first since a November 2009 loss to the Ravens.
  • If nothing else, Manziel’s experience in his first start shows how difficult it is to win games in the NFL. Talent and hype and hope amount to nothing when there’s a bunch of professional defenders on the other side of the ball.
  • The Browns had been playing to win games. Judgments were made on what would give the team the best chance to win. With the playoff chances now miniscule, the judgment no longer is about winning. It’s about evaluating the quarterback position.
  • Wake me if you’ve heard this story before.
CLEVELAND -- There are bad losses and there are painful losses.

But in Johnny Manziel's first start, the Cleveland Browns put an historic loss on the field, up there with the worst of the many historic Browns losses since the team returned to the field in 1999. It came in a big game, at a time when a much-hyped quarterback was supposed to give a spark as Cleveland made a final playoff push.

All the talk all week was Manziel this and Manziel that. But everyone forgot that the other team has a say, and those with the Browns who felt Manziel would give the Browns a better chance to win have some seriously bad numbers to digest following a 30-0 loss Sunday.

Among them:
  • SportsNation

    What is Johnny Manziel's NFL future?


    Discuss (Total votes: 81,036)

    The Browns were shut out for the first time since November 2009.
  • Manziel becomes the sixth quarterback in the last 20 years to be shut out in his first start, and the first since Rusty Smith of Tennessee in 2010. The others: Dave Ragone of Houston (2003), Henry Burris of Chicago (2002), Spergon Wynn of Cleveland (2000) and Danny Wuerffel of New Orleans (1997).
  • Manziel is the 21st starting quarterback for the Browns since 1999, and the fifth to be shut out in his first start. The others: Ty Detmer in the first game back in ’99, Bruce Gradkowski, Wynn and Doug Pederson. Pederson and Gradkowski joined the Browns the week before starting because of injuries to the starter.
  • The offense had more than 100 yards for the day only because the Bengals scored a touchdown with 30 seconds left. The Browns got a final play with 18 seconds left and Manziel threw a slip screen for nine yards.
  • To that point, the offense had the ball nine times, and had seven three-play possessions. Three of those were for negative yards.
  • The Browns ran 38 offensive plays, the fewest by any team this season and fewest by the Browns since Week 1 of 1999, when they ran 28 plays against the Steelers in a 43-0 loss.

Manziel’s final numbers speak for themselves: 10-for-18 for 80 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions (and another called back). His rating: 27.3, which is just above the number of times Bengals defenders gave Manziel his signature money move. It probably looked worse than the numbers show, too, as there were times Manziel was simply overmatched by the speed and strength of the players he faced.

His play was such that coach Mike Pettine admitted he would not fall on the "I have to see the film" bromide.

"Looked like a rookie, played like a rookie," Pettine said.

True that.

But to pin all this on Manziel is not totally fair, because this was as bad a team effort as the Browns have had in a long time. Manziel's contributions were minimal, but so were the rest of the team’s.

The Browns chafed at rookie Jeremy Hill chortling at them after the Browns won the first game in Cincinnati, when Hill said the Browns weren’t that good. Hill ran over, through and around them for 148 yards.

The running game totaled 53 yards and averaged 3.1 per carry, the offensive line did not protect, Manziel did not read the field and, well, the Browns lost by 30 in a game the Bengals quarterback barely had to work.

It’s not a new show in Cleveland.

The Browns since 1999 have fed the "next great thing" monster as well as any team in the league. It’s fueled by impatience and the constant change and rebuilding that have whoever is in charge feeling they can find the next "savior."

Pettine fought it off as long as he could, but even he gave in and started Manziel. Based on the game it’s hard to say what Manziel showed in practice to breed belief that he gave the team its best chance to win. It sure did not appear on Sunday.

Perhaps Manziel will be the one to change things. Pettine said nobody should judge him on one game. But he has some ignominious company in the negative marks he set

After the game, Manziel talked of the situation not being overwhelming for him or too difficult, visual evidence to the contrary.

He talked of building something positive for next season.

He talked of learning and wiping it away.

Of the confidence the team had in drafting him.

But as he spoke the ghosts of Browns quarterbacks past floated by (a shadowy Brandon Weeden, a glum Brady Quinn), all chained by expectation and futility.

Meanwhile, the Bengals laughed all the way back to Cincinnati. Because they are the team in first place in the AFC North, while the Browns again are a team wondering what in the heck just hit them.

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

December, 14, 2014
Dec 14

CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 30-0 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium:

What it means: The Browns keep believing in the next great thing, and over and over they are let down. Sunday against Cincinnati it was Johnny Manziel's turn to be the seventh rookie to start a game since 1999 and the seventh to lose. He got little help from anyone, but he did little to help himself, as the Bengals looked like a team on a mission to embarrass the Browns' highly hyped rookie. They succeeded on almost every level.

