Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Stirring the Pot in Cleveland

With the Cleveland Browns, nothing breeds impatience than a pot that just won’t boil.  So turn up the heat and something will find its way to the surface.
Here they sit, improbably at 7-5 and still very much on the cusp of a potential playoff spot, and find themselves in the middle of a quarterback controversy.  Some teams stumble into controversy.  Others have it thrust upon them by outsiders.  The Browns have an advanced degree of concocting their own.
When head coach Mike Pettine named Brian Hoyer his starter way back in the ancient days of training camp, most assumed it was only temporary anyway.  Hoyer always seemed to be one bad throw from having to give dad back the keys to the Pontiac.  Pettine claimed then that Hoyer had no cause to look over his shoulder and that seemed to be mostly true during the various peaks and valleys that is the arc of a true back up’s career.
But was it ever really true?  For the last month anyway Hoyer has been clinging to the fraying strands of his grip on the starter’s job with the only thing seeming to keep those strands from breaking was Pettine’s dogged determination not to have to deal with his hot mess of a backup, Johnny Manziel. If Hoyer didn’t see Pettine looking over his shoulder then he should get his peripheral vision checked.
Pettine’s comment after the win against Atlanta was the most telling.  He said that Hoyer had kept both teams in that game.  Indeed has a Cleveland coach in any sport offered such succinct and spot on assessment of one of its assets?  Still and despite what his eyes and heart and mind were telling him he couldn’t pull the plug on Hoyer heading into the Buffalo game.  The team was 7-4 and playing on the road against a team that played a previous “home” game several hundred miles away on a Monday night.  From that perch 8-4 looked like a fairly good bet and Hoyer despite everything still struck everyone as the better option.
What Pettine did do was what he could do.  When it became the only option left on the table Sunday as Hoyer looked as if he was an apparition sent to replay the performance from the previous week, step by exact step, Pettine turned to Manziel.
It worked, sort of, at least for a series.  But the crippling injuries on a team, indeed a franchise, known for its astounding lack of depth, were far harder to overcome than the equally mediocre Buffalo Bills and the Browns went down, losing in a way so reminiscent of past performances that it made you wonder what the odds in Vegas are right now on them finishing 7-9.
The decision to put in the mercurial Manziel was always fraught with the exact consequences currently playing out in Berea and about town.  Ostensibly it’s about which quarterback gives the team the best chance to win this week.  In reality it’s a far more complex question.
If, for example, general manager Ray Farmer, along with Pettine, more or less reasonably conclude that the chances of this team making the playoffs is small, sticking with Manziel is the more useful option.  Hoyer has a contract coming due at season’s end and as of right now he wants to be paid like the starter he was.  If Manziel succeeds as the starter than the Browns will have their answer on whether to try and re-sign Hoyer.  If Manziel fails, the hometown Hoyer remains a viable option, albeit an option with a little leverage he’d be wise to exercise.  If that’s what’s in Farmer’s and Pettine’s heads then it’s probably worth that gamble either way.
Even if Farmer and Pettine believe the playoffs are potentially in reach I’m not sure the calculus much changes.  Hoyer looks to be playing on whatever borrowed time a backup gets once the lightning in the bottle starts to dissipate.  More probably, defensive coordinators around the league are simply earning their pay and have snuffed out every last tendency of Hoyer’s and have instructed their charges accordingly.  That being the case, it’s also been just as clear that Hoyer right now doesn’t seem to have another gear or another trick.  So for Farmer and Pettine, going with Manziel now for much the same reasons as if the team isn’t playoff contenders still stands.
Yet there’s the cynical me, born of one spiritless and demoralizing season after another that feels there’s a much broader more sinister question that Farmer and Pettine are really trying to answer and that’s whether their growing concerns about Manziel are justified.
 If Manziel isn’t ready, with whom does such fault lie?  I know how Pettine and Farmer would answer the question if shot up first with sodium pentothal.  They put it squarely on the party-hearty Manziel’s rather narrow shoulders.  Manziel at the moment seems to have the work ethic of the typical 10th grader.  He may go through the reps and sit through the meetings but you always sense he has one eye on the clock, waiting for the bell to ring.  If he’s doing his homework that isn’t evident.
Travis Benjamin, talking almost recklessly to the media on Monday, let it out that Manziel sometimes has trouble with the terminology used to call the team’s plays and that the receivers have to correct him in the huddle.  Then there was the recent incident.  Forget every particular save one.  It occurred at 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday, about 34 ½ hours before kickoff.  It isn’t just that nothing good ever happens at 2:30 a.m. on a weekend night.  It’s also that nothing good ever happens at 2:30 a.m. on a weekend night before a game for a player with aspirations to be the team’s leader.
I’m not saying that Manziel should have been back in his apartment studying the playbook, whatever merit that has for a guy that can’t remember the terminology.  I am saying that at the very least he should be home sleeping or at least home.  It does matter what people think, including Manziel’s teammates and right now, this late in the season, Manziel hasn’t seemed to learn a god damn thing about perception, reality and responsibility after the 28 missteps he’s taken just since signing with the Browns.
My real sense is that while Farmer and Pettine do want to see exactly what they have in Manziel because of the impact on whether to sign Hoyer, it has less to do with whether to re-sign Hoyer than it does with whetherr to move Manziel in the offseason. But the process to figuring that out is very public and what the Browns see will be seen by every other team that might otherwise be willing to part with draft picks to grab Manziel.
The risk then, the most likely reason really why Farmer and Pettine haven’t already named Manziel their starter for this week at least is that they are plussing and minusing the risk that Manziel will blow it and the ramifications that flow from that.  In other words, it would surprise exactly no one if Farmer in particular and perhaps Pettine are starting to get a more intimate understanding of why Manziel’s draft status dropped so precipitously in the first place.  That being the case, it makes some perverse sense to keep alive the mystique of Johnny Football than reveal that wannabe king is wearing no jock.
While I find this all so intriguing and fun, I’m more fascinated by the simple twists and turns of a franchise that treats success as the worst thing to happen since failure. 
By many measures this season has already been a success. Even if the team doesn’t win another game it still will have more victories than in all but 3 of the last 15 seasons.  They seem to have found a serviceable head coach in Pettine.  His mistakes tend to be of the rookie coach variety but his approach seems sound.  They have a top notch receiver and some nice complements around him.  Heck, Hoyer has played well in more games than almost any other Cleveland quarterback in the last 15 years.  The offensive line, at least with Alex Mack, was playing well.  The linebackers are having a good year.  In short, there’s reason for real down the road optimism, save perhaps for the long term prospects of Hoyer.
But this wouldn’t be Cleveland and it wouldn’t be the Browns if in the midst of it all some controversy didn’t develop.  In that sense the Johnny vs. Brian storyline in the midst of a playoff run is a healthy return to the team’s ignominious roots. It’s just that for all the progress made why does it still seem like the team is standing still?

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