AFC North: Cleveland Browns

Browns vs. Ravens preview

December, 25, 2014
Dec 25
video When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore TV: CBS

There are different motivations and injury concerns in Sunday's season regular-season finale between the Baltimore Ravens (9-6) and Cleveland Browns (7-8).

The Browns are looking for their first non-losing season since 2007, which would be an even bigger accomplishment considering the state of Cleveland's quarterbacks. Undrafted rookie Connor Shaw may have to start after Johnny Manziel went down with a season-ending hamstring injury and Brian Hoyer injured his shoulder and biceps.

The Ravens are trying to make the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. To do that, they have to beat the Browns and the San Diego Chargers have to lose at Kansas City. The Ravens are limping to the end of the regular season, especially at offensive tackle. Starting right tackle Rick Wagner was placed on injured reserve this week, and left tackle Eugene Monroe is dealing with a foot injury.

ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley take a closer look at Sunday's AFC North showdown.

Hensley: The Browns have struggled mightily on offense. How much can be attributed to the play at quarterback?

McManamon: Well, given the same struggles took place with both quarterbacks it’s certainly not all them. The Brown have not run the ball consistently well since Alex Mack broke his leg, and that affects the offense because much of what Kyle Shanahan wants to do is based on play-action. Josh Gordon has been sleepwalking since he returned from a 10-game suspension. And losing Miles Austin took away the team’s best third-down receiver. That being said, the quarterback also has a role to play. Manziel simply was not NFL-ready, so his play was just poor. He appeared completely overmatched -- though he does have an offseason to prove he’s not. Hoyer won 10 games in 16 starts, but he too struggled. His struggles, though, seemed to reflect the offense’s. When the entire offense struggled, Hoyer had his roughest games. So to answer your question, the issues are everyone’s, but at quarterback more Manziel’s than Hoyer’s.

Houston put a big hurt on the Ravens. It's the same defense that made the Browns' offense look bad. Did Joe Flacco struggle and is he that inconsistent, or should some credit be given to Houston's defense?

Hensley: If you're asking coach John Harbaugh and the players, all the credit has to go to the Houston's defense. Flacco and wide receiver Steve Smith both said that they got their butts kicked by the Texans. And while the Texans did physically dominate the Ravens, some of the blame has to go to the coaching staff for not making any adjustments. The Texans blitzed heavily up the middle, which collapsed the pocket and stopped the Ravens from double-teaming J.J. Watt. The Texans gave the blueprint to slowing down the Ravens' offense. If you stop the Ravens' running game, it forces predictable passing situations on second and third downs. When teams blitz, especially on those third-and-longs, the Ravens don't make teams pay by sending extra rushers. The Ravens' offense needs to find a way to get out of its December funk.

The Ravens are concerned about their pass protection after their struggles in Houston and their injury situation at both offensive tackle spots. How would you assess the Browns' ability to pressure the quarterback this season?

McManamon: Fair but not great and not consistent. Paul Kruger has had a solid season with 10 sacks, but Barkevious Mingo has been playing with a harness on his shoulder that does not let him lift his arm above his shoulder. Desmond Bryant has had a strong season, but a 3-4 end doesn’t get many sacks. Were I the Ravens, I’d concentrate on chipping Kruger and perhaps Mingo and taking my chances on holding the interior with the team’s offensive line.

The Ravens seem like a playoff-quality team. If they don't make it, can you put your finger on one game or one area of the team that did not come through?

Hensley: Even though the Ravens' defense has been a strength this month -- two touchdowns allowed in the past three games -- the secondary will be the reason the Ravens don't reach the postseason. In the season opener, cornerback Chykie Brown (since released) gave up a winning 77-yard touchdown to A.J. Green. In early November, the Ravens gave up six touchdown passes to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. In late November, the Ravens watched Philip Rivers throw a winning 1-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Royal with 38 seconds left. Even if the Ravens could have pulled out one of those games, they would control whether they make the playoffs.

The Browns have lost their last 11 regular-season games in December and January, the longest active streak in the NFL. Is there any chance of them pulling off an upset?

McManamon: It’s pretty slim. The Browns are out of it and going through the same old routine of playing hard because it’s one of 16 and all that stuff. But with Manziel out with a hamstring injury and Hoyer questionable with a throwing-shoulder injury, Shaw may have to come off the practice squad to start. I know Case Keenum came off the street last Sunday to win in Houston, but Keenum at least had a decent idea of NFL game speed because he had played before. Shaw is an eminently nice guy and good talent, but we saw what happened to Manziel in his first start against a team with playoff aspirations. Shaw will be making his first start as an undrafted free agent. The Browns played well with Hoyer the first time the teams played, but his availability won't be known until probably Sunday.

