Rookie Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden isn't expected to play on Sunday in the season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers after suffering a shoulder injury in last week's loss to the Denver Broncos.
Though it doesn't look like his backup, Colt McCoy, will take the field, either, putting to bed any potential for a quarterback controversy (McCoy also injured his shoulder in the game, and third-stringer Thaddeus Lewis looks like he will get the start; the team also brought on free-agent quarterback Josh Johnson) immediately, it doesn't mean Weeden's job is safe in his sophomore season.
It's quite the auspicious ending for what has been a heavily-scrutinized first year for Weeden, the now 29-year-old first-round pick. No Browns player in recent memory—except for maybe McCoy—has been so polarizing among the Cleveland faithful, and with the team on the verge of a spate of dramatic coaching changes, it's possible the new staff might be just as torn about Weeden.
Among the rookie quarterbacks this season, Weeden, therefore, has the least job security. He also didn't do a lot to further his cause on the field; however, that cannot all be attributed to him. For all of the public gushing that head coach Pat Shurmur did regarding Weeden's abilities prior to the draft, he still pegged him as a perfect fit for his West Coast-style system rather than adapting that system to Weeden's strengths.
Weeden's season will end with him completing 297 of his 517 pass attempts—a 57.4 completion percentage—for 3,305 yards, 14 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Those aren't the most impressive numbers—in fact, his overall performance has resulted in Pro Football Focus naming Weeden their lowest-ranked quarterback this season—but the reasons for that are the real story.
When it comes to this year's rookie quarterback class, it's best to compare Weeden to the "big three," the other passers who were taken in the first round: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill.
Both Tannehill and Griffin have completed more of their passes, with Griffin having a 63.4 percent completion rate, and Tannehill, 58.2; Luck's completion percentage is 54.3. Those numbers, however, are all pretty comparable when taken in concert with how many passes each quarterback has thrown.
Of these four quarterbacks, only Luck has attempted more passes at 599. Griffin has thrown the fewest, at 375 (the Redskins have had a stellar run game this season, which has required Griffin to throw fewer passes, though he's knocking it out of the ballpark when it comes to his touchdown-to-interception count of 25 scores and 10 picks); Luck has thrown the most at 599.
Tannehill has tossed 450 passes and has the most comparable season to Weeden's, with 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. And Luck's 21 scores to 18 interceptions aren't too far off from Weeden's numbers considering he's thrown 82 more passes than Cleveland's rookie.
Ultimately, Weeden's rookie season looks like just that—a rookie one. Few quarterbacks come into the NFL as first-year starters and immediately dominate the competition. The Colts reaching the playoffs and the Redskins on the verge of doing the same are nearly unprecedented feats for rookie-led offenses and cannot be used as a valid measuring stick for Weeden's first season.
Further, there are other ways that he could have had a better season, and many of those were beyond his control. Griffin's interceptions were held in check by keeping his passes at a minimum, as well as by all the running his offense was successfully doing. Without much running to be had, Luck threw more, and though his completion percentage was lower than Weeden's, his touchdowns were higher because he was aided out by a proven veteran receiver in Reggie Wayne.
Weeden's receiver situation was far less beneficial, especially at the start of the season. Fellow rookie Josh Gordon had yet to enter the starting rotation, Greg Little was still hampered by his drops issues, Mohamed Massaquoi couldn't remain healthy and tight end Jordan Cameron failed to work away his rawness.
Despite this, Weeden was still asked to throw a great number of passes—the 11th-most of any quarterback, resulting in the 18th-most yards. The Browns could have had themselves a run game nearly as successful as the Redskins, what with having first-round rookie Trent Richardson on the roster as well as Montario Hardesty, who has been surprisingly healthy. Though Richardson has dealt first with recovery from minor knee surgery and then a rib injury, the Browns still were less committed to the run than their roster depth should have otherwise called for.
It is not as though the Browns were being blown out week after week—rather, the opposite was the case, with most of their games being close and with Cleveland even heading into fourth quarters with leads. Running would have put less pressure on Weeden and would have helped his stat line—especially where interceptions and incompletions were concerned.
All of these things will likely be taken into account by Cleveland's (likely) new coaching staff. The key will be whether or not those who take over the game planning think that Weeden is capable of improvement and whether they can install a system that is tailored to him, rather than trying to tailor Weeden to their system.
That's not to say there won't be more of a real competition once camps open in the spring. McCoy will probably get an extended look by the new coaching staff while they evaluate what they are working with, and the same should also be the case for either or both of Johnson or Lewis, depending on who stays and who goes.
Just because the Browns will again end their season well below .500 doesn't mean that Weeden is solely to blame or that it's time to go on the hunt for a new starting quarterback for the ninth time since 1999. There are limitations to Weeden's game, but the goal should be to minimize them in his sophomore season rather than to assume he can never improve.
Though it seems, at first glance, that it will be hard for Weeden to sell himself to the new coaching staff—what with coaches wanting always to install "their" guys at key positions, and so on—it's more likely a requirement for the new head coach and/or offensive coordinator to buy in on Weeden. Weeden hasn't done much this year, but that doesn't mean he cannot do more, and that will be the primary reason he likely has a future in Cleveland once 2013 begins.
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