Duke Johnson Jr.
DETROIT – The Cleveland Browns' starting quarterback battle got a lot more intriguing during Saturday night's preseason-opener against the Detroit Lions.
Johnny Manziel did enough good things in his first taste of NFL action to show that he is very much in the fight and that it hardly should be a foregone conclusion that he won't start the Sept. 7 regular-season opener at Pittsburgh.
Manziel looked poised and confident, ignoring the fairly loud booing he heard from the Ford Field crowd when he entered the game in place of Brian Hoyer with 7:32 left in the second quarter.
Once he settled in, Manziel made some superb throws and dynamic runs, showing the kind of Johnny Football play-making skills that made him such an iconic player at Texas A&M. He completed seven of 11 passes for 63 yards, ran six times for a team-high 27 yards, and led a drive that set up Billy Cundiff's third field goal of the night. He kept his mistakes to a minimum.
We'll put the disclaimer here that all of this happened against the Lions' backup defenders, but it was still impressive, especially when you consider that he worked with the second-unit offense. His protection wasn't as good as what Hoyer enjoyed, and he didn't work with the most reliable of receivers.
"I think for me it was a good start," Manziel said. "You've got to start somewhere and you have to set a foundation. I got my feet wet. I got my first preseason game under my belt, and now we've got three more and then head into the season."
Hoyer looked pretty much like he has since the start of training camp. Solid. Efficient. Nothing exceptional, but nothing awful. He completed six of 14 passes for 92 yards and led a pair of field-goal drives. Hoyer should have had a couple of more completions, including a would-be touchdown that Josh Gordon dropped in the back of the end zone.
He did nothing to show that he shouldn't remain the starter, but Manziel clearly displayed the skills that allow him to consistently make something out of nothing. That was a big reason the Browns made him the 22nd overall pick of the draft and that, ultimately, is likely to be the reason he will become the starter, whether it's for next Monday night's preseason game at Washington, the regular-season opener or later.
The disappointment for both quarterbacks was the inability to generate a touchdown.
"We kind of hurt ourselves," Hoyer said. "For me, I had a bad read on one third down. We just have to continue to improve when the live bullets are flying. We can't settle for three; we've got to score touchdowns."
Said Manziel, "I felt like I just wanted to go out and try and get some completions, try and get some things rolling, put ourselves in position to score some points. Now we just need to get over that hump of getting out of the red zone and putting it in the end zone."
Here are some observations about how Hoyer and Manziel performed:
Hoyer mostly made good decisions. At least two of his passes were dropped. Besides the one by Gordon in the end zone, there was another by Miles Austin along the sidelines.
Hoyer connected with fullback MarQueis Gray, who was wide open, for a 28-yard gain. That's a glimpse of the offensive creativity we'll continue to see from coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
Shanahan incorporated read-option plays into the offense exclusively for Manziel, who ran the scheme in college. On his first series, the Browns went three-and-out, with the last play a read-option run that went nowhere. It was sort of a welcome-to-the-NFL moment, with Manziel realizing that even backup defenders can run as fast as he does.
But Manziel started getting into a groove in the second half. He had a nice run for eight yards deep in Lions territory, and that play seemed to set off a spark in his performance. On the verge of taking a hit, Manziel managed to complete a pass to rookie running back Terrance West to set up Cundiff's first of back-to-back 41-yard field goals to give the Browns a 9-6 lead. Although he ran six times, Manziel took his hardest hits by waiting until the last possible second to throw.
Manziel executed a perfect play fake before completing a 14-yard dart to rookie receiver Taylor Gabriel. After overthrowing Gabriel, Manziel, on third-and-eight, scrambled for 16 yards, finishing off the run with a smart, feet-first-slide.
Late in the third quarter, Manziel connected with Charles Johnson on a pretty, 15-yard screen. And, on fourth-and-one from Lions' 29, Manziel scrambled just far enough to get the first down. He was leading a promising drive that seemed certain to result in points before it ended with a Dion Lewis fumble.
Manziel helped get the Browns out of a deep hole by throwing an eight-yard pass as he was about to take a hit, and followed that up with another nice completion to Johnson. After a false start, Manziel showed some signs of leadership by clapping his hands to urge the offense to shake off the setback and keep plugging. Then he connected with Gabriel for 11 yards. His final play was a pass that Willie Snead allowed to sail through his hands on third-and-four at the Browns' 33.
"More than anything, personally, I think it was good for me to just get out there, go through game speed, (deal with) getting tackled," Manziel said. "We're live. It's a hundred percent live. It's a different look than in practice." >>Be sure to tune in Monday through Friday, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. ET, for "Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford" on ESPN 850 WKNR or catch the live stream right here on ClevelandBrowns.com. We take your questions at 216-578-0850 and via Twitter @Browns_Daily.