Stock watch: Now what at the quarterback position? It's hard to argue against the fact that Brian Hoyer took the fall for a lot of bad play around him, given the help Manziel got Sunday, but going back to Hoyer doesn't help evaluate Manziel. The Browns have gone from leaving Cincinnati and moving into first place to watching the Bengals knock them (for all intents and purposes) out of the playoffs.

Walk the walk: The Browns talked big about Jeremy Hill's words after the first game. After Cleveland won, Hill said the Browns weren't that good. The Browns called him names and said he was immature and all that stuff. Then they let Hill run down their throats. Hill had more than 100 yards -- in the first half alone.

Thin at corner: The Browns lost Joe Haden to a shoulder injury and Justin Gilbert to a concussion during the game. They started without K'Waun Williams. That left them with two corners as the game wound down -- Buster Skrine and rookie Pierre Desir, getting his first significant playing time

Ouch: The Browns were shut out for the first time since a November 2009 loss to Baltimore.

Game ball: Merril Hoge of ESPN has been a constant critic of Manziel since the day the Browns drafted him. Before the game, Hoge said that Manziel had first-round hype and sixth-round talent. Given the fact that nobody on the Browns bothered to show up, and given the way the offense and Manziel played, nobody had a better day than Hoge, whose bold stance was on point.

What's next: The Browns finish with consecutive games on the road. The first is Sunday in Carolina against the Panthers.
BEREA, Ohio — The major intrigue with Johnny Manziel’s first start Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals obviously goes well beyond who wins the game.

But the intrigue is simply because there’s intrigue, because everyone from Jim Brown to the team’s coach said they are eager to see what Manziel can do.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SportsNobody knows what they'll see on Sunday from Johnny Manziel -- they just know they want to watch.
“None of us can say we truly know,” Brown said Friday.

The team has seen Manziel in practice, but the only experience the team has with Manziel going full speed was against Buffalo, when the Browns were down 17.

The Bengals' defense has not played well this season and has given up a lot of yards to running quarterbacks. But the Bengals also have had a week to prepare for Manziel.

“The whole world will find out Sunday,” defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said.

Catching up on other items Browns:

  • O’Neil said this as a coordinator facing a guy as quick and nimble as Manziel: “I’m glad I don’t have to defend it. It could be a major headache.”
  • One might guess the Bengals approach will be to “mush rush” and keep ends wide. The mush rush was passed on through Bill Belichick by an ex-Browns broadcaster, the late Casey Coleman. It refers to keeping the tackles in position in front of the quarterback, with ends wide to protect the scramble. That approach dares Manziel to win the game with his arm.
  • Inside linebacker Craig Robertson was the Browns' nominee for the annual Walter Payton Award, given to recognize a player’s community service efforts.
  • Mike Pettine said this about Bengals rookie Jeremy Hill saying the Browns were not that good after the 24-3 Browns win in Cincinnati: “Rookies are inherently … fill in the blank.”
  • It’s worth remember that in 2012, Robert Griffin III was injured and rookie Kirk Cousins started for the Washington Redskins against the Browns in a Redskins playoff season. Cousins played extremely well and Washington won 38-21. His offensive coordinator in the game: Kyle Shanahan, now with the Browns.
  • Shanahan on how working with Cousins helped him with Manziel: “I feel like the main thing you want to do is make [the quarterback] feel confident. Try to give him stuff that he knows, stuff that he can execute and allow the guy to just play.”
  • puts the Browns playoff chances at 6.5 percent, with a 2.6 percent chance of winning the division. The Steelers have the highest percentage of winning the division at 37.6 percent.
  • Bengals DE Wallace Gilberry on Manziel’s mania, via Bengals reporter Coley Harvey: “That’s just who he is. The kid has a personality. And that has nothing to do with football. We understand that. I could care less about how he parties or who he parties with. That’s his business.”
  • From ESPN Stats & Information: Manziel has left the pocket on six of his 11 dropbacks. He’s 1-for-4 passing for 12 yards on those plays, but has 13 yards and a touchdown on two runs. That means in the pocket, he’s 4-for-5 for 51 yards.
  • The Browns have lost their last nine games in December and January, the longest streak in the NFL. Their last win in the final two months was over Kansas City on Dec. 9, 2012.
  • The Bengals' final three opponents have won 64.1 percent of their games. That gives them the second-toughest schedule in the league for the final three games.
BEREA, Ohio -- In a season when the Browns have channeled the best and worst of their past, it's only fitting the quarterback for the final three games uses unpredictability as a benchmark.

"Who knows what will happen," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "That's why everybody's excited to see what he does."

That includes Shanahan, whose spotlight mushrooms for the Browns' final three games as he aims to draw the best out of Johnny Manziel. Shanahan gave no indications that he wants to restrain Manziel. He wants him reacting and, if someone's open, he hopes he "lets it rip." He's not trying to change Manziel.

[+] EnlargeKyle Shanahan and Johnny Manziel
AP Photo/Mark DuncanKyle Shanahan (left) doesn't want to restrain Johnny Manziel's instinctive playmaking ability.
"I want him to be himself," Shanahan said. "It’s gotten him a lot of success in the the past. I definitely don’t want to be the one to take that away.”