Do people in Baltimore marvel at the Browns' inability to get it right? Or do they just think, "Better them than us"?

Hensley: When the Browns first came back into the league, there were sympathetic feelings toward Cleveland. Baltimore football fans know what it feels like when a storied franchise gets ripped from a city. These days, there is a "shake my head" attitude toward the Browns after the countless changes at head coach, the front office and quarterback. Since 2008, the Ravens have had one starting quarterback (Flacco) while the Browns have gone through 13 (and Shaw would make it No. 14 on Sunday). I will say that the Ravens themselves didn't think the Browns would be pushovers this season. The Ravens have a strong respect for the defense that the Browns are building. And, after the Ravens struggled against Jacksonville and lost in Houston, they know they can't afford to take any team lightly.

BEREA, Ohio -- It hasn’t been a great run recently for the Cleveland Browns' 2014 first-round draft picks.

Johnny Manziel started two games, struggled much more than any backup even should and said Tuesday he didn’t take the transition from college to pros seriously enough.

[+] EnlargeJustin Gilbert
Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsWhile Justin Gilbert has disappointed as a rookie, coach Mike Pettine said it's unfair to call him a draft bust.
Justin Gilbert watched in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week as Pierre Desir and Jordan Poyer took his playing time, then had to read as safety Donte Whitner said Gilbert had to “stop being a kid.”

Whitner said there was no reaction from Gilbert on the remarks.

“Because it’s the truth,” Whitner said. “That’s all I’m going to say about that. He understands that and we’re going to move forward. We need him to be that fourth or fifth guy in the secondary and go out and make plays that we can rely on.”

Mike Pettine didn’t hide from the remarks, or the assessments.

But when asked what it said about the first-rounders, he responded pointedly as well.

“What do you mean, ‘What does it say?’” Pettine said. “Are we ready to write both these players off as busts because they didn’t produce as rookies? I’m nowhere near that point. That’s a knee-jerk.”

Which is accurate.

But it’s not knee-jerk to say that both have been disappointing, especially late in the season -- Gilbert far more so than Manziel. A quarterback has a tough transition to the NFL, and rookies typically struggle early.

Manziel may have struggled more than expected, but he promised (again) on Tuesday to be more dedicated next season. Next season is a phrase Browns fans are accustomed to hearing, but Manziel’s words indicate he knows there is work to do.

Pettine said it was equal parts alarming and encouraging with what Manziel said.

The words about Gilbert are troubling, though. Both Whitner and Karlos Dansby said it’s up to Gilbert to grow up and become a professional. He had one two-week stretch of training camp when he played well, but other than that his season has been a disappointment.

The reason veterans are so pointed?

They are veterans. They know what it takes to succeed, to win, and they didn’t see it. Every year that a 7-4 start disintegrates makes them another year older, and brings in two or three younger guys to take their place.

“You can’t teach toughness,” Whitner said. “But you can teach a guy how to be focused and how to go about his job and be a pro.”

The Browns have said several times that few rookies step in immediately at cornerback. But while they say that K’Waun Williams, an undrafted rookie, stepped in and contributed, another rookie, Desir, originally was slated to spend the season learning. Gilbert’s struggles, though, forced the Browns to put Desir on the field and he responded well.

Pettine said over and over that he’s confident the Browns will “see a better Justin Gilbert” in 2015.

“It’s not his ability, but it’s a lot of the little things,” Pettine said. “It’s how he prepares each week. It’s just a lot of stuff that’s internal, and our guys see it. … If he didn’t have the potential to kind of live up to the hype, live up to the where we took him then I think our guys wouldn’t really deal with him.”

The problem is that 2014 became a wasted season -- which is never good when a team takes a guy in the top 10.
BEREA, Ohio — Mike Pettine had a message for Joe Thomas on Wednesday, the morning after Thomas had been named to his eighth Pro Bowl in eight years.

“I told hiim they’re going to rename it,” said Pettine, who has been very quick with a quip even as the Browns' strong start faded in the final month “Call it the Joe Thomas Invitational. Or the Joe Thomas and Friend Pro Bowl.”

That’s because Thomas is a regular in the game the way he has been a regular at left tackle for the Browns from the day he was drafted. Thomas has not missed a snap for the Browns, and he has not missed a Pro Bowl.

Pro Football Focus rates him the second best tackle in the NFL, and Stats Inc. reported that Thomas gave up two sacks in 15 games while PFF had it at one sack.

Either way the total is miniscule.

Thomas was flagged for nine penalties (six enforced), but there is nothing but consensus that he was deserving of being the first offensive lineman in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first eight season. The only Browns to go to more were Jim Brown and Lou Groza, with nine each.

