You'd be hard pressed to find any quarterback, not just Johnny Manziel, that could've succeeded for the Cleveland Browns on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Where do we even begin?
From the get-go, the offensive line was overmatched by Cincinnati's front seven. The Bengals sacked Manziel three times but lived in the backfield the entire game. The quarterback was constantly fleeing the pocket to buy time. Some of that is on him, to know when to properly throw to the right read, but veteran guard John Greco was adamant the Browns didn't give their quarterback a fair chance at succeeding on Sunday.
"We didn't do our job as an offensive line to help him," Greco said. "This is not all on his shoulders. There are 11 guys on the field , and we obviously fell short. We have to do more to get him out of those holes."
There was a key third-down drop from Andrew Hawkins and another from Travis Benjamin that led to a Bengals interception, which was ultimately nullified on a penalty.
There were 40 yards rushing combined from Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West. Penalties stunting any progress became the norm with nine total from the Browns on offense and defense. Fans moaned and eventually booed.
Here's the thing about the Browns' offense: This was not just a game where they laid an egg; it was the culmination of two months of ineffectiveness hitting the fan.
Since throttling the Bengals, 24-3, on Nov. 6, the Browns have averaged 13 points per game, a total that includes two defensive touchdowns last week against the Colts.
The formula coach Mike Pettine and the rest of the team have discussed — running the football, controlling the clock and minimizing the impact the quarterback has to make — isn't producing victories anymore.
It's Week 15. There's no sugarcoating that, outside of the Falcons, opposing defenses have figured out how to stop Crowell and West. And when Cleveland has needed Brian Hoyer, or, in this week, Manziel, the dominoes aren't falling the Browns' way.
Give the Browns some credit in recognizing this. With Manziel, Cleveland came out with a completely unique game plan, trying to utilize the read-option, wild formations and the rookie quarterback's legs.
It just didn't work.
"Everything was smooth in practice," said wide receiver Josh Gordon, who led the team with three catches and 48 yards. "Simulating the game is hard to be done. When you are out there thrown into the fire, you have to be ready for anything. It's not going to look like practice."
NFL Network's Ian Rapaport reported the Bengals watched film and practiced all week on how to defend the option, and they executed to a T. Defensive linemen stayed at home, crashing in on the pocket while linebackers plugged holes. In prior weeks, the Browns have been at least able to scheme some wide receivers open for big chunk plays. There was none of that against Cincinnati.
The result was unpleasant for Cleveland. Only two drives out of 10 produced first downs. The Bengals ran 71 plays, the Browns ran 38. Manziel's longest series – a 10 play, 51-yarder – ended with the quarterback flinging the ball into the end zone and Cincinnati's Adam Jones picking off the pass.
"To me it's so much more of a function of the team than the individual," said coach Pettine. "Disappointing start for [Manziel] absolutely. There were a few flashes of what he's capable of, but to me just overall...I don't want to just dwell on the one position. We've got to play better."
Nobody carried the disappointment of the demoralizing loss more than Joe Thomas. Cleveland's longest tenured player last got this close to the playoffs way back in his rookie season in 2007, ultimately falling short despite a 10-6 record.
Five weeks after sitting on top of the AFC North, the Browns' loss on Sunday makes their hopes to play in January almost mathematically impossible.
"The NFL is a not for long league," Thomas said in a desolate locker room. "You can go from first to worst real quick…it's incredibly disappointing."
Next week, the Browns will travel to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers. It might behoove Cleveland to throw the football more with Manziel next week – he tossed the ball just 18 times against Cincinnati.
The Browns, like all NFL teams, are always in evaluation mode of the entire roster. The team needs to get a gauge on how prolific a passer Manziel can be in the NFL. The only way to do that is to let him loose vs. the Panthers.