The last time Shanahan had a mobile quarterback starting his first three NFL games, Robert Griffin III completed 60-of-89 passes (67.4 percent) for 747 yards, four passing touchdowns and 198 rushing yards for three additional scores during that stretch.

The Redskins started 1-2 in 2012, but their quarterback was validating the foyer full of first-round picks the franchise gave up to draft Griffin. That feels like galaxies ago as Griffin is now buried on the Redskins' depth chart.

Shanahan isn't here to compare Griffin with Manziel. But he's shown he can do a few things with athletic quarterbacks.

Shanahan spent the better part of his Thursday news conference pumping up his new quarterback.

"Some of the plays [Manziel] makes, you don’t see a lot of people do," Shanahan siad. "Every coach is excited about a guy who can make plays."

Maybe Shanahan knows something we don't after watching Manziel take first-team reps this week. Maybe he's trying to instill confidence in a young player. Maybe he knows, for a small window, a mobile quarterback with a big arm can tear it up.

Whatever the reason, Shanahan knows Sunday will probably frustrate and satisfy him -- possibly all in the same play.

"I’m sure it’s going to happen pretty fast -- you call a pass play and he’ll do six spins, reverse it back and forth outside the pocket, and I’ll hold my breath and be yelling half the time," said Shanahan about Manziel's improvisational football. "Then I'll probably be running and jumping on top of him excited at the end of it."

The approach from Shanahan is clear -- he wants Manziel playing instinctually, not robotically. That's why the Browns could tailor plays around the running game and give Manziel some play-action looks. Let him throw on the move a few times to find a rhythm.

Shanahan points out Manziel is "very capable" of going through his progressions from the pocket.

"When that ball is snapped, I don’t want him thinking about coaching points," Shanahan said. "I don’t want him thinking about how the play is supposed to be. I want him reacting. Hopefully when someone’s open, he reacts and lets it rip."

Balancing playmaking with sound football will be Manziel's great challenge in Cleveland.

Shanahan plays just as important a role in that process as Manziel does.
BEREA, Ohio — Marvin Lewis’ apology for a very poor choice of words when talking about Johnny Manziel does not change this reality: Lewis is a veteran coach who seemed to show the feelings of many in the NFL toward a celebrated rookie who has yet to accomplish anything in the pros.

Though he apologized for using the word “midget,” when Lewis referred to Manziel’s height, it was not stated as a compliment.

It was almost dismissive, as if to say: You think we’re going to re-do our entire defensive approach for a guy who can’t see over the tackle?

Lewis has had his verbal gaffes this season, but he’s not exactly a coach known for stirring controversy.

Browns coach Mike Pettine admitted that taunts and barbs are something Manziel should expect. It comes from being the guy whose nickname is the sport he plays. And it comes from a guy giving his signature celebration on the stage after he was the 22nd pick in the draft.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel has a lot to prove in the NFL, and he'll have to develop a think skin because of the hype surrounding him.
Not the first, not the second … the 22nd.

The Washington Redskins gave Manziel a face-full of money-sign in preseason and an earful of verbal abuse. He responded with an obscene gesture caught on national TV that drew the ire of his coach.

Two things seem to be taking place. First is the hype and hoopla that Manziel takes wherever he goes. He is somewhat responsible for that — he doesn’t exactly hide from Instagram — but so is a culture that is obsessed with celebrity.

Pettine admits that Manziel has to deal with what he’s created, and what has been created around him. Other players and other teams are well aware he’s in headline after headline and that he was the only backup quarterback to hold a weekly gathering with the media.

It can breed resentment.

That is reality for Manziel.

Another reality is the NFL culture that does not exactly look favorably on those who garner publicity before achievement. The league will respect Manziel if he does well, but until he does, he’s another rookie quarterback who has to prove himself.

That is true for all rookies — but especially true for rookies who are hyped the way Manziel is.

The knock on Manziel when he was drafted was that he was a college quarterback whose style would not translate to the pros. The NFL’s best passers are largely tall, stand-in-the-pocket guys; those are not Manziel’s perceived strengths.

He could be the one to break the mold, but until he does, he’s just another hyped rookie trying to make a living.

When Manziel has been around the team, he acts like any other teammate. He laughs, jokes and interacts like a normal player, which makes all the “what is he like with the team” questions kind of silly.

But on the periphery, Manziel was caught laughing on the sidelines with the Browns way down against Tennessee, was involved in a brouhaha in the lobby of his condominium in the wee hours the day the team flew to an away game, was seated courtside at a Cavs game when the Browns were deciding on a quarterback starter and gave the money sign after his first NFL touchdown, with the Browns losing.

None is a big deal. Taken together, though, other teams and players could look and use it as fodder to remind Manziel he’s a rookie making his first start.

He has the chance to answer all the criticism on Sunday.

But it seems pretty clear that within the league, there is a healthy amount of cynicism about Mr. Football.