“Consistently superb play,” is the way Pettine described Thomas.

As for renaming the game in his honor, Thomas laughed.

“It’s a good thing to be kidded about,” he said.

Pettine also was emotional about free safety Tashaun Gipson, who made the Pro Bowl despite missing the season’s last five games with a knee injury.

Gipson led the league in interceptions much of the season, but the way he got to the league made his story endearing.

Gipson was barely recruited out of Dallas, followed his brother to Wyoming where he underwent a serious culture shock and made his way to the Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2012.

In 2013 he had worked his way into the starting lineup, and in 2014 he became the first undrafted defensive free agent to make the Pro Bowl (Josh Cribbs made it as a returner).

“That’s a special one,” Pettine said.

“It was huge,” Gipson said. “It was definitely emotional for me and my family. It was just a blessing to hear my name called and be among the game’s elite. It’s truly a blessing.”

Gipson was placed on injured reserve, but he said his injured left knee is healed and he should be able to play in the game, which is set for Jan. 25 in Arizona.

“I wouldn’t miss that opportunity,” he said.

Joe Haden was the third Browns player named to the Pro Bowl. Haden makes it for the second year in a row.
BEREA, Ohio – Connor Shaw got one predraft workout invite to an NFL campus while coming out of South Carolina.


So he flew to Cleveland.

“All I needed was one,” said Shaw on the Tuesday before Christmas, surrounded by reporters by his Browns locker.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
AP Photo/David RichardConnor Shaw, shown in a preseason game against the Bears in August, has spent the season on the Browns' practice squad.
Those words have validation as Shaw prepares to possibly start for the Browns in the season finale against the Baltimore Ravens. With Johnny Manziel sidelined by a hamstring injury and Brian Hoyer questionable with deep bruising to his right shoulder area, the Browns didn’t hesitate calling up Shaw from the practice squad.

Not overly big or strong, but finds a way to make plays – that’s coach Mike Pettine’s description of Shaw.

That sounds like the feel-for-the-game mold that only a coach’s son can produce. Shaw’s father, Lee Shaw, is the head coach at Rabun County High in Tiger, Georgia.

The 6-foot, 206-pound Shaw ran a 4.66-second 40-yard dash at the combine, 0.02 seconds faster than Manziel, and finished his senior season with 24 touchdown passes to one interception, best among FBS quarterbacks. He’s the winningest quarterback in Gamecocks history (27-5). He made a big leap from his junior to senior year in the completion rate of passes beyond 25 yards downfield, from 22.6 percent to 45.9 percent.

The Browns might have no idea what Shaw would do against Baltimore, but the opportunity is what Shaw has wanted since “I was 5 years old.”

“It’s a dream come true if I’m able to start and able to play,” Shaw said. “It’s such a blessing. Such an awesome year for me and my family.”

Shaw and his wife, Molly, whom he calls his high school sweetheart, have a 4-month-old girl named Mila. The Shaws married in June. Two months later, Shaw completed 8-of-9 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown in a preseason game against Washington, securing a practice-squad spot.

His one-week salary on the 53-man roster this week should pay more than $20,000, more than doubling typical practice-squad money.

Molly and Mila won’t make the trip to Baltimore, but Shaw will have plenty of reminders of what’s at home. Molly sends him videos and pictures of Mila doing fun things – cracking a smile, waving her hands – when Shaw’s at a team hotel the night before a game or on his way to the stadium.

“Hopefully we can cap [the "awesome year"] off with a win,” Shaw said.
BEREA, Ohio -- The numbers, as they say, do not lie, and the numbers for the Cleveland Browns indicate that the team’s offensive struggles in many ways go back to the loss of Alex Mack.

Rarely has a center been so valuable.

“I think,” tackle Joe Thomas said, “the two most important positions for stability are your center and your quarterback because those are the two guys that kind of get everyone else organized on the offense.”

[+] EnlargeAlex Mack
AP Photo/Tony DejakWhen Alex Mack was sidelined for the season, part of the Browns' offensive identity was lost as well.
Mack’s injury combined with the reality that the front office left the team without a viable replacement combined to submarine much of what the Browns wanted to do offensively.

“I just think overall, it also falls back to us being productive in the run game to start with,” coach Mike Pettine said. “What I’ve talked about for a long time is, given our circumstances, our best chance to be successful when we were was we stayed ahead of the sticks and we ran the ball well.”

Since Mack was hurt, the Browns have struggled to run and have had zero stability with three different starters at center (John Greco, Nick McDonald and Ryan Seymour). The numbers have suffered predictably:

In the five games Mack started the Browns averaged 146.4 yards rushing per game; in the 10 games he’s been out the rushing average is 88.7 yards.

