AFC North: Cleveland Browns

Tim Couch lived the struggles of a Cleveland Browns post-1999 quarterback.

Tuesday, he read the critical words of Bernie Kosar about the team's approach to the position (in an interview on WTAM-1100) and nodded.

"I thought everything he said was right," Couch said. "It's been a long 15 years of watching the same thing repeat itself over and over. The biggest that frustrates me is the lack of commitment and loyalty to let a coach see it out and a quarterback play it out."

Couch likes both quarterbacks on the team, roots for the Browns and speaks as an interested observer who has been through it.

He joined the league as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft. He struggled with the team the first two seasons, but improved in his third. By his fourth season he started 14 games and led the Browns to the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeCouch
Andy Lyons/Getty Images"I thought everything he said was right," said former Browns quarterback Tim Couch of Bernie Kosar's comments.
But he broke his leg in the 2002 season finale and watched as Kelly Holcomb threw for more than 400 yards in a playoff loss to Pittsburgh. The next season, he and Holcomb -- who remain friends -- were yo-yoed back and forth until Couch was released when the team signed Jeff Garcia. It was one of many experiments that didn't work.

He now follows the Browns closely from his home in Kentucky, and attended the game in Atlanta as a fan.

"You're never great every week," he said. "This is just repeating the same process of the last 15 years, like Bernie said. Whether it was me, Kelly or on and on and on, the finger keeps being pointed at the quarterback.

"It's the team. Build a team and then worry about the quarterback."

Couch even chuckled in a here-we-go-again way at the criticism Manziel has received after his debut.

"Johnny played one game, and granted it was awful, but most people are writing the kid off already," he said.

Couch said the Browns would have been better off committing to Brian Hoyer for the entire season after the win over Atlanta.

"Every quarterback has ups and downs, no matter who it is," he said. "It's a tough league."

He said commiting to Hoyer after the Falcons would have put to bed all the talk and speculation. Without commitment, the pressure can be suffocating, something he said he was unaware of when he played but he understands now that he looks back at his playing days.

"I think Brian is a pretty good player," Couch said. "A solid player. Given the right situation I think he could be a really good player. Put him on a team with a defense around him and solid running game and weapons on the outside, I think he can be a good player.

"I was totally on board with Hoyer. He made such good decisions for so long. He was accurate. All that changed when the pressure mounted on him. He didn't play well the last month, and you can't get away from that.

"But I think it was the result of other influences creeping in on him."

Couch said he felt the same influences.

"Everyone expects a certain amount from you," he said. "It weighs on you when you don't have success. Then doubts creep in. You start to question yourself. And you can't do that at that level.

"Everybody says block it out, but that's just not reality. …It's almost like every throw I made I felt like I had to prove to everyone ‘This is why I was the No. 1 pick.' You don't realize it until you look back.

"I think that's kind of what got Brian a little bit, to be honest. He felt like he was playing for his job every week. If he missed an open wide receiver or threw an interception it got worse. That kind of pressure can eat away at you slowly over time."

Couch said that there was no way Manziel could live up to half his hype, and that his spot in his first start was as difficult as Hoyer's.

"I completely expected him to struggle," Couch said, "not to the degree that he did, but to struggle. I thought there might be flashes of plays, where you think, 'Whoa, unbelieveable.' That he'd extend a play and hit a guy. None of that happened.

"But I still definitely expected him to struggle. The situation, the playoffs, Cincinnati's defense is good, they do things to confuse you. It was tough to watch him and see how frustrated he was. He had only been used to success, but this was a different game."

Couch added he likes coach Mike Pettine a great deal, but he believes Pettine and many of the team's veterans think Hoyer gives the team the best chance to win. He also thinks there was front office influence to play Manziel, though that is his opinion and not from any inside source. (Pettine said "absolutely not" when asked if there was any pressure from ownership or the business side.)

Now, Couch said, the rest of the season is about evaluating Manziel.

"It's never going to consistently work when you're just plugging in guys," Couch said. "You're never going to have consistent success."
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BEREA, Ohio -- One week ago the Cleveland Browns made a quarterback decision based, they said, on what gave the team the best chance to win.

After Johnny Manziel had a historically bad day in a 30-0 loss to the Bengals, that stance has changed.

Now, Manziel, in the words of coach Mike Pettine, “gives us an opportunity to win.”

The same really could be said of Connor Shaw, the team’s practice squad quarterback. Though obviously there are levels of opportunity.

Pettine will work like mad to win the final two games, and he’ll play the hyped rookie that the team decided to draft 22nd overall, but he makes it sound like he’s doing it almost by default.

Pettine stood by Brian Hoyer for longer than many would have given the celebrated player behind him. When the offense did next to nothing to win a winnable game against the Indianapolis Colts, the Browns coach flipped the switch. Then the Manziel-led offense did next to nothing to beat Cincinnati, and the reasons given were the same as they were for Hoyer -- nobody helped, have to play better around him, too much on the quarterback. And on and on.

The Bengals game could hardly have gone worse.

Manziel looked like a junior high school kid trying to play a professional team.

Manziel did not read well, played without confidence and had the jitters. In short, he played the way his critics said he would play as he made the transition to the pros. Manziel had 11 weeks to watch, learn and assimilate, and he looked like a player signed six days before his first start.

He did do much better against Buffalo when he was thrown into the game. That’s the hook on which to hang a hat. He did show it against the Bills -- though he also had that fumble that was inexplicably ruled an incomplete pass as well.

Sunday was a debacle. To present him as NFL ready in that game was an insult.

Why it went wrong is up for debate. Pettine said nobody in the building saw it coming, and they’re having a hard time wrapping their minds around it.

Perhaps the team let down, perhaps Manziel wasn’t ready, perhaps the Bengals were inspired, perhaps it was a bad day, perhaps Manziel is not an NFL quarterback, or perhaps Manziel was not fully preparing to play while he was the backup. Maybe it’s some or all or none of those reasons. Maybe the moon was in the seventh house.

