Browns Need Hoyer to Get Them Through a Few Weeks, Then It's Manziel's Team

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterAugust 18, 2014

Andrew Weber/USA Today

This can't be stressed enough: Cleveland Browns players like Johnny Manziel. A lot. 

They respect his knowledge and ability to learn the Browns offense. Quickly.

At Texas A&M, the verbiage was simple. As he demonstrated in a broadcast interview with ESPN's Jon Gruden, the verbiage in the Browns offense is far more complicated. One play, Manziel said, was called this: "Pistol trips left off fake 19 one dash sit keep right Y corner Z slide."

The theory of relativity contains less complicated language.

Players reiterated that Manziel is among the fastest learners they have ever seen. He's evolved into a leader that teammates respect. They see him as the future of that franchise.

The future, but not the present.

According to several players, the vast majority of the Cleveland locker room is solidly in Brian Hoyer's corner.

One Browns player, who has spoken to me regularly since Manziel-mania started, told me several weeks ago that the locker room was split 50-50 on who guys wanted to start at QB. He thought it was mostly veterans backing Hoyer and younger players supporting Manziel.

Yet, he now feels things have dramatically shifted. He believes it's nearly 100 percent in support of Hoyer. Why the change? The player explained that Hoyer has earned his shot. But also, the players believe that while Manziel provides potential, what's needed to get through Cleveland's brutal start to the season—against the Pittsburgh Steelers and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the New Orleans Saints and the Baltimore Ravens—is steadiness.

To players, Hoyer is ahead in that regard. To them, he has always been ahead. To them, he gives Cleveland the best chance to win. To me, they're right.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

I think Hoyer has to totally fall apart in Monday's preseason game against the Washington Redskins in order for Manziel to start.

(There is just one caveat to that statement. More on that in a moment.)

Coach Mike Pettine said this Sunday:

Johnny has definitely closed the gap. But Brian has gone out and done his job. There were a couple of throws he had in the game he'd like to have back, but that was his first live game back after the knee injury. That's not easy. I thought he was very poised, very (confident). I've heard people say when you have two quarterbacks, you don't have any. That's laughable to me. When you have two quarterbacks, you have two quarterbacks.

It's reasonable to assume that many of the Browns' games will be close. My belief is that Cleveland's defense will be one of the top five in football.

You read that right.

So there's two ways to think of Hoyer-Manziel. Manziel's ability to run could dramatically shift those close games in the Browns' favor. That's one. Or, because Manziel is a rookie, chances of a big mistake against LeBeau's defense are higher than his potential. You play the percentages, and odds are Hoyer will make fewer mistakes.

If Manziel starts against Pittsburgh, he will be a bug on the windshield. No, these aren't the Steelers of the 1970s, but they are still dangerous, and they still have LeBeau. The only greater defensive mind in football today is Bill Belichick, who might be the best defensive-coaching presence ever.

LeBeau versus a rookie quarterback isn't a fair fight.

Consider that LeBeau is 17-2 against rookie throwers since 2004.

It's true that most of those quarterbacks he beat were absolutely awful. Other than Eli Manning, names like Kyle Orton, Charlie Frye, Bruce Gradkowski, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy and Blaine Gabbert populate that list. Just reading those names makes you want to punch yourself in the face.

It's also true that LeBeau had his ass kicked in the playoffs by Tim Tebow, who couldn't hit a barn with a Stinger missile, but that loss was more about LeBeau's arrogance and his belief that, well, Tebow couldn't hit a barn with a Stinger missile. He refused to adapt when Tebow was actually throwing some strikes. LeBeau wouldn't make that same mistake against Manziel.

It was laughable when LeBeau recently praised Manziel, per's Scott Brown:

I'm not coaching Cleveland. I don't know what they're going to do. I'm just telling you what I'm doing. I'm taking a good look at [Manziel], let's put it that way. ...

... He makes plays and he was playing against some real talented athletes in [the SEC]. From what I could see, they were getting up there around 45, 50 points per game, so your quarterback's got to be doing something right. And he can keep the play alive.

No, Dick. Not gonna fall for the banana in the tailpipe trick. LeBeau is praising Manziel hoping the Browns are dumb enough to start him so LeBeau can clean his clock.

The caveat in this decision is Browns ownership. The worst-kept secret in football is that owner Jimmy Haslam and members of the front office have a great deal of influence in the starting quarterback decision. The Browns don't resemble, say, the New York Giants, where Tom Coughlin has autonomy on who starts for the team he's coaching.

Haslam has a little bit of Jerry Jones in his personality, and that's not necessarily a good thing. Ownership should never have a say in who starts, because there is no way it has as much information as the coaches. But make no mistake: Haslam will have a significant say no matter how much the Browns want to publicly deny it.

So here we are, at another crucial moment in the Manziel-Hoyer battle. Manziel will again look good because preseason is garbage, and a scrambling quarterback always has a chance to impress against vanilla defenses that won't be seriously game-planning for him.

And Hoyer will do what he does. He will look solid. He won't be Johnny Unitas, but he will do one of the most important things in football—not make a lot of mistakes.

We'll be watching. So will LeBeau.


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.