The Browns had 100 yards rushing in four of the first five games. They have less than 100 in seven of 10 with Mack out.

All the other key numbers have a similar downturn, with points going from 27 per game to 16, and the record going from 3-2 with Mack to 4-6 without him.

It’s clear why Jacksonville signed Mack to a deal that paid him $10 million this season, a deal the Browns quickly matched, as Mack was a transition player.

A Pro Bowl center works in anonymity until he’s not there. Now his value cannot be questioned.

But the way the team tried to replace him compounded the problems caused by his injury.

Neither Greco or Seymour played center before the Browns put them at the position. Greco’s in-game transition in the game Mack was injured worked, but it didn’t work the week after. Paul McQuistan was the team’s major offseason offensive line signing, and he started at guard against Jacksonville. The next week he was out of the lineup as Greco moved back to guard with Nick McDonald moving in at center. McDonald hadn’t played in a game in 18 months and had two weeks of practice after he came off the Physically Unable to Perform List to prepare for his first start.

These things matter because line calls are made by the center, and often are done in a very few seconds.

“Communication at the NFL level happens very quickly,” Thomas said. “You have to analyze and diagnose the defense in seconds and then communicate to the other four guys exactly what you have to do within only a fraction of a second.

“That’s the type of thing that takes years and years of practice to get really good at and proficient. When you throw a couple new guys in there, they do their best, but there’s always going to be little hiccups.”

The Browns ended preseason by gutting their backup line corps, cutting Alex Parsons, who had worked at center during camp, along the way.

Parsons did not have a glittering career before joining the Browns, and teams can’t make roster decisions based on possible injuries, but the Browns left themselves without a legitimate backup center. GIven the importance of the running game, it seems a bit puzzling in hindsight.

The team might have assumed that Mack would not get injured, as he had not missed a down until this season. The Browns did do a good job of providing depth at other positions (receiver, inside linebacker, cornerback).

But serious, freak injury is only one play away.

Mack’s took the steam out of the Browns season because of what he brings to the table and the lack of options behind him.
» Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster

Tashaun Gipson, FS, first Pro Bowl selection: Gipson becomes the Browns' first undrafted defensive player since 1991 to be honored. Gipson came out of Wyoming and earned the starting job with the Browns last season, when only a lack of publicity kept him unknown. This season, he led the NFL in interceptions much of the year with six (he's now second) and made the Pro Bowl despite missing the final five games with a knee injury. That alone is testament to how well he plays.

Who he beat out: The New England Patriots' Devin McCourty is the biggest name not to go at free safety.

Joe Thomas, LT, eighth Pro Bowl: Thomas has become an annual no-brainer at left tackle, as his play puts him among the best in the league at the position every season. Thomas becomes the first offensive lineman in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first eight seasons -- and he has not missed a snap since he was drafted. Critics will snipe that Thomas had too many penalties (nine) to merit consideration, but that oversimplifies the position. Thomas gave up one sack, three hits and nine hurries this season, and ranks among the top two tackles in the AFC, according to Pro Football Focus. As one offensive line guru said this season, the Browns can start every game plan with the idea that Thomas will handle his man in a one-on-one matchup. Jim Brown and Lou Groza (nine each) are the only Browns to go to more Pro Bowls than Thomas. Soon enough, Thomas will be speaking in Canton when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Who he beat out: It’s silly to say that Thomas doesn’t deserve to go, but guys such as New England’s Sebastian Vollmer and Cincinnati Bengals' Andrew Whitworth will have their day. Whitworth being left off the team is a major surprise.

Joe Haden, CB, second Pro Bowl: Haden overcame a slow start to play some of the best football of his career in the final games before he hurt his shoulder. Haden regularly drew the best receiver on the opposition -- A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, T.Y. Hilton -- and more than held his own with his aggressiveness and quickness. Quarterbacks have a 74.6 rating throwing at Haden. Haden gave up three touchdowns, but intercepted three and broke up eight. He deserves to be among an impressive group of corners.

Who he beat out: The Kansas City Chiefs' Sean Smith had a strong and unheralded season, as did the Buffalo Bills' Leodis McKelvin.
BEREA, Ohio — Johnny Manziel said some of the right things Tuesday about his future with the Cleveland Browns.

It shouldn’t be surprising.

Manziel has been saying a lot of right things since he decided to leave Texas A&M and declare for the NFL draft, after which he wound up with the Browns.

Here’s a sampling:
"If you want to be the greatest, you have to prepare like it. That’s why I'm out here trying to be the best player possible. Whether it's in the film room or the weight room, there are days when it's hard, though, when it's a struggle."