Pettine deserved the benefit of the doubt when he made the decision. The Colts loss was excruciating. It almost seemed that Pettine had held off the wolves howling for Manziel as long as he could, and he couldn’t do it anymore. He had made a lot of sensible decisions during the season, so to question or rip him for the change in quarterbacks before Manziel even played seemed a tad unfair.

Monday, though, Pettine said there will be doubts if Manziel plays better, and more doubts if he doesn't. He talked about Manziel being effective “running the cards” in practice and on the few reps he got. That means he ran the other team’s offense off cards to help the Browns defense get a look at the opposing offense. As for reps, Hoyer came from the Tom Brady school, so he took the vast majority of the reps. Which means Manziel got most of his work in half-speed work off cards.

Factor in that the Browns revamped a lot of the offense with Manziel. Some say it was to help him find his “comfort zone,” others say it was because the Browns don’t trust Manziel to stand in the pocket and make a throw.

Either way the game was a Browns-level-since-1999 disaster. To the point that it actually raised questions that probably shouldn’t be raised after one game -- except for the past 15 years very few rookies who initially struggled for the Browns turned into Brian Sipe or Bernie Kosar.

If the Manziel experiment -- which has been quirky from the get-go -- does not work out, Cleveland is back to Square Zero at the most important position on the team. The good that has been built with seven wins will be offset by another offseason and 2015 season filled with uncertainty about the quarterback.

As for the rest of this season, Carolina and Baltimore are both in playoff chases. They’re both playing at home.

It’s tough to see things improving by leaps and bounds before this season ends.

CLEVELAND -- The Cincinnati Bengals reminded Sunday that money signs and jersey sales aren’t enough. The NFL is about cold, hard cash, which for NFL quarterbacks means making tough throws into tight windows.

Cleveland Browns QB Johnny Manziel's progression in the league was never about the Johnny Football persona, but about becoming a quarterback in order to complement the other things he does well.

That’s still possible, even if the haze from Sunday clouds the fact like a gray Cleveland winter sky.

After watching back Manziel’s successful series against the Buffalo Bills and reviewing the Cincinnati game, here’s what we know: Buffalo clearly hadn’t game-planned for Manziel and gave him space to operate on the perimeter, whereas Cincinnati cut that off, stopped the running game and forced Manziel to make plays from the pocket. That’s where the trouble began.

Time for adjustments. There's no turning back.

Here’s how Manziel and the Browns might help each other starting Sunday at Carolina.
  • Manziel
    When someone's open, "let it rip": Create quick, safe throws for Manziel to make so that when he's inside the pocket, he’s not treading water. His first interception Sunday, on the throw to the sideline intended for Andrew Hawkins, was a good example. If Manziel reads that a second earlier, that’s a nice gain. But he hesitated, then didn’t put enough on the throw, and Dre Kirkpatrick undercut it. Watch Manziel’s Chick-fil-A Bowl performance last season against Duke (college is different, I know) and you’ll see Manziel can rip it toward the sideline. He has arm strength when in rhythm and decisive. He needs to show it. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan told the media Thursday he hopes Manziel "lets it rip" when someone’s open. Manziel should heed that advice against Carolina.
  • Know when to throw it away: That ugly across-the-body interception in the end zone could have been an easy toss out of bounds to set up a field goal, avoiding the shutout and giving at least some life to the Browns entering halftime.
  • Clean up the zone read: The Browns didn’t run the zone read a bunch, but they had a few opportunities off it and didn’t capitalize. On Manziel’s first sack, he kept the ball when Isaiah Crowell had an opening to the right side. That left the Browns in another third-and-long, which rookies usually can’t overcome.
  • Clean up mechanics: Manziel was showing good arm strength in pregame warmups but didn’t during the game. I’m no scout, but it seemed fairly obvious his footwork was not clean for a portion of the Bengals game. Clean that up, step into throws with confidence and maybe the Browns can improve.
  • Take a few more shots: Manziel throws a decent deep ball, but the Browns didn’t take any shots. Yes, Josh Gordon is struggling. But a lofty pass to him, either in the red zone or deeper downfield, allows him to use his size and strength. It’s an easy call for him. Run straight and jump. Don’t overthink it.
  • Create bailout options with tight ends and running backs: Terrance West has had his struggles, but he could be a reliable pass catcher in this offense. Give Manziel an easy screen outlet when the pocket collapses.
  • Have amnesia: Pretend Sunday never happened. Watch the game video, learn from it, then burn it. Burn it to a crisp.
CLEVELAND -- Random thoughts following the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-0 drubbing of the Cleveland Browns on Sunday:

