Thursday, July 17, 2014
Camp preview: Cleveland Browns
By Pat McManamon
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NFL Nation's Pat McManamon examines the three biggest issues facing the Cleveland Browns heading into training camp.
Manziel or Hoyer: Another training camp, another quarterback competition. Except this one includes not just any quarterback, but the player whose nickname -- Johnny Football -- is the sport itself. It's Brian Hoyer's job to lose. He's the starter based on the smallest sample size of games in recent memory. He started three games and won two, but left the third after six minutes after suffering a torn knee ligament. But Hoyer was so decisive and quick in his reads that he earned the chance to begin camp as the starter. His life seemed nearly ideal on May 1. He was the unchallenged guy for the Browns, and of the quarterbacks eligible in the draft, few were considered immediate starters. The Browns drafted the one who is. Now fans and the media will be wondering about Johnny Manziel every day. Hoyer's success could depend on how well he deals with an environment that has crushed the spirit of others, an environment in which it will seem like the entire world is waiting for him to fail.
New coaches, again: Change brings new approaches, new playbooks, new thinking. It takes time for the players to learn and assimilate. If there's anything Browns fans are accustomed to, it's the quotes about how well the offseason went with a new coaching staff: "The guys are working hard"; "We should be able to pick it up"; "It's just a matter of terminology." And there's the old favorite: "He's a player's coach." Mike Pettine has done a lot to like. He's straightforward and thoughtful. He's football-smart and precise. He has a system he believes in and wants to implement. But asking players to run three different systems in three different seasons is a lot. There are reasons to like the new staff and systems. But there were just as many reasons to like the new staff and systems a year ago. What happens on the field starting in September -- not August -- will reveal how quickly the team has learned and taken in the new approaches.
Running on: Maybe it's because the running game was so blatantly ignored last year, but it's encouraging to see the Browns build a running game with a successful system and with capable backs. Amid all the hoopla about Manziel, the key to the Browns winning this season may come down to how well the Browns play defense and run the ball. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's run-game approach is borrowed from his father, Mike Shanahan, who has had success with it throughout his career. The Shanahans have turned low-round backs into Pro Bowlers, using a zone-read system based on athletic linemen and a running back being able to find and hit the hole aggressively and quickly. In Ben Tate and Terrance West, the Browns seem to have a pair of backs who can offset each other. In Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Joel Bitonio, John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz, the Browns seem to have a smart group of offensive linemen who can move and play well in this system. It will take time, but the running game could provide early encouragement.