“I'm trying to show people I've grown up, and I've learned from my experiences. I feel like you're a stupid person if you continue to make the same wrong decisions. I don't want to hear, 'Oh, anybody in his situation would have been doing the same thing.' I'm 100 percent responsible for my actions.”

“People can call me crazy, and it's not cockiness, [but] I'm going to put myself in [position] to win the Super Bowl every single year.”

“Football and family will always be the most important things in my life. The main thing for me is to play the game with a certain type of passion and a certain type of respect that football deserves. It's a humbling game. It can come and go at the drop of a hat."

Those comments were made by Manziel this past February. He said them as he prepared for the draft with quarterback guru George Whitfield in San Diego, where he lobbied reporters John McLain of the Houston Chronicle and Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to be the first pick of the Houston Texans.

If they sound similar to the comments Manziel made in Berea on Tuesday … well, it’s because they are.

Manziel is very adept with the media. He says many right things.

The problem he’s had in Cleveland is doing them. This is not to say Manziel was a problem off the field in Cleveland. He hasn’t been. He’s been a likable guy who’s gone about his business.

But when he got on the field for his opportunity, he was not prepared. He did not prepare like he was the greatest, and he more or less admitted that Tuesday, when he said he wasn’t ready for the transition to the pros.

It’s to Manziel’s credit that he stood up and took some accountability for what has turned into a lost rookie season.

But he didn’t really take entire credit because he also said he wouldn’t change a thing he’s done since he was drafted. How’d that work out again?

At this point, it’ll be more to Manziel’s credit if he does something about it.

The words have been coming for almost an entire year.

It’s time for actions to follow.
Linebacker Karlos Dansby had some pointed words for Justin Gilbert, the Browns first first-round pick from the May draft.

"You've got to go get it," Dansby said. "If you want it, you've got to go get it."

Dansby technically referred to Gilbert seeking information about what it takes to play in the NFL, something Dansby said he did from great players throughout his career. But metaphorically he just as well could have been talking about Gilbert succeeding on the field.

Gilbert hit a new rookie-season low in Carolina, as fourth-round pick Pierre Desir got the start and considerable playing time with Joe Haden out. Desir had barely played before Sunday, but he started with safety Jordan Poyer taking over as nickel back. Gilbert barely saw the field even though Haden and K'Waun Williams both were out with injury.

This is not supposed to happen with a first-round pick, especially one taken in the top 10. But Gilbert has admitted that he has not adjusted to having to play with technique in the NFL; in college he freely admits he played simply with athletic ability.

"I don't know if he's going to make the transition," Dansby said. "It has to be within him. He has to look in the mirror and do that himself."

It hasn't happened. Coach Mike Pettine said that Gilbert's playing time was decreased Sunday because of things that happened on the practice field, and off.

"There was no violation of team rules," Pettine said. "But that's just something that I consider family business I'm not going to elaborate on."

Dansby said a player like Gilbert simply has to realize his opportunity and seize it.

"In college, you have two or three years to play around," Dansby said. "This is real life. A lot of people out here are fighting for jobs, fighting to feed their families.

"Justin is trying to make a transition, and it's tough. It's not easy. It's not easy, especially at that position in this game and in the NFL. There are some grown men out there receiving, and you've got to make the transition and understand what you're doing out there on the field and make adjustments and be able to go out and perform at a high level on a consistent basis."

Both Gilbert and quarterback Johnny Manziel seem to be learning the same tough lesson together: Success in the pros takes far more work and dedication than success in college.

"You have a guy come in and play for two or three years, and then they're out of the league," Dansby said. "You'll never hear from them again. So many first-round picks have done that. Second-round picks that have come in this league and only played two or three years, and they weren't able to make the transition and they were out of the league.

"Look at (former NFL QB) Tim Tebow -- prime example -- wasn't able to make the transition. Now, he's out of the league. If you don't evolve with the league, you're going to be out of the league. It's just how the game goes."

Will Gilbert make that transition?

"It's up to him to make the decision," Dansby said. "I can't make the decision for him. He's a grown man."
The Cleveland Browns are nothing if not consistent.

The Browns may be starting their third quarterback Sunday when they play the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore.

If Connor Shaw starts, it will be the third year in a row and fourth time in the last five seasons the Browns will have started their third quarterback in the season finale.

The others: Jason Campbell last season (after Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer), Thad Lewis in 2012 (after Weeden and Colt McCoy) and McCoy in 2010 (after Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace).

Johnny Manziel has a significant hamstring injury that will not allow him to play and Hoyer has a significant shoulder injury that, though not structural, could keep him from playing.

That would leave Shaw, promoted from the practice squad this week.