  • Coach Mike Pettine said he chose Johnny Manziel because it gave the Browns the best chance to win. He added that Manziel had been getting better in practice, which is not open to the media. The last time anyone other than the team saw Manziel was late in preseason. What the coaching staff saw that led them to believe the Browns' best chance to win was Manziel will remain a great mystery of 2014.
  • [+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
    Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsDespite not facing many Bengals blitzes, Johnny Manziel was on the run for much of Sunday's game.
    Manziel, in the words of his coach, looked and played like a rookie. No argument on that one. He looked like every other Browns rookie who had struggled since 1999. Worse than some, better than a few, but like a rookie.
  • Read the words without the name and Manziel in his postgame news conference sounded a lot like Brian Hoyer after losses. “It’s going to take time. It’s a process for sure.” … “I never felt overwhelmed or that it was too much for me.” … “It’s an all-around team thing.” … “It’s tough for a young guy to come in and get accustomed to this league.” … “Even the guys who play their best every week come out and struggle at times.”
  • This was not a struggle, though. It was a diplodocus egg in the middle of FirstEnergy Stadium. Manziel said he never felt the game was too difficult for him. Hate to see a game that is truly difficult.
  • The Browns' run defense was as disappointing as Manziel. Cincinnati ran through and over the Browns' defense, totaling 244 yards. Nine teams since 1999 have run for more on the Browns. Only 29 teams have topped that mark since the Browns joined the NFL in 1950.
  • Would the Browns have been better off had Pettine simply stated after the Atlanta game that Hoyer was the quarterback the rest of the season? The benefit: It would have removed doubt and allowed the team to concentrate on winning and the playoffs. With the situation lingering, doubt crept in, which affected Hoyer. The negative: Hoyer had to play better. Still, it’s hard to imagine a 30-0 loss with Hoyer playing.
  • ESPN Stats & Information produced a wealth of insight into Manziel’s game. Among the analytics: Manziel left the pocket on 10 of his 24 dropbacks (41.6 percent). The NFL average is 10 percent. He was 2-of-7 with an interception out of the pocket, and is 3-for-11 for the season.
  • The Stats folks also pointed out that the Bengals blitzed twice on 24 passes. Only eight times did teams have a lower blitz percentage this season. So … it’s not as if the Bengals were throwing the house at Manziel.
  • They also got one one-handed sack, which came from observation, not analysis.
  • The Browns had five first downs, two by penalty. Which means the offense generated three. Any time a quarterback is used in the same sentence with Spergon Wynn on a comparison level, it’s not good.
  • Manziel’s 27.3 rating was the 23rd lowest by a Browns quarterback since the team returned in 1999. That’s in 254 games. It’s also the lowest since Ken Dorsey posted a 27.2 rating in a shutout loss to the Bengals in 2008.
  • The Browns have been shut out 13 times since 1999. This was the first since a November 2009 loss to the Ravens.
  • If nothing else, Manziel’s experience in his first start shows how difficult it is to win games in the NFL. Talent and hype and hope amount to nothing when there’s a bunch of professional defenders on the other side of the ball.
  • The Browns had been playing to win games. Judgments were made on what would give the team the best chance to win. With the playoff chances now miniscule, the judgment no longer is about winning. It’s about evaluating the quarterback position.
  • Wake me if you’ve heard this story before.
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CLEVELAND -- There are bad losses and there are painful losses.

But in Johnny Manziel's first start, the Cleveland Browns put an historic loss on the field, up there with the worst of the many historic Browns losses since the team returned to the field in 1999. It came in a big game, at a time when a much-hyped quarterback was supposed to give a spark as Cleveland made a final playoff push.

All the talk all week was Manziel this and Manziel that. But everyone forgot that the other team has a say, and those with the Browns who felt Manziel would give the Browns a better chance to win have some seriously bad numbers to digest following a 30-0 loss Sunday.

Among them:
  • SportsNation

    What is Johnny Manziel's NFL future?

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      40%
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      42%

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    The Browns were shut out for the first time since November 2009.
  • Manziel becomes the sixth quarterback in the last 20 years to be shut out in his first start, and the first since Rusty Smith of Tennessee in 2010. The others: Dave Ragone of Houston (2003), Henry Burris of Chicago (2002), Spergon Wynn of Cleveland (2000) and Danny Wuerffel of New Orleans (1997).
  • Manziel is the 21st starting quarterback for the Browns since 1999, and the fifth to be shut out in his first start. The others: Ty Detmer in the first game back in ’99, Bruce Gradkowski, Wynn and Doug Pederson. Pederson and Gradkowski joined the Browns the week before starting because of injuries to the starter.
  • The offense had more than 100 yards for the day only because the Bengals scored a touchdown with 30 seconds left. The Browns got a final play with 18 seconds left and Manziel threw a slip screen for nine yards.
  • To that point, the offense had the ball nine times, and had seven three-play possessions. Three of those were for negative yards.
  • The Browns ran 38 offensive plays, the fewest by any team this season and fewest by the Browns since Week 1 of 1999, when they ran 28 plays against the Steelers in a 43-0 loss.

Manziel’s final numbers speak for themselves: 10-for-18 for 80 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions (and another called back). His rating: 27.3, which is just above the number of times Bengals defenders gave Manziel his signature money move. It probably looked worse than the numbers show, too, as there were times Manziel was simply overmatched by the speed and strength of the players he faced.

His play was such that coach Mike Pettine admitted he would not fall on the "I have to see the film" bromide.

"Looked like a rookie, played like a rookie," Pettine said.

True that.

But to pin all this on Manziel is not totally fair, because this was as bad a team effort as the Browns have had in a long time. Manziel's contributions were minimal, but so were the rest of the team’s.

The Browns chafed at rookie Jeremy Hill chortling at them after the Browns won the first game in Cincinnati, when Hill said the Browns weren’t that good. Hill ran over, through and around them for 148 yards.

The running game totaled 53 yards and averaged 3.1 per carry, the offensive line did not protect, Manziel did not read the field and, well, the Browns lost by 30 in a game the Bengals quarterback barely had to work.

It’s not a new show in Cleveland.

The Browns since 1999 have fed the "next great thing" monster as well as any team in the league. It’s fueled by impatience and the constant change and rebuilding that have whoever is in charge feeling they can find the next "savior."

Pettine fought it off as long as he could, but even he gave in and started Manziel. Based on the game it’s hard to say what Manziel showed in practice to breed belief that he gave the team its best chance to win. It sure did not appear on Sunday.

Perhaps Manziel will be the one to change things. Pettine said nobody should judge him on one game. But he has some ignominious company in the negative marks he set

After the game, Manziel talked of the situation not being overwhelming for him or too difficult, visual evidence to the contrary.

He talked of building something positive for next season.

He talked of learning and wiping it away.

Of the confidence the team had in drafting him.

But as he spoke the ghosts of Browns quarterbacks past floated by (a shadowy Brandon Weeden, a glum Brady Quinn), all chained by expectation and futility.

Meanwhile, the Bengals laughed all the way back to Cincinnati. Because they are the team in first place in the AFC North, while the Browns again are a team wondering what in the heck just hit them.

