The day many Cleveland Browns fans have been waiting for since the 2014 NFL Draft has arrived—Johnny Manziel is officially the starting quarterback. The official announcement came from the Browns organization on Tuesday afternoon, though it was originally reported through league insiders on Monday.
After Sunday’s loss dropped Brian Hoyer to 1-3 over the course of his last four games, a change was needed to provide any sort of spark to a stagnant offense. Throwing just one touchdown in four football games isn’t just bad, it is pretty downright remarkable—and not in a good way. Hoyer’s ineptitude despite getting one of the best young receivers in the game back (Josh Gordon) has been disappointing to say the least, which prompted the organization to make this move.
Enough about Hoyer’s struggles though, since it is all we have talked about for the past month anyways. Let’s focus on the immediate future, and that is with the man dubbed “Johnny Football” under center.
With the Cleveland Browns sitting at 7-6, the team is certainly not out of the playoff conversation by any means. Their final three games are against the Cincinnati Bengals at home, and then the Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens on the road—and all three are games this team has proven to be able to win this season.
Starting with the Bengals, the Browns went on the road for a Thursday night primetime contest and absolutely dominated them in front of the nation, 24-3. In this game, the Browns defense flexed their muscle and the running game paved the way with 170 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. In fact, though many credit this as Hoyer’s last “good performance” on the season, he was far from a world beater—finishing with 198 yards on 15-of-23 passing.
One would think that the game in Cincinnati provided a blueprint for how to put Manziel in a position to succeed this Sunday in Cleveland. With his ability to run and improvise, Manziel should have his way with the No. 28 ranked defense in the league (according to ESPN). The Bengals are also the No. 27 ranked rush defense in the league, giving up a gaudy 130.3 yards per game on the ground. So to put it plain and simple, this is a game tailor made for the 22-year old to succeed.
While this is all very true and Manziel could easily come out and channel his inner college-self, Browns fans should temper their expectations before labeling him the savior of their season.
Though he drove the team down the field against Buffalo and ran for a touchdown, Manziel is far from a polished NFL quarterback product. A lot of the things he struggled with in college—going through progressions, staying in the pocket, throwing into double and triple coverage, etc.—suddenly haven’t gone away through practice and studying the playbook. Those things will only be overcome in a game situation, which is part of the reason why he will be starting the final three games of this season.
Sure, the Browns would love to win the next three games and have all things go their way and make the playoffs. But more importantly, this will give them an opportunity to evaluate how far the former Heisman Trophy winner has come since beginning his NFL training back in May. And if that can happen while winning at the same time, then that is an absolute added bonus to the entire situation.
So let’s throw out the “Johnny Football is going to throw for 350 yards and score five touchdowns on Sunday” talk for a second and look at some realistic expectations for this weekend’s game and the rest of the season.
Starting with the Bengals, Manziel will certainly get an opportunity to make a splash early. Cincinnati is missing key members of an already rough defense, so they should provide plenty of opportunities to get going early. I fully expect Manziel to get at least 25 passing opportunities in the game, which means he could throw for 220-240 yards on the day. He will force a ball into coverage a few times, which should yield positives and negatives. So my prediction for Sunday is 235 yards passing, two touchdowns through the air and one interception. On the ground, he will likely run for 55 yards and one touchdown.
If things go like that, Manziel will enter his second week as the starting quarterback with a 1-0 record—hitting the road to take on the Carolina Panthers. Due to an unfortunate car accident, Cam Newton’s status is up in the air after suffering two fractures in his back. With the Panthers sitting at 4-8-1, they should seriously consider shutting down their franchise signal-caller for the remainder of the season even though they are still technically in the conversation to win their division.
Without Newton, the Browns should seriously have their way with the Panthers. Carolina destroyed the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, but they lost their six previous games from before that—one of those being to Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks. The Panthers played tough in that game, holding Wilson to just 199 yards passing, 35 yards rushing and one touchdown—forcing one interception in the process.
So if we use that as a baseline for Manziel, he could realistically have a pretty big day against Carolina, especially if Newton is not playing. The Panthers allowed Mark Sanchez to throw for 332 yards and two touchdowns, gave up 138 yards passing and two touchdowns to Teddy Bridgewater and allowed Andy Dalton to orchestrate 37 points on 323 yards passing and two touchdowns in a tie. To put it simple, the Panthers allow non-elite quarterbacks to rough them up.
While it may seem like a big number to think of on the road, this game has all the makings of Manziel’s first-ever 300-yard passing performance in the NFL. I’d say 310 yards passing, three touchdowns, one interception and 40 yards on the ground is not out of the question for a stat line. And if he puts that up, he will move to 2-0 as the starter.
If these two games go down like this, the Browns will enter the final week of the season on the road against the dreaded Ravens at 9-6—likely playing for a playoff spot. However, barring something happening over the course of the next two weeks, Manziel will not find a broken and battered defense and a team losing their starting quarterback to a freak accident. No, Manziel should find his first true test as an NFL quarterback in the most important game of the season for the Browns—and that is not a good thing.
Baltimore’s defense may be ranked No. 15 in total yards given up, but they are No. 4 against the run. For a team like the Browns who will likely look to simplify through the run for Manziel, this does not bode well for the rookie quarterback. Mix in the exotic blitz looks he will likely see from the Ravens defense, and this has the makings ending the season on a bad note for Cleveland.
Taking a look at some of the performances by other quarterbacks this season, Manziel will have an opportunity to put up some yards through the air against the Ravens—as they are currently No. 31 in the league at 267.2 yards per game. They have not forced many interceptions either, with just eight heading into this weekend’s games. But where they do have success is actually getting to the quarterback, registering 37 sacks on the season—good for No. 6 in the league.
With Manziel being a rookie, the Ravens will likely throw the kitchen sink at him in terms of blitz packages. This will force him to run around and improvise more than usual, and that will probably not end up in a positive manner. I’d say he finishes with 250 yards passing, one touchdown, two interceptions and a fumble on the day. He will probably have 80 yards rushing from all of the scrambling, but fail to find the endzone on the ground in the loss.
If the Browns finished the season 9-7 with Manziel going 2-1 in his final two games and displaying some good things—that would be a major win for this organization moving into 2015. They probably would not make the playoffs, but you would get a nice three-game sample of your rookie quarterback and develop a winning culture in the process.
On top of that, the team would have plenty of positive momentum moving into 2015 without any controversy at the quarterback position—which would be a welcome change in a city that is moving on to starting quarterback No. 21 since returning in 1999. For those who have been here, that would be a great way to start year two of the Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine era for our beloved Cleveland Browns.