Nothing has been determined, and Hoyer will try to play. But he probably would have left the game in Carolina on Sunday after he was drilled into the ground by 315-pound defensive lineman Kawann Short if the Browns had a third quarterback active.

Short landed on Hoyer, and he was feeling the effects after the game.

So the Browns quarterback situation looks like this:
  • Manziel out with what sounds like a severe hamstring pull or perhaps even tear (the Browns never specify on injuries). Manziel has erased none of the criticisms of him heading into the draft. Among them: Too short. Can’t read defenses. Looks to run. Runs the risk of injury because he runs. In the end, Manziel did not read defenses well, looked to run too often and was injured -- though he said his injury was caused when he slipped on a third-down throw to Josh Gordon. The sample size to judge Manziel is miniscule, but in the sample size he was given, he provided few answers.
  • Hoyer dealing with facing a Ravens defense with a bum shoulder. He will try to play -- it’s his nature -- and the Browns are treating Hoyer as day-to-day. If he improves enough as the week goes on, Hoyer will play. But given his impending free agency, he has to measure the risk/reward. The Browns' plan for their quarterbacks following the season remains an unknown.
  • Shaw, highly thought of by South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, has done the grunt work with the scout team much of the season as a practice squad quarterback. Browns coach Mike Pettine said all the right things about Shaw’s work ethic and preparation, but asking him to play in a game where the Ravens have the playoffs on the line is a tough task. Then again, Houston signed Case Keenum last week and he led the Texans to a win over the Ravens.

So ... there’s that.

CLEVELAND -- So he's "more hungry"?

So he wants to be "the guy"?

Yeah, these next eight months are crucial.

Johnny Manziel threw up one money sign to celebrate a touchdown in 15 offensive drives then closed the register with a news conference in Carolina that seemed to acknowledge the obvious: There wasn't enough done on the field to take immediate ownership of the Cleveland Browns' quarterback job, but that process should start now.

Listen to coach Mike Pettine carefully when he describes in general terms what he wants in a quarterback to fit his "play like a Brown" mold. There's not a lot of talk about throwing mechanics or third-down conversions.
  • "It's the leadership part, not just vocally but leading by example."
  • "An encyclopedic knowledge of what we're doing ... in lockstep with the offensive coordinator."
  • "Every time he steps on to the field, he has to elevate the play of the players around him."
  • "Find a way to make plays. ... We want to find the winningest quarterback."
[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonShould Johnny Manziel compete for the Browns' starting quarterback job again next year, there are a few lessons he could learn in the offseason.
There's your blueprint, Manziel. Who knows, maybe there's a "no swan-floating" somewhere in there. Must be in another transcript.

Manziel and others around him (offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, for one) have said Manziel is misunderstood, that the party-with-Bieber-and-Drake image is a far-fetched one. This offseason can punctuate that point if that's how Manziel really feels. He can remold his image. He was able to start that process during the season, it seems. Coaches said he worked hard. Manziel said he learned to be a pro.

This offseason, Manziel can check off the first two items on Pettine's wish list -- and the quotes appear in the order he said them, by the way. Let the struggles of your two NFL starts drive you, an offseason fueled by the "absolutely" humbling experience you mentioned last week.

Spend some time in Cleveland outside the mandatory hours. Organize throwing sessions with receivers. Lean on veterans and coaches for advice.

That last part is crucial, Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby said. He's seen a lot of high draft picks fizzle out because they didn't evolve with the game.

"Johnny's got a lot of growing to do. He's a rookie. What do you want me to say?" Dansby said. "Johnny's making strides. He's getting better every week."

Dansby was speaking about rookies in general, but the point is clear: Now is the time to start winning the job.

Browns draft another quarterback? Who cares, start winning the job.

Browns sign a veteran free agent? Who cares, start winning the job.

The more competitors, the better.

It was fair to question whether Manziel was ready this season, but it seems reactionary to label him anything -- bust, hero, journeyman -- based on 35 throws. That's an absurdly small sample size for a rookie quarterback.

But Manziel could have created offseason momentum with a few more plays made on the field. Maybe he would have done that in Baltimore. That's why his injury is unfortunate for the Browns. That was a chance for Manziel to redirect the ugly statistics from the past six quarters.

Right now, that's all people remember. Manziel will need time -- and examples -- to change that.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After huddling with team spokespersons, Johnny Manziel approached the podium for a news conference that barely lasted four minutes.

Nearly half the segment was Manziel stumping for the right to quarterback the Browns’ future, sounding like a guy who whose season just ended after 35 throws because of a hamstring injury. Manziel was making a case. He took direct questions – did you feel more comfortable this week – and, 90-plus seconds later, had covered why this year made him “more hungry” to work in the offseason and sustaining success and building on a talented roster.