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

December, 14, 2014
Dec 14
3:52
PM ET

CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 30-0 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium:

What it means: The Browns keep believing in the next great thing, and over and over they are let down. Sunday against Cincinnati it was Johnny Manziel's turn to be the seventh rookie to start a game since 1999 and the seventh to lose. He got little help from anyone, but he did little to help himself, as the Bengals looked like a team on a mission to embarrass the Browns' highly hyped rookie. They succeeded on almost every level.

Stock watch: Now what at the quarterback position? It's hard to argue against the fact that Brian Hoyer took the fall for a lot of bad play around him, given the help Manziel got Sunday, but going back to Hoyer doesn't help evaluate Manziel. The Browns have gone from leaving Cincinnati and moving into first place to watching the Bengals knock them (for all intents and purposes) out of the playoffs.

Walk the walk: The Browns talked big about Jeremy Hill's words after the first game. After Cleveland won, Hill said the Browns weren't that good. The Browns called him names and said he was immature and all that stuff. Then they let Hill run down their throats. Hill had more than 100 yards -- in the first half alone.

Thin at corner: The Browns lost Joe Haden to a shoulder injury and Justin Gilbert to a concussion during the game. They started without K'Waun Williams. That left them with two corners as the game wound down -- Buster Skrine and rookie Pierre Desir, getting his first significant playing time

Ouch: The Browns were shut out for the first time since a November 2009 loss to Baltimore.

Game ball: Merril Hoge of ESPN has been a constant critic of Manziel since the day the Browns drafted him. Before the game, Hoge said that Manziel had first-round hype and sixth-round talent. Given the fact that nobody on the Browns bothered to show up, and given the way the offense and Manziel played, nobody had a better day than Hoge, whose bold stance was on point.

What's next: The Browns finish with consecutive games on the road. The first is Sunday in Carolina against the Panthers.
BEREA, Ohio — The major intrigue with Johnny Manziel’s first start Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals obviously goes well beyond who wins the game.

But the intrigue is simply because there’s intrigue, because everyone from Jim Brown to the team’s coach said they are eager to see what Manziel can do.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SportsNobody knows what they'll see on Sunday from Johnny Manziel -- they just know they want to watch.
“None of us can say we truly know,” Brown said Friday.

The team has seen Manziel in practice, but the only experience the team has with Manziel going full speed was against Buffalo, when the Browns were down 17.

The Bengals' defense has not played well this season and has given up a lot of yards to running quarterbacks. But the Bengals also have had a week to prepare for Manziel.

“The whole world will find out Sunday,” defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said.

Catching up on other items Browns:

  • O’Neil said this as a coordinator facing a guy as quick and nimble as Manziel: “I’m glad I don’t have to defend it. It could be a major headache.”
  • One might guess the Bengals approach will be to “mush rush” and keep ends wide. The mush rush was passed on through Bill Belichick by an ex-Browns broadcaster, the late Casey Coleman. It refers to keeping the tackles in position in front of the quarterback, with ends wide to protect the scramble. That approach dares Manziel to win the game with his arm.
  • Inside linebacker Craig Robertson was the Browns' nominee for the annual Walter Payton Award, given to recognize a player’s community service efforts.
  • Mike Pettine said this about Bengals rookie Jeremy Hill saying the Browns were not that good after the 24-3 Browns win in Cincinnati: “Rookies are inherently … fill in the blank.”
  • It’s worth remember that in 2012, Robert Griffin III was injured and rookie Kirk Cousins started for the Washington Redskins against the Browns in a Redskins playoff season. Cousins played extremely well and Washington won 38-21. His offensive coordinator in the game: Kyle Shanahan, now with the Browns.
  • Shanahan on how working with Cousins helped him with Manziel: “I feel like the main thing you want to do is make [the quarterback] feel confident. Try to give him stuff that he knows, stuff that he can execute and allow the guy to just play.”
  • Numberfire.com puts the Browns playoff chances at 6.5 percent, with a 2.6 percent chance of winning the division. The Steelers have the highest percentage of winning the division at 37.6 percent.
  • Bengals DE Wallace Gilberry on Manziel’s mania, via Bengals reporter Coley Harvey: “That’s just who he is. The kid has a personality. And that has nothing to do with football. We understand that. I could care less about how he parties or who he parties with. That’s his business.”
  • From ESPN Stats & Information: Manziel has left the pocket on six of his 11 dropbacks. He’s 1-for-4 passing for 12 yards on those plays, but has 13 yards and a touchdown on two runs. That means in the pocket, he’s 4-for-5 for 51 yards.
  • The Browns have lost their last nine games in December and January, the longest streak in the NFL. Their last win in the final two months was over Kansas City on Dec. 9, 2012.
  • The Bengals' final three opponents have won 64.1 percent of their games. That gives them the second-toughest schedule in the league for the final three games.
BEREA, Ohio -- In a season when the Browns have channeled the best and worst of their past, it's only fitting the quarterback for the final three games uses unpredictability as a benchmark.

"Who knows what will happen," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "That's why everybody's excited to see what he does."

That includes Shanahan, whose spotlight mushrooms for the Browns' final three games as he aims to draw the best out of Johnny Manziel. Shanahan gave no indications that he wants to restrain Manziel. He wants him reacting and, if someone's open, he hopes he "lets it rip." He's not trying to change Manziel.

[+] EnlargeKyle Shanahan and Johnny Manziel
AP Photo/Mark DuncanKyle Shanahan (left) doesn't want to restrain Johnny Manziel's instinctive playmaking ability.
"I want him to be himself," Shanahan said. "It’s gotten him a lot of success in the the past. I definitely don’t want to be the one to take that away.”

The last time Shanahan had a mobile quarterback starting his first three NFL games, Robert Griffin III completed 60-of-89 passes (67.4 percent) for 747 yards, four passing touchdowns and 198 rushing yards for three additional scores during that stretch.

