When it comes to the Cleveland Browns organization, “anything can happen” has seemingly become the new motto. Less than one year removed from owner Jimmy Haslam cleaning house after just one season, it seems the team could be facing a similar crossroad once again.
Last year, that crossroad involved firing head coach Rob Chudzinski and general manager Mike Lombardi after just one season—and getting CEO Joe Banner to leave after a little over a year and a half with the franchise. This season—though there will likely be some rumblings in regard to Mike Pettine’s finish—the crossroads could come at the quarterback position.
Just seven months removed from drafting Johnny Manziel with the No. 22 pick in the first-round of the 2014 NFL Draft, there is talk circulating that the team could be looking at a new future of their franchise. According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “…if he (Johnny Manziel) doesn’t play well, the Browns will explore all of their options at quarterback, including trading up into the top five to draft Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.”
Cabot continued, “Browns general manager Ray Farmer has repeatedly said that he’ll always explore every option at all positions – and Mariota is one glaring and tempting possibility for the Browns this offseason. The Browns have scouted him this season and will continue to do so.”
How is it possible that the Browns organization has yet again come to this?
Six weeks ago—which seem like a completely different season at this point—the Browns were coming off a Thursday night dismantling of the Cincinnati Bengals. Sitting at 6-3, Pettine and company were on top of the AFC North and fans alike were talking about the playoffs like it was a foregone conclusion—and who could blame them?
Their next two games were at home against Houston and on the road against Atlanta—two teams that had been less than impressive on the season. The consensus opinion was the Browns would be 8-3 heading into a difficult two-game stretch against Buffalo and Indianapolis, but at worst would be 8-5 heading into their final three games against Cincinnati, Carolina and Baltimore.
Instead, Brian Hoyer’s mistake-free season took a turn for the worse. The team would drop three of their next four games, prompting the organization to look for a spark of sorts for the offense.
Enter their 22-year old rookie, Manziel.
Despite every knock in the world saying he wasn’t ready, he needed time to sit and learn the playbook, he needed to learn how to play from the pocket and much, much more—the Browns coaching staff felt he was ready from what they saw in practice.
Boy, were they wrong.
Manziel would throw up an absolute dud against the Bengals in a must-win game for the team, going 10-of-18 from the field for 80 yards and two interceptions. He would also carry the ball five times for 13 yards. To put it simple, this was not the electric, money sign flashing quarterback Browns fans had seen flashed in highlight after highlight on ESPN. No, he was a 22-year old kid who wasn’t even close to being ready for the NFL.
Despite this fact, the organization—well seemingly Haslam (more on that in a minute)—decided Manziel would get the final games of the season to prove he was ready to be the starter in 2015. And in game two, Manziel didn’t answer any of those questions and concerns—in fact, he added more to the pile of reasons to really question his viability as a starting quarterback in the NFL.
Prior to getting knocked out of the game with a hamstring injury, Manziel’s stat line left much to be desired. He was 3-of-8 passing for 32 yards and ran the ball two times for three yards. He did finally generate points with the team kicking a field goal, before making his departure at the 1:49 mark in the second quarter.
So if we add up Manziel’s total body of work this season, it comes out to 18-of-35 passing for 175 yards and two interceptions in roughly seven quarters (one against Buffalo, four against Cincinnati and two against Carolina) of work. He has also rushed the nine times for 29 yards and a touchdown. That works out to a 51.4 completion percentage and a QB rating 42.
With one game left in the season, it would take the greatest game ever played by a quarterback—assuming he starts—to make anyone (front office and the fans) feel comfortable about having Manziel as the starting QB of this organization in 2015. With Hoyer a free agent who is not likely to return without a guarantee of starting, the QB situation in Cleveland is ending 2014 just like it came into the season—with a major question mark.
If the numbers aren’t enough to worry you about the future direction of this franchise, the following tidbit from CBS Sports’ league insider Jason La Canfora will. In an article discussing Manziel’s poor practice efforts and habits, he left Browns fans with the following bombshell at the end.
“While it may not be time to panic just yet, sources said if that opening performance is indicative of what transpires in the final two weeks, then panic could set in much sooner than would be the norm in these situations. Working in Manziel’s favor is the fact that owner Jimmy Haslam was a primary reason he was selected by the team,” stated La Canfora.
Now that you are done hyperventilating, let’s go ahead and break down the two parts of that quote.
Part one, Farmer and Pettine have long stated they do not care where a player was drafted and will not make excuses for that player. We have seen it all season with Justin Gilbert, a Top 10 pick, as undrafted rookies and mid-round selections have played over him thanks to his struggles. So the fact they would be willing to either bring in major competition or move on from Manziel really is not shocking if you have been paying attention.
It is part two, the Haslam comment that is truly shocking and worrisome.
When Haslam took over, fans were excited about the end of the “hands off” Lerner era. But after a little over a year and a half, we may have the next Jerry Jones on our hands—with less football knowledge. If Haslam truly was behind the drafting of Manziel, this organization has a major problem that could end in yet another messy offseason.
If Farmer and Pettine go to Haslam and say “Johnny Manziel isn’t the guy,” what would the response end up being? History has shown he isn’t going to check his ego at the door, which could mean the organization could be in for another upheaval. But if by some chance Haslam can, it would mean that the Browns will likely be searching for starting quarterback No. 23 since 1999.
In that time period, no other team has drafted more first-round quarterbacks (four) than the Browns; as the Jaguars, Redskins and Vikings are the closest with three each. However, the Browns have used just one pick on a quarterback (Tim Couch) who was considering among the “top tier” available in the draft class—instead opting to land Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden and Manziel at the No. 22 spot in the first round.
With just one game left in the season, the Cleveland Browns organization could be heading toward uncharted waters in the NFL yet again. They shocked the league by firing Chudzinski despite inheriting a mess of a roster just a year prior, and now they could shock the league by moving up and getting Mariota at the Top of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Oh yeah, and in the process they would be the first team to select quarterbacks in the first round since the Colts did it in 1983 and 1982 (John Elway and Art Schlichter)—though it would be hard to challenge that level of dysfunction with Elway traded because he didn’t want to play for the team and Schlichter’s gambling issues.
No pressure, Farmer.