“I want to be the guy,” Manziel said. “That’s what I want to do and that’s what I want to be for this organization, so for me, if anything, this has motivated me more to head into this offseason.”

Manziel probably said more in the news conference about his future than he did on the field. If the hamstring injury persists and Brian Hoyer starts in the finale against Baltimore, Manziel’s seven full quarters of rookie quarterback play didn’t resolve much of anything.

Starting from the Buffalo game, Manziel’s body of work is brief, mostly uninspired football that’s far too small a sample to define him as anything – a bust, an elite quarterback, a money sign.

This is what you got:
[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Mike McCarnIf a hamstring injury keeps Johnny Manziel from playing in the Browns' season finale, there were just seven quarters in which to judge the team's first-round quarterback.

  • 34 throws (35 if you count his one attempt early in the season in the Johnny Package)
  • 15 full drives
  • 18 completions
  • 68 plays
  • 10 three-play drives (nine three-and-outs, one resulting in an interception)
  • Two scoring drives
  • 12 first downs (three by penalty)
  • Two interceptions
  • One touchdown run
  • One field goal
  • And 175 passing yards

That’s 0.66 points and 0.8 first downs per drive. The Heisman Trophy-winning Manziel was hard to defend, but these numbers are just that.

The most important facts, however, are the first two listed above – drives and throws. There’s not enough information to make any sort of long-term determination. If going by the eye test, which many will do, Manziel needed to clean up his footwork and decision-making last week against Cincinnati and seemed to be doing some of that in Carolina, playing better despite missing on a few throws.

The Browns need to see whether Manziel can catch fire as a passer, and what he does when defenses douse that flame. They need to see how he handles a full offseason as the incumbent. They’ll need to see how he leads. They’ll need to see…everything.

What you can argue is this: Was he ready? That’s a fair question. After training camp and 14 NFL weeks, was he ready to be a starter or did he need the proverbial redshirt year?

Manziel’s four-week stretch complicates that answer. Either he wasn’t ready or he didn’t get enough reps to show he was.

“We’ve seen Johnny every day, all year; we know what Johnny’s capable of,” said wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who caught Manziel’s best pass of the day, a 28-yarder over the middle that Manziel delivered from the pocket. “He’s a great talent and can be a great quarterback in this league.”

The Buffalo game was the only glimpse into what Hawkins is saying. That’s why Manziel should stump for something else – the right to start against Baltimore. Rehab that hamstring and get back. There’s risk involved if Manziel struggles again, but ending with a good performance might quell some concerns within a reactionary fan base.

The stand-alone numbers won’t do that. The "Johnny Football" mystique is gone, and the only way to get it back is to answer the question those numbers present.

Is this who you are?
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Cleveland Browns have again gotten themselves into a sticky situation.

The result of the last month of the season, which has seen the Browns' record dip from 6-3 and 7-4 to a stumbling 7-8 after a 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers, is this: The Browns may have less clarity at the most important position on the team than they did before the season started.

Fifteen games ago, the Browns at least had Brian Hoyer starting the season coming off two wins in two full games in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonIn six quarters of play, Johnny Manziel hasn't done anything to suggest he'll be a successful starting QB in 2015.
Now they have Hoyer, who knows that the team really did not want him for the long run, and Johnny Manziel, who in his six quarters of play simply has not looked NFL-ready.

Do the Browns really believe that Manziel is the guy for '15 based on what they’ve seen?

If Manziel played that way in games, there’s little doubt that it's the way it went in practice. Manziel spent 14 games awaiting a chance, then looked like he just picked up the playbook that Monday.

Do the Browns revisit Hoyer and sign him before he becomes a free agent and spend many dollars to do so after they replaced him in 2014? Is it worth re-signing a guy they did not even commit to for 16 games?

Hoyer has struggled the past few games he has started as he's tried to win three games at once -- against himself, the looming presence of the phenom first-round pick and the other team.

How Hoyer has responded to the presence of Manziel will fairly be a factor in his evaluation. But to sell the idea that Manziel was more prepared to win was selling snake oil.

If Manziel played like he did with an entire training camp and preseason to prepare, well then, there’s trouble.

Barring a miraculous transformation, the ever-present possibility of a struggling Manziel and 5-11 record loom for next season.

It’s just a ridiculous mess, with visions of an offseason of adding Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace dancing in folks’ memory banks.

Manziel had one very nice throw in the loss to the Panthers, a stand-in-the-pocket, 28-yard completion to Andrew Hawkins on third down. Very nice play.

Other than that, he threw seven times, completed two passes and gained 4 yards. (The other first-round pick, Justin Gilbert, mainly watched as fourth-round pick Pierre Desir got the bulk of the playing time with Joe Haden out.)