The Redskins started 1-2 in 2012, but their quarterback was validating the foyer full of first-round picks the franchise gave up to draft Griffin. That feels like galaxies ago as Griffin is now buried on the Redskins' depth chart.

Shanahan isn't here to compare Griffin with Manziel. But he's shown he can do a few things with athletic quarterbacks.

Shanahan spent the better part of his Thursday news conference pumping up his new quarterback.

"Some of the plays [Manziel] makes, you don’t see a lot of people do," Shanahan siad. "Every coach is excited about a guy who can make plays."

Maybe Shanahan knows something we don't after watching Manziel take first-team reps this week. Maybe he's trying to instill confidence in a young player. Maybe he knows, for a small window, a mobile quarterback with a big arm can tear it up.

Whatever the reason, Shanahan knows Sunday will probably frustrate and satisfy him -- possibly all in the same play.

"I’m sure it’s going to happen pretty fast -- you call a pass play and he’ll do six spins, reverse it back and forth outside the pocket, and I’ll hold my breath and be yelling half the time," said Shanahan about Manziel's improvisational football. "Then I'll probably be running and jumping on top of him excited at the end of it."

The approach from Shanahan is clear -- he wants Manziel playing instinctually, not robotically. That's why the Browns could tailor plays around the running game and give Manziel some play-action looks. Let him throw on the move a few times to find a rhythm.

Shanahan points out Manziel is "very capable" of going through his progressions from the pocket.

"When that ball is snapped, I don’t want him thinking about coaching points," Shanahan said. "I don’t want him thinking about how the play is supposed to be. I want him reacting. Hopefully when someone’s open, he reacts and lets it rip."

Balancing playmaking with sound football will be Manziel's great challenge in Cleveland.

Shanahan plays just as important a role in that process as Manziel does.
BEREA, Ohio — Marvin Lewis’ apology for a very poor choice of words when talking about Johnny Manziel does not change this reality: Lewis is a veteran coach who seemed to show the feelings of many in the NFL toward a celebrated rookie who has yet to accomplish anything in the pros.

Though he apologized for using the word “midget,” when Lewis referred to Manziel’s height, it was not stated as a compliment.

It was almost dismissive, as if to say: You think we’re going to re-do our entire defensive approach for a guy who can’t see over the tackle?

Lewis has had his verbal gaffes this season, but he’s not exactly a coach known for stirring controversy.

Browns coach Mike Pettine admitted that taunts and barbs are something Manziel should expect. It comes from being the guy whose nickname is the sport he plays. And it comes from a guy giving his signature celebration on the stage after he was the 22nd pick in the draft.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel has a lot to prove in the NFL, and he'll have to develop a think skin because of the hype surrounding him.
Not the first, not the second … the 22nd.

The Washington Redskins gave Manziel a face-full of money-sign in preseason and an earful of verbal abuse. He responded with an obscene gesture caught on national TV that drew the ire of his coach.

Two things seem to be taking place. First is the hype and hoopla that Manziel takes wherever he goes. He is somewhat responsible for that — he doesn’t exactly hide from Instagram — but so is a culture that is obsessed with celebrity.

Pettine admits that Manziel has to deal with what he’s created, and what has been created around him. Other players and other teams are well aware he’s in headline after headline and that he was the only backup quarterback to hold a weekly gathering with the media.

It can breed resentment.

That is reality for Manziel.

Another reality is the NFL culture that does not exactly look favorably on those who garner publicity before achievement. The league will respect Manziel if he does well, but until he does, he’s another rookie quarterback who has to prove himself.

That is true for all rookies — but especially true for rookies who are hyped the way Manziel is.

The knock on Manziel when he was drafted was that he was a college quarterback whose style would not translate to the pros. The NFL’s best passers are largely tall, stand-in-the-pocket guys; those are not Manziel’s perceived strengths.

He could be the one to break the mold, but until he does, he’s just another hyped rookie trying to make a living.

When Manziel has been around the team, he acts like any other teammate. He laughs, jokes and interacts like a normal player, which makes all the “what is he like with the team” questions kind of silly.

But on the periphery, Manziel was caught laughing on the sidelines with the Browns way down against Tennessee, was involved in a brouhaha in the lobby of his condominium in the wee hours the day the team flew to an away game, was seated courtside at a Cavs game when the Browns were deciding on a quarterback starter and gave the money sign after his first NFL touchdown, with the Browns losing.

None is a big deal. Taken together, though, other teams and players could look and use it as fodder to remind Manziel he’s a rookie making his first start.

He has the chance to answer all the criticism on Sunday.

But it seems pretty clear that within the league, there is a healthy amount of cynicism about Mr. Football.
CINCINNATI -- Hue Jackson heard about it. Andy Dalton did, too.

So do they believe there was any truth to the report from the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal last month that the Cleveland Browns knew the Cincinnati Bengals' plays in the teams' Week 10 meeting?

"I'm sure there is some fact to it," Dalton said.

Jackson, the team's offensive coordinator, said he wouldn't be surprised if the Browns knew what plays were coming, either.

"Every good offense has tendencies," Jackson said about his 17th-ranked offense. "I'm sure there are certain things they saw that we do. There are certain things that they do that I know they do. At the end of the day, that's just part of football. We'll find out. Come Sunday, the tale of the tape will be there."

The Thursday night the Browns blew out the Bengals 24-3, Cleveland linebacker Karlos Dansby said he and his fellow defenders knew all but about a dozen plays Cincinnati was going to run as soon as its offense got to the line of scrimmage.

"We knew what was coming," Dansby told the Beacon Journal, "so we were all over it."

Dalton threw three interceptions and rookie running back Jeremy Hill turned the ball over when he fumbled at the end of a long run. The Bengals barely generated any offense in the game, collecting 165 yards in the air and on the ground. In easily the worst game of his career, Dalton completed just 10 passes and amassed a 2.0 passer rating, the lowest mark for an NFL quarterback in a game in 31 years.

