Both Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel looked sharper and more comfortable than they have in the previous three games. However, enough good was shown by Hoyer and enough bad by Manziel to justify head coach Mike Pettine's decision to have Hoyer start in the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Hoyer and the starters played only one series, a 13-play, 85-yard drive that culminated in a one-yard Ben Tate touchdown run. Hoyer had third-down conversions to tight end Jordan Cameron and wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, connected with receiver Taylor Gabriel for a 21-yard gain and, with the aid of a roughing the passer call against Chicago, set up the touchdown.
In total, Hoyer completed six of his eight passing attempts for 69 yards. He threw no picks and was not sacked. It was easily the best Hoyer has looked in the preseason—his previous high completion percentage was just 62.5. On Thursday, it was 75.
Manziel got the longer look, playing into the third quarter. It was an appropriate outing for Manziel. At times, he looked like the electrifying player that made him a first-round draft pick for Cleveland. He showcased his ability to extend plays with his feet, both by throwing on the run and evading pressure as well as keeping the football himself and taking off.
He had a sharp throw to wide receiver Nate Burleson, good for 27 yards, after evading Chicago's pressure in the patented Manziel manner. It set up a one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jim Dray. Of Manziel's five drives, four ended in points—a touchdown and three field goals.
However, Manziel also looked much like a rookie. Often, his throws were rushed. He both over- and underthrew his receivers. Defensive holding and illegal hands to face penalties against the Bears helped extend an otherwise shaky drive for Manziel that ended in a field goal.
As Pettine said at halftime, via ESPN.com's Pat McManamon:
Pettine on Manziel 1st half: "“Falls into the category of Johnny being Johnny. A couple of those plays were no, no, no, yes …” #Browns— PatMcManamon (@PatMcManamon) August 29, 2014
More Pettine on Manziel: "He just needs to get more comfortable in his reads, take the easy throws that are there.” #Browns— PatMcManamon (@PatMcManamon) August 29, 2014
Those comments stand in contrast to what Pettine said about Hoyer's day:
Mike Pettine on Hoyer: "“He was sharp, made some good throws, made the right reads.” #Browns— PatMcManamon (@PatMcManamon) August 29, 2014
Heading into the final preseason game, there were rightfully many questions about Pettine's decision to start Hoyer in Week 1. However, Manziel's erratic, albeit exciting, performance against the Bears is a prime example that, should Manziel start at any point this season, it shouldn't be in Week 1 against the Steelers. Or Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints. Or Week 3 against the Baltimore Ravens, for that matter.
Manziel is not comfortable. He's absolutely more comfortable than he was a month ago, but he's a work in progress, especially when trying to get him to mesh what he did in college at Texas A&M with the very different demands on an NFL quarterback. Hoyer has the experience and the edge.
That's not to say that Hoyer's job should still be considered safe for the entire upcoming season. For the preseason, Hoyer hasn't been very pretty. He's completed 24 of 44 passes—54.5 percent—for 261 yards, one touchdown, one interception and three sacks.
That lone touchdown didn't even come until Hoyer's 12th drive of the preseason, late in the third preseason game against the Rams. His one series against the Bears was by far the brightest he's shone in August.
Manziel hasn't been all that much better, completing 30 passes on 59 attempts for 296 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and six sacks. He's also run for a total of 88 yards on 12 attempts, including a seven-yard rushing score.
There's no doubt that watchers of the Browns this preseason have detected a noticeable spark when Manziel is on the field, but his excitement quotient shouldn't factor into the Browns' decision on a starter, whether that be in Week 1 or later on.
But if his level of play and development can begin to match that excitement, Manziel may eventually force his way onto the field, even if that is just a special package for the rookie. When asked about that earlier in the week, Pettine told ESPNCleveland.com's Tony Grossi: "It's something that is an option for us. It's just the timing of it will be the question—when we feel comfortable with it or is it even necessary."
Which Browns QB do you think performed best in the preseason?
A two-quarterback system, however, seems less likely. The Manziel package would at least force defensive coordinators to plan for the rookie to take the field. However, the Browns taking reps away from Hoyer, who is quite inexperienced for a veteran, wouldn't make sense at least in the first part of the season.
There are certainly questions about the Browns' quarterback position that have gone unanswered now that the preseason has wrapped. Hoyer clearly has the job because he has NFL experience and, as Pettine said on Thursday night, was sharper and made the right reads.
However, Hoyer doesn't have the most firm grasp on the job. If he stumbles in the first three weeks, the Week 4 bye could force the Browns into reconsidering their decision and seeing what Manziel could do in Week 5 and beyond.
Hoyer separated himself just enough to start in Week 1, but as of now, the starter in Week 5—let alone Week 16—is nowhere near set in stone.