Cleveland Browns Week 9 Preview: Is There Hope for Johnny Manziel?

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For a full strength team, a trip to take on the 7-0 Cincinnati Bengals on a short week in Cincinnati would have been a tall task. For the short-handed Cleveland Browns starting their backup quarterback Johnny Manziel, you can probably chalk up Thursday night’s task to being nearly impossible.

Despite many already giving the victory to Cincinnati, there is a football game to be played on Thursday night—which means the Cleveland Browns actually have to make the trip down to southern Ohio to play. And for Mike Pettine and company, they will approach this game like any other, even if they have every valid excuse in the world to view it otherwise.

The Browns will be without Andrew Hawkins and many more against the Bengals.
The Browns will be without Andrew Hawkins and many more against the Bengals.

According to the team’s injury report, the Browns will be without starting wide receivers Andrew Hawkins and Brian Hartline, starting cornerback Joe Haden, starting safety Donte Whitner and reserve safety Jordan Poyer. The team’s other starting safety, Tashaun Gipson, is questionable with an ankle injury, and linebackers Nate Orchard and Craig Robertson are also questionable.

The biggest injury in the eyes of many on that report is starting quarterback Josh McCown, who is out for the contest. Despite notching just one win for the team this season as a starter, McCown has been pretty good—completing 65 percent of his passes for 1,897 yards, 11 touchdowns, four interceptions and a QB rating of 95.2. He has also done all of this while nursing an injured shoulder, hurt ribs and a concussion.

For many, McCown has been an easy target of frustration thanks to his 36-year old age. However, he has been much better than anyone anticipated when the team signed him in the offseason. But, he just cannot stay healthy.

This means, for the third time this season (second start) it is “Johnny Time” for the Cleveland Browns. Manziel was initially thrust into action after the team’s opening drive against the New York Jets (McCown’s concussion diving trying to score a touchdown), and had to start the following week against Tennessee with McCown still in the concussion protocol.

On the season, Manziel has completed 56 percent of his passes for 393 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a 93.2 rating. These numbers are vastly improved over his rookie season, where he completed 51.4 percent of his passes for 175 yards, two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 42 in less than two full games of work.

In his lone start of the 2015 season, Manziel led the Browns to a victory over the Tennessee Titans. He completed 53.3 percent of his passes (8-of-15) for 172 yards and two touchdowns, finishing with a QB rating of 133.9. His stats mostly came on two passes, as he connected with Travis Benjamin on touchdowns of 60 and 50 yards.

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Though Manziel looked improved against the Titans, he is going to be facing a different type of defense from the Bengals. Statistically, the Bengals do not look better as they are giving up 258.4 yards passing per game, which is 60 yards more than the Titans. However, the Bengals are stingy when it comes to points—giving up just 18.9 per game, which is good for No. 7 in the league.

With his team injury-riddled, it is tough to expect much from Manziel in their Thursday night contest. Yet, there could be an opportunity to put up decent numbers against an undefeated team.

Philip Rivers threw for 241 yards and two touchdowns, Joe Flacco threw for 362 yards and two touchdowns, Alex Smith threw for 386 yards, E.J. Manuel threw for 263 yards and a touchdown and Ben Roethlisberger threw for 262 yards and a touchdown. The only quarterbacks to not put up 250-plus yards against the Bengals were Russell Wilson and the duo of Matt McGloin and Derek Carr (Carr was injured during the game).

Now, is Manziel as good as the group listed above right now? Probably not.

But numbers do not lie, and the Bengals defense is giving up enough yards through the air that it is possible Manziel could actually have a better day than most expect. Though Hartline and Hawkins are out, Manziel has not really looked their way much this season (and last season for Hawkins) anyway. His main targets will be Benjamin and Gary Barnidge, who will both be available and should be targeted early and often on Thursday night.

Am I saying the man known as “Johnny Football” is going to lead the Browns to victory on Thursday night against the undefeated Bengals? It is highly unlikely, but not impossible—we all know Andy Dalton’s history in primetime.

While it would be great to get a victory, let’s instead talk about what to realistically expect—and hope for—out of Manziel.

For the 2-6 Browns, Manziel is supposed to be the quarterback of the future according to his first-round draft status last year. Year one was a disaster and essentially a lost year, as there were reports of poor work ethic, lack of playbook knowledge and much more. His on the field last year did not show any better, as his negatives of poor decision making, not staying in the pocket and inability to go through progressions were on full display in his short time on the field.

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When it came time for the offseason, nobody knew what to expect from him—and a trip to rehab did not help those expectations. Instead, Manziel came to camp and preseason with his head in the playbook and eyes on getting better. This was a welcome sign to even the harshest of Manziel critics (like this writer).

In the preseason he looked more comfortable in the pocket and going through progressions, which was a huge step forward. His playbook knowledge has come along, though some reports say the team could not run 50 percent of their plays with him under center. Overall he has improved in certain aspects, but is still a work in progress in others like ball security and stepping up in the pocket on a regular basis.

So, against the Cincinnati Bengals—a team with a talented defense—those are the things we need to see. Does he stand tall in the pocket despite being shorter? Will he stay in the pocket in the face of pressure and go through that extra progression to find the open receiver instead of scrambling at the first sign of danger? Most importantly, can he minimize turnovers and ball security mistakes?

If at the end of Thursday night’s game we can answer yes to all three of those questions, Manziel may have led the Browns to their third victory of the season and shocked the world. In reality, it would be nice to answer yes to one of those questions as a building block to find out whether the Browns have a possible starting QB in Manziel for the future.

At 2-6, the season is over in the eyes of many Browns fans—the same ones who want to just give Manziel the job for the rest of the season. And though McCown has played much better than anyone has expected, a win on the road on a short week could force the team’s hand in keeping Manziel under center for the following week against the Pittsburgh Steelers—and possibly the rest of the season.

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Bob is the Founder, Site Director and Senior Writer of Cleveland Sports Zone. He has been writing about sports for over nine years thanks to his passion for Cleveland sports and a Journalism degree. His work has been featured on Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, ESPN, USA Today and other major sports networks.

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