"We knew exactly what they wanted to do, how they wanted to do it, when they wanted to do it," Dansby said. "We're calling out screens. We're calling out run plays. We're calling out everything right there on the field."

Even when Dalton called an audible at the line, Dansby told the newspaper he and his teammates knew what was about to happen.

Regardless how much the Browns, a team that signed former Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins in the offseason, knew about the Bengals' offense, they have a strong defense. They enter Week 15 with the 20th-ranked unit, but are particularly effective against the pass. Cleveland's defense ranks sixth in opposing quarterbacks' QBR and ninth in passing defense.

Given Dansby's admission, will the Bengals be tweaking their on-field play calls and terminology when they face the Browns in Cleveland on Sunday? It's possible. But they know their execution also has to be better than it was in the previous meeting.

"Whether it be changing stuff or whatever, we're going to do whatever can be to our advantage," Dalton said.
BEREA, Ohio -- Everything Joe Haden does on the field is tailored to one thing.

Conversation.

He wants to spark it, shape it, shake it.

For corners, there’s only one conversation.

“Everything I do is to be the best corner in the game,” said Haden, who matches up again with Cincinnati’s A.J. Green on Sunday in FirstEnergy Stadium.

[+] EnlargeJoe Haden
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBrowns cornerback Joe Haden has had some of his best games against Bengals receiver A.J. Green.
The money -- a five-year, $68 million extension signed in the offseason that includes $45 million guaranteed -- says he’s close. Only Patrick Peterson has more in guarantees at $48 million. The common narrative -- dominated by Richard Sherman, Peterson and Darrelle Revis -- says he’s not. Haden’s name is rarely mentioned with those three.

Browns players and coaches say that needs to change.

“He’s as good as anybody in the league,” safety Jim Leonhard said. “I see it every day. He’s definitely in the conversation.”

The fact that Leonhard is saying this is significant because he played three seasons with Revis in New York, where Revis Island emerged. Revis would cover a top receiver with no safety help and let the other 10 players breathe. Haden anchors the same defense, run by former Jets coordinator Mike Pettine, and does so with the same tenacity, Leonhard said. The Browns mix and match coverages, but Haden will spend a bulk of the game on the best receiver, often in aggressive press-man coverage, with minimal or no help.

The numbers from Haden’s play since early November show he’s making a compelling argument for a spot among the greats.

When primarily matched up with Green, Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson, Julio Jones and Sammy Watkins in Weeks 9-13, Haden held those receivers to a collective average of 4.8 catches, 51.2 yards and 0.2 touchdowns per game.

Jones was the only receiver to score during that span, and that touchdown came off a defensive team breakdown where Haden and safety Donte Whitner bit on a play-action fake, not qualifying as a true downfield coverage touchdown. Jones had five catches for 68 yards against the Browns and followed that up with 10 catches for 189 yards and a score against Peterson and the Cardinals a week later, a fact that’s not lost on Whitner when stumping for Haden. Jones “ate [Peterson] up,” Whitner said, but “not our guy.”

Deepening the intrigue for Sunday’s matchup is Haden’s handle on Green, who has seven catches for 81 yards in his last three meetings with Haden. That’s 27 yards a game. For context, Green averages 91 yards per game in his other 19 regular-season games going back to 2013.

Haden’s biggest struggle came Sunday against T.Y. Hilton, who scored two touchdowns and gained 151 yards in a 25-24 Colts win. But Haden actually played an impressive game, covering four different receivers and causing a fumble on a Hilton tackle. Fifty-one of Hilton’s yards came against other corners, and Hilton’s last-minute, 1-yard touchdown came off a broken rub play. The Colts were on the field for 48 offensive plays in the second half as the Browns' offense sputtered.

The numbers from the first five receivers prompted defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil to call Haden “the best corner in football.” Apparently Pro Bowl voters think so, too as Haden is first in voting.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has seen a lot of Haden over the years. He admires Haden’s play, and doesn't look forward to going against him.

“Great transition, great feet, great length; he plays fearless,” Lewis said. “I really thought those were the qualities he had coming out of Florida. I’m one of his biggest supporters here. I see him week in and week out.”

Haden started the season slow by his standards, with one pass deflection through his first five games. Pettine’s press-man scheme takes time to master. Plus, Haden was dealing with a hip injury that caused more pain than he let on.

Once the hip felt better, he started openly lobbying for more assignments in what he calls the "Revis defense." He revels in the vulnerability, knowing there’s nothing but open grass behind him if he gets caught sleeping.

“I want that responsibility,” Haden said. “When I started getting more of that, I started to get more comfortable.”

The Browns mix and match coverages a lot, so sometimes a play designed for Haden covering the top receiver at the line of scrimmage can turn into something different, such as a shift to another receiver or a zone coverage.

Pettine knows Haden wants the top matchup every down and will get plenty of chances at it. The Browns also know Haden is versatile enough to move all over the line of scrimmage when necessary.

“To me, it’s been kind of a hallmark of our style of defense, our system, to have that type of corner that you can lock down one receiver or one side of the field and be able to kind of allocate resources coverage-wise elsewhere,” Pettine said. “To me, it’s high level.”

Haden agrees he’s “probably” playing the best football of his career, which validates the financial value the team placed on him in the offseason.

Is that enough to elevate Haden’s name into the top-corner discussion? Leonhard will say this: He sees a lot of Revis in Haden.

“There are very few guys that are asked to do what he’s asked to do,” Leonhard said. “Only the special ones can.”

Bengals vs. Browns preview

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11
8:00
AM ET
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland TV: Fox

BEREA, Ohio — Cleveland was abuzz the most recent time the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals played.

The Browns dominated on a Thursday night, and fans who made the trip down Interstate 71 were chanting “Bri-an Hoy-er” during the game and escorting him off the field to heartfelt applause.

