By Joshua Brown
July 23, 2014
BEREA (AP) — It’s time for football, Johnny.
After months of having his off-field behavior analyzed, scrutinized and criticized, Johnny Manziel will again be the center of attention.
This time, though, it won’t be for swigging champagne on an inflatable swan, but during his first NFL training camp as he and Brian Hoyer battle for the Browns’ starting quarterback job.
The Hoyer-Manziel showdown will dominate camp until someone is named the winner, and that decision from first-year coach Mike Pettine will not come until the third exhibition game (Aug. 23).
Manziel earned his “Johnny Football” nickname during a stellar career at Texas A&M, where his daring, dazzling scrambles and improvisational skills made him a college star. It’s probably not going to be nearly as easy for him at this level.
The Browns drafted Manziel in the first round, selecting him to hopefully end a decade-plus problem at the game’s most vital position. It may be only a matter of time before Manziel unseats Hoyer, a career backup who started three games last season before tearing his right knee ligament.
Hoyer enters camp with a slight lead in the starter’s competition. It’s up to him to keep it.
A lifelong Browns fan, Hoyer, who has full medical clearance, is determined to hold off Manziel. The pressure will be immense as every pass, incompletion, interception and touchdown will be viewed and examined by media members and thousands of fans, who had to register online just to be able to watch practices this summer.
Cleveland fans appear divided over Hoyer, the hometown hero, and Manziel, the fun-loving curiosity.
The Browns, too, will feel some heat — from fans, TV networks, advertisers — to push Manziel along.
Let the duel begin.
Here are some other things to watch as the Browns, who haven’t won more than five games since 2007, open a highly anticipated camp:
GORDON GONE?: Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon’s clouded situation has cast a cloud over the Browns’ hopes. Gordon, who led the league in yards receiving last season, may be facing an indefinite ban for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy again. The 23-year-old hasn’t helped his cause with two recent arrests — one for alleged DUI in North Carolina. If Gordon is done for the season, the Browns may have to drastically alter their offensive scheme, and find some playmakers. Their receiving group is thin.
PETTINE’S PATIENCE: The team’s third coach in three years, Pettine, who spent last season as Buffalo’s defensive coordinator, is doing all he can to change Cleveland’s culture. Pettine has come across as pragmatic, insightful and passionate. Players seem to be buying in, but until the Browns start winning games, all the positive talk is just talk. One of Pettine’s early challenges will be managing the hype around the Hoyer-Manziel competition.
RUNNING AMOK: Once they traded running back Trent Richardson last season, the Browns’ running game shifted into reverse. Cleveland tied for 27th overall in yards rushing, a sad statistic for a franchise renowned for running backs such as Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan learned the Xs and Os of a sound running game from his father, Mike, who turned unknown backs into Pro Bowlers in Denver. With a new zone-blocking scheme and Pro Bowlers Joe Thomas and Alex Mack up front, the Browns should open holes for Ben Tate (free agent) and rookie Terrance West.
SACK ATTACK: Pettine wants an aggressive defense, and he’s identified DE Jabaal Sheard as a player who could make a major impact this season. Sheard was moved to outside linebacker last season, and while he did an admirable job in coverage, he recorded just 5½ sacks, a career-low. The Browns are expected to turn Sheard loose and Cleveland’s defensive front needs more production from Paul Kruger (4½ sacks) and Barkevious Mingo (five sacks). Sheard, too, is in the final year of his contract.
PRIMARY TARGET: Gordon’s potential suspension could make things much tougher on Pro Bowl TE Jordan Cameron, who had a breakout season with 80 catches for 917 yards and seven TDs last year. Cameron is in the final year of his contract and would like an extension, but he’ll have a tough time matching his ‘13 stats without Gordon to stretch the field and tie up defenders.