The options for 2015 are not easy. Oregon QB Marcus Mariota probably will be drafted first, which means the Browns would have to give up all those first-round draft choices they have to get him -- assuming the team drafting first doesn’t want him. Only in Cleveland do folks talk of a near impossibility like Mariota as if it's a simple matter. Or, do the Browns want to bring Jameis Winston's off-the-field issues to the team?

The free agents? Hoyer is among them. Would Mark Sanchez be a step forward? Jake Locker? Blaine Gabbert? Do the Browns bring in a Matt Moore to back up Manziel and hope? Do they ponder Hoyer? And would Hoyer even re-sign with Cleveland?

There are so many questions that have grown the past few weeks, questions that should not be present after a 7-4 start. That kind of early-season play should have led to clarity.

But with the Cleveland Browns, there seems to be one annual tradition no matter who is in charge or involved: The season ends with uncertainty about next season’s quarterback.

It hasn’t gone on long.

Just the past 15
Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cleveland Browns' 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers:
  • Dansby
    Taking lumps: Karlos Dansby was asked after the game if the change in quarterbacks to Johnny Manziel had any kind of negative effect on the team. His response: "It’s what the coach decided to do, the organization decided to do. Once they made that move, we have to ride with it. Got to take our lumps in the process."
  • Speechless: Five weeks into a serious rut for the offense, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins still can’t quite figure out what’s changed with the offense (11.7 points per game during this four-game losing streak). The quarterback switch isn’t an excuse, Hawkins said, because the offense has to produce regardless. “Honestly, I can’t [explain it],” Hawkins said. “It’s a combination of things.”
  • Still optimism: Brian Hoyer points out the Browns still have a chance to finish 8-8. The franchise hasn't avoided a sub-.500 season since 2007. “The guys in that locker room, we’ve worked so hard and have to go out and finish this strong," Hoyer said.
  • Youth emerging: How about a shout-out for rookie Pierre Desir, who two weeks ago hadn’t logged one defensive snap. Against Carolina, because of injuries in the Browns' backfield, he played the entire game and acquitted himself well against Kelvin Benjamin, who finished with five catches for 47 yards. “It was a good matchup and I had fun out there,” Desir said.
  • Quote of note: “I’m laying on the ground just wondering if he’s gonna make it in.” –Hoyer, who got knocked to the ground on his 81-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Jordan Cameron.
  • Handoff that didn’t count: Defensive tackle Billy Winn said he protected the ball, rolled over and was “looking for a guy to give [the ball] to” on his interception that safety Jordan Poyer scooped up and ran back. A touchdown was overturned because Winn was declared down. “Obviously I’m not going to get up and run it in, so I was looking for a fast guy to give it to,” Winn said.

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

December, 21, 2014
Dec 21

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday:

What it means: The almost six quarters of Johnny Manziel were not a success. Manziel left with a hamstring injury late in the first half with one nice third-down throw to Andrew Hawkins and 4 yards passing on his other seven throws. The Browns seemed to try to tailor things to Manziel, but to little avail. He led a field goal drive in the first half, but two of his three full possessions ended after three plays.

Stock watch: Reading the Browns' quarterback spot at this point in time is like reading the stock market during the 2008 election: There’s no predicting. Manziel looked better than he did in his first start but still wasn’t terribly effective. Brian Hoyer came in and threw an 81-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Cameron but led a sputtering offense.

Designed run: Manziel was injured late in the first half on what looked like a designed run to the left. From an empty backfield, Manziel tucked the ball and immediately ran left. Hawkins was blocking, and the line blocked as if the run was designed. Clearly it looked like a run call by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly ran step for step with Manziel, and Kuechly and safety Colin Jones combined for a nasty hit on Manziel. The quarterback left the field with his head covered with a towel, and the news was relayed soon after that he had a hamstring injury.

“Johnny Numbers”: Manziel had the ball for three full possessions and one play of a fourth possession. He totaled 16 plays, completed 3 of 8 passes for 32 yards and had two runs for 3 yards. One of the completions was his best, on third down for 28 yards to Hawkins. On his possessions, the Browns had two first downs, one by penalty. In six quarters as the starter, Manziel has seven first downs, three by penalty.

Game ball: Cameron's fourth-quarter touchdown catch showed his value to the offense. Cameron can catch and run as well as most any other NFL tight end, and when he was not on the field this season because of his concussion, the offense suffered. Cameron's 81-yard score was the longest play by the Browns this season and the longest road touchdown reception by a Browns player since 1969, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

What’s next: The Browns conclude a season slowly slipping away next week against the Ravens in Baltimore. The Browns have one last chance to avoid a losing season for the first time since 2007.