Now, Hoyer will be watching as Johnny Manziel makes his first start, with the Browns losing three of four since the win in Cincinnati.

The Bengals, meanwhile, remain in first place in the AFC North and need this victory to stay there. The Browns need it to keep any playoff hope they have alive.

Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Browns reporter Pat McManamon preview Sunday’s game.

McManamon: Marvin Lewis clearly made a big mistake using the word he did about Manziel. What I wonder is this: Is that reflective of the low regard Lewis has for Manziel?

Harvey: First, let me say you’re absolutely right. Lewis made a tremendous mistake using a word to describe Manziel that I know he wished he could have taken back as soon as he said it. It’s worth pointing out Lewis has issued two apologies for saying it, including one Tuesday that had very real contrition and remorse behind it. Kudos to him for the statement.

As for his attitude toward Johnny Football, you might be on to something, Pat. If the head coach holds the rookie in low regard, you’d have to imagine that filters down to the players, too, right? The Bengals simply can’t afford to entertain thoughts such as that, though, which might ultimately make it a good thing for them that Lewis’ comment came to light. Now they have a chance to see how seriously the rest of the football world reacted to it, and maybe that will be enough to keep them serious about preparing for the rookie.

On Manziel, I will say this: I think there is league-wide skepticism among players and coaches, and until he torches a team, some are going to wonder if he has what it takes to last in the NFL. He certainly has a chance to put his stamp on the franchise this weekend.

We know that at this time of year, teams adopt a “survive and advance” mentality. The Browns, of course, made the move to Manziel because they believe he gives them the best chance to win right now. But what about long term? Without the benefit of seeing him yet this weekend, has he done enough to convince the brass he truly is the future in Cleveland?

McManamon: The only thing he’s done to prove anything long-term is be drafted in the first round and bring the excitement to Cleveland that he brought to Texas A&M. At this point, nobody knows, and it almost seems Manziel is starting by default. If Hoyer had produced decently against Indianapolis and the Browns had won, the job would be Hoyer’s. It almost seemed Mike Pettine wanted to be able to stick with the same starter all season, but his hand was forced by recent offensive and quarterback struggles.

Nobody truly knows if Manziel is ready to run a complex system, to read coverage and pressures, to stand in the pocket and make a throw. There are many opinions about his readiness to do so, but we've seen nothing concrete -- other than how he plays in the next three games.

Manziel's strength is the ability to move and escape. How does that fare against Cincinnati's defense?

Harvey: Truthfully, it could be problematic for Bengals defenders. In consecutive weeks in October, the unit faced Cam Newton and Andrew Luck, two bigger-bodied signal-callers who know how to extend a pocket and sometimes race outside of it. In Newton’s case, he was so good about eluding defenders, particularly on the read-option, he rushed for 107 yards. Quarterbacks aren’t supposed to gain that many yards on the ground in a game, no matter who they are. Although Luck didn’t really run the next week, the threat of his potential to escape gave the Bengals something else to prepare for in their 27-0 loss at Indianapolis.

Part of the issue in those two games was defensive tackle Geno Atkins seldom got pressure through the line’s interior, in both read-option and passing situations. The ends didn’t do a good job of pinching the pocket, either. There were problems at linebacker, particularly in the second game, after outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict suffered a first-quarter injury. With other linebackers hurt, the Bengals played three backups at those positions, and communication issues ran rampant. Although they won’t have Burfict this week, the Bengals do at least have a better assembled group at linebacker this week. They could be the most important players in Cincinnati’s defense to counter Manziel.

I know you were floored by Cleveland’s not using Josh Gordon last week. What, if anything, gives you optimism he’ll get back to his dominant, productive self this week?

McManamon: I don’t know that I’m optimistic, because I was convinced Gordon would come off his suspension eager and determined to prove to his teammates and fans that he had dedicated himself to coming back ready to contribute. It looked that way against Atlanta, but it didn’t in the past six quarters against Buffalo and Indianapolis.

Some could put this on the quarterback. I don’t. Gordon has seemed confused and lackadaisical. By the coach’s admission, Gordon has not gone all-out on some balls. He missed some key catches that great receivers make. The fact that it didn’t happen in the first three games is more than disappointing. His pride and, perhaps, the presence of Manziel are the only intangibles to grab onto to trust he improves.

A.J. Green had a huge game last week, but he gets his nemesis Joe Haden this week. Can Green escape the funk he's been in when facing Haden?

Harvey: I’m going to go out on a limb and say yes. Here’s why: We are currently looking at arguably the best stretch of football Green has had in his career. He’s gained more than 100 yards receiving in three of his past four games. He’s also set personal records in those games and came close to franchise marks,. He had a career-high 12 catches at Houston three weeks ago and then a career-high in yards with 224 this past Sunday against the Steelers. Speaking of the Steelers, all but three of Green’s 11 catches came on cornerback Ike Taylor, who, like Haden, had been owning the Pro Bowl wide receiver over the years.

Yes, Taylor might have lost a step this season after a series of injuries, and Haden might know Green better than any corner in the game because of their battles dating back to college, but I still like Green’s chances this week. Haden will probably restrict Green from going long, which means screens and slants are possibilities. I wouldn’t expect a 100-yard game from Green, but an eight-catch, 90-yard, one-touchdown line wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility. Now that Green’s right toe is back to full health (it wasn’t in the first meeting), this should be the most intriguing matchup of the game.

After the teams’ November meeting, Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill said he didn’t think the Browns were all that good. Clearly, Cleveland’s defense is pretty solid, though (it ranks better than Cincinnati’s). How much might Hill’s comments serve as bulletin-board material for the defense this week?

McManamon: If any words inspire anyone, Coley, it might be Lewis’ dismissive remark about Manziel. That might anger the rookie enough to keep him a touch more focused and motivated.

