It was billed as the ultimate audition for Johnny Manziel. The last chance he'd have to prove himself before head coach Mike Pettine anointed his starting quarterback for 2014.
Both Manziel and veteran Brian Hoyer were slated to get equal reps with the first-team offense against Washington's first-team defense, per The Associated Press, via USA Today. With all else equal, the two quarterbacks would have equal opportunity to stake their claim.
So it was: Both quarterbacks got an equally terrible opportunity, and neither did anything with it.
Their Browns teammates could barely manage to line up correctly, and withered under the heat brought by Washington's pass-rushers. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's attempt to establish Ben Tate and the running game left few chances for the quarterbacks to test their arms.
Now, going into the all-important third preseason game, the so-called dress rehearsal, Pettine and the Browns don't know anything about Hoyer or Manziel they didn't know before this preseason Monday Night Football contest.
If the idea was to set up a red-carpet gala for the premier of the Johnny Football Show, Pettine, Shanahan and the Browns did just about everything wrong.
If the idea was to reaffirm Hoyer as the starter and Manziel as a project still under wraps, Pettine, Shanahan and the Browns did just about everything wrong.
The Gong Show
On the Browns' first play, center Alex Mack appeared to snap the ball on the wrong count, leaving the motioning tight end out of position. Washington pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan came through unblocked, and Hoyer was immediately sacked. Stalwart left tackle Joe Thomas committed a false start, handing Hoyer an unmanageable 2nd-and-21.
Tight end Jordan Cameron looked completely oblivious as Hoyer's pass hit him in the shoulder; Shanahan called a draw to Tate on the ensuing 3rd-and-forever.
That was Hoyer's first drive with the first-stringers.
On Hoyer's second drive, Shanahan called two Tate runs before letting Hoyer pass on 3rd-and-4. Hoyer's pass was a little too low for Andrew Hawkins, and fell incomplete.
That's when Hoyer got the hook.
It looked like the stage was set for Manziel to steal the show—but he had to deal with the same supporting cast.
After a four-yard Tate run, Manziel appeared to have his own miscommunication with Cameron, throwing well behind him on a crossing route. On his first third down, Manziel took far too long to find an open man and was sacked by Kerrigan:
On the Browns' fourth drive, they finally managed to convert a first down. Manziel engineered a 12-play drive, but it was extended more by three Washington penalties than plays Manziel made. It still resulted in a punt.
To balance out the reps from that long drive, Hoyer got three more short series with the starters, none longer than three plays. The most noteworthy occurrence was Hoyer missing a wide-open Hawkins in the end zone.
At the end of the half, Hoyer and Manziel had combined to go 4-of-15 for 45 yards passing. The Browns had mustered just three points—and those, only because the Browns' Tashaun Gipson snagged an interception on the Washington 15-yard line.
Throughout it all, many of the Browns offensive starters played deep into the game. Even star receiver Josh Gordon, he of the looming year-long suspension, played into the fourth quarter. Bleacher Report national NFL lead writer Michael Schottey made it very clear what he thought about that:
The Second Act
After halftime, Manziel got an extended audition.
Manziel quarterbacked the entire third quarter, and much of the fourth, eventually throwing a touchdown "pass" (really, a dump-off screen) to tailback Dion Lewis:
In between Hoyer's second exit and Manziel's evening-ending touchdown, football fans got an eyeful of Johnny Football, and all that nickname entails.
Manziel made a couple of very nice plays on the run. He also got stuffed on a read-option, took a couple of nasty shots while scrambling, sailed a few passes and turfed a few others. Manziel also turned the social-media world upside down when he casually flipped the Washington bench the bird (pictures, GIFs, and Vines of the gesture won't be embedded here, but are not hard to find).
It goes without saying that Manziel can't be making obscene gestures on the field. Atlanta Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox got fined by the league, more than once, for giving the finger during his playing days. Manziel risks league punishment whenever he does something like this.
This, of course, is why Johnny Football is Johnny Football, a charismatic superstar long before he's accomplished anything in the NFL. He runs around, he takes chances, he makes plays, he makes mistakes and he enjoys every single second of it all the way we would if we could be him for a day.
The problem is, Manziel isn't Johnny Football for a day, he's Johnny Football for his job—and if he wants to earn and keep that job, he's got to be able to face his bosses and coworkers around the water cooler in the morning. He'll rightly take heat from them for punctuating a night where he completed less than half of his passes for about four yards per attempt with that exclamation point.
The Grand Finale?
Throughout this offseason, it's been hard to understand Pettine's handling of his quarterback situation.
After drafting Manziel in the first round, the entire Browns organization took turns pronouncing him a backup, yet Manziel's been given every opportunity to win the starting job.
There were reports Manziel would start this game, only to have them denied. Pettine said first-team reps would "have to be earned," per John Breech of CBSSports.com, only to have each quarterback get a roughly equal share. After they got their equal share, Manziel got most of the second half to continue to make his case.
In his postgame press conference, broadcast on ESPN, Pettine said "whoever will give us the best chance to win the opener" will be the starter.
At this point, though, it's clear neither quarterback is going to be the reason the Browns win football games—and it's clear the Browns aren't going to be winning a lot of football games, either.
At this point, keeping the competition open is only going to keep the circus in town. Pettine owes it to his coaches, and to the veterans on the team, to make a decision now on whether his quarterback of the future is the quarterback of the present.