In truth, though, I don’t put much stock in verbal sparring energizing a team. If you need words to get you going, you’ve been cheating your team in previous games because you didn’t give your all. The discussion about it sounds interesting leading up to the game, but it’s forgotten if the insulted team does not win. Remember before the first meeting, when Greg Little said someone had to pay?

Guys can use the words to stoke their fires, but it still comes down to blocking, catching, running and tackling. Hill’s words, while silly and inflammatory, might be treated with a shrug. The Browns have enough on their plates in trying to stay alive in a playoff hunt with a rookie quarterback.
BEREA, Ohio -- Karlos Dansby described how a defensive player feels when he knows the opposing team will start a rookie quarterback.

"You start licking your chops," Dansby said.

Enter Johnny Manziel, who gets his first start Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. Coach Mike Pettine made the decision to start Manziel over Brian Hoyer, and admitted that as a defensive coach he feels he starts with an advantage when facing a rookie.

The numbers from his past indicate just that. Pettine was defensive coordinator in Buffalo and New York, and when he was with Rex Ryan in New York he was involved in the details of almost every gameplan. Rookies went 3-6 against those two teams, and the defenses gave up seven touchdowns with 14 interceptions.

The combined completion percentage of all rookies against Pettine-coached defenses was below 50 percent, and the quarterback rating combined was below 40.

It's not an aberration, or a surprise.

No Browns rookie has won his first start since 1999. And the Ravens are 9-3 against rookies in the John Harbaugh era. Since 2008, Baltimore has allowed rookies just four touchdowns to go with 19 interceptions.

This does not mean that Pettine made the wrong decision to start Manziel.

"He's an NFL quarterback," Dansby said. "So if you come in thinking he's not going to be prepared, you're crazy."

The Browns under Pettine have faced Blake Bortles and Derek Carr, losing to Jacksonville and beating Oakland. Combined the two completed 63.1 percent with two TDs and three interceptions.

The wild card for the Browns and Manziel is his mobility.

"Whether it's a rookie or not, a mobile quarterback presents certainly more challenges for a defense than one where you can pretty much draw an 'x' and know that he's going to be within a yard or two from that 'x' on most pass plays," Pettine said. "The ability to improvise, to make plays off schedule, to extend plays, that can be very problematic for a defense."

Which presents both the blessing and the challenge with Manziel. Pettine said the Browns will not re-write the playbook, but will emphasize a different part of it. He knows that Manziel brings quickness and elusiveness, but he also knows that an NFL quarterback can't make a living running.

"On every drop back pass he cannot look to turn it into a punt return," Pettine said.

That is Russell Wilson's strength. He's considered a running quarterback, but he also is an accurate passer (63.4 percent) who can throw on the move and from the pocket. He runs when he can, but he does not make his living running.

Every one of the top 10-rated NFL quarterbacks is a stand-in-the-pocket guy. In that group, Andrew Luck probably is the most effective when he runs. Of the top 20, only two can be considered runners -- Alex Smith of Kansas City and Wilson of Seattle.

Manziel can run, but key is to be judicious when he does so.

"It's got to be if the read is there throw it, take the yards and move onto the next one," Pettine said. "Now, every once in awhile when it's not there and the first read isn't there, the second read isn't there, now all of the sudden I have to get out of the pocket and make a play, then make a play."

Finding that balance, Pettine said, is key.

"We just don't want to turn it into, 'Hey, let's run his college offense and let it turn into street ball,'" Pettine said. "But we also don't want to say, 'Hey listen, here's the playbook. We need to follow this exactly to the letter.' We're not going to do that either."
BEREA, Ohio -- As he heads to the bench as the NFL’s 31st-ranked passer, Brian Hoyer should not be remembered solely for losing the Cleveland Browns' starting quarterback job to Johnny Manziel down the playoff stretch.

Hoyer did a lot of good things for the Browns. Not since Derek Anderson in 2007 had a Browns quarterback won enough meaningful games in Cleveland without looking overwhelmed.

Hoyer
Of course, he looked overwhelmed Sunday against Indianapolis. The starting job, the looming free agency, the flashy rookie backup -- it all came crashing down on Hoyer in the final weeks. You’ve probably seen the stats. Hoyer has one touchdown and eight interceptions in his last five games. Twenty-eight of his last 29 drives went without an end-zone trip.

But for half a season, nobody embodied the Browns’ bandit of offensive overachievers more than Hoyer, who ran Kyle Shanahan’s play-actions deftly while the running game did the rest.

Hoyer deserves credit for the Browns’ seven wins in their first 11 games, which made head coach Mike Pettine so hesitant to pull the trigger. Hoyer got them this far. He was the trusty vet. He started with seven touchdowns to one interception, holding off Manziel with his late-game play. Pettine admits the call to the bullpen was very hard personally.

"The NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business," Pettine said. "The body of work was trending in the wrong direction."

Manziel stayed on the bench this long in part because of this stat: Hoyer was 16-of-22 for 176 yards, a touchdown pass and two set-up field goals for wins when he had the ball in the final minutes with a deficit but a chance to win. The Browns finished 3-2 in those opportunities.

He kept the passing game respectable without Josh Gordon and without Jordan Cameron in spurts. Hoyer can’t win games by himself -- which is sort of the new-age barometer for high-level quarterbacks -- but with a good running game, you can win games with Hoyer.

Hoyer sensed the irony Monday, pointing out he's gone from free agency topic to a possible benching in weeks.

Somebody will scoop up Hoyer on the open market for at least high-level-backup money. Tennessee makes a ton of sense, giving coach Ken Whisenhunt a chance to reconnect with a former Arizona Cardinals player while applying pressure on Zach Mettenberger.

Playing in the final three games this season is still plausible, though unlikely, and signing a backup deal to stay in Cleveland might not make sense for him.

If this past Sunday was his last game action in FirstEnergy Stadium, fans should tip a few hats for him this Sunday in pre-game.

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