Hoyer played for three seasons as Brady's backup in New England from 2009-11. He's now had five solid game as the full-time starter for the Cleveland Browns. That was until Sunday in Jacksonville, when this goofy option play epitomized the team's day offensively.
Hoyer knew a bad day would come. Just look at Brady, who was awful on "Monday Night Football" in late September but has thrown for nine touchdowns and zero interceptions since.
"It happens to the best," Hoyer said. "Three weeks ago everyone was saying Tom Brady is done with. He's the greatest quarterback of all time. He had one bad game and people are throwing him under the bus. When you see even the great ones have bad games, you know you're going to have a few."
That doesn't make coping any less painful. Hoyer completed 16-of-41 passes, lost a fumble on a questionable call and threw a fourth-quarter interception in a 24-6 loss to Jacksonville. Three drops by receivers and four tipped passes didn't help his cause.
Hoyer felt so miserable about the outcome, his wife didn't want to be around him, he said. Still, he entered the year expecting emotional swings from media and fans week-to-week – that's the NFL. Hoyer has put Johnny Manziel on ice with his play, but consecutive bad games would inflame the public cries for the bullpen.
"There's overreaction when you win and overreaction when you lose, especially at the quarterback position," Hoyer said. "When you win, you're the hero. When you lose, you're the goat. I think that's just the way it goes. That's the way this league has become."
If a player can accept praise, Hoyer says, he better be ready for the occasional chin check.
What matters is how coaches perceive him.
"Within this building, I feel more than comfortable," Hoyer said.
Coach Mike Pettine expects Hoyer's intangibles to prevail this week.
"His confidence, his preparation, his ability to compartmentalize and put something behind him, then also just confidence in the guys around him," Pettine said.
However, he’s done enough things recently to put the word inconsistency on his ledger, and that’s not a word associated with great quarterbacks.
It’s neither time to crown Hoyer or to bench him.
Because with Hoyer, there seems to be a balancing stat or number to offset any positive or negative. Consider:
- He had a woeful 7.8 Total Quarterback Rating against Jacksonville, but a week before was 93.6 against Pittsburgh. The Jaguars QBR was the worst in the league for that week, the Steelers rating the second best.
- He’s had woeful first halfs against Pittsburgh and Tennessee, but tremendous second halfs in both games.
- His completion percentage has dropped in each of the last four games, from 76 to 57 to 47 to 39 percent.
- But ... yards per attempt is supposedly the single greatest indicator of a quarterback’s efficiency. Hoyer’s 7.57 yards per attempt is 10th in the league -- and it’s been consistent: 7.5 the first three games, 7.6 the second.
- In the first half of a six-game season he completed 64.2 percent and had a 97.5 rating. In the second three those numbers were 47.3 percent with a 78.5 rating.
- In each three-game set he threw 95 passes and in the last three he has seven more passing yards, one more touchdown and -- most important -- one more win.
- Hoyer ranks 34th in the league in completion percentage (55.8), but is only eight completions from 60 percent and moving ahead of Philadelphia’s Nick Foles, whose team is 5-1.
- Hoyer is tied for 24th with seven touchdowns, but tied for third (minimum 100 attempts) with just two interceptions.
- His highest completion percentage (58.9) comes when the Browns need 10 or more yards for a first down.
- When tied or trailing with four minutes left, he’s completed 61.5 percent, with two TDs and no interceptions.
- In the first half of games, he’s completed 51.7 percent at 6.7 yards per attempt. In the second half, it’s 59.6 percent and 8.4 yards.
The Jacksonville egg put a serious hurting on Hoyer’s overall numbers. It was that bad. Coach Mike Pettine said Hoyer struggled with the offense, but often a great quarterback does something to lift the offense.
The way things have gone illustrates why neither the Browns nor Hoyer and his agent, Joe Linta, are rushing into contract talks during the season.
Both want it to play out, and both have understandable reasons to do so.
The opportunity Hoyer dreamt of as a kid growing up in the Cleveland area remains in front of him.
Williams was injured in the win against Pittsburgh, and had been playing very well for the Browns -- to the point he had passed first-round draft pick Justin Gilbert on the depth chart. Williams returned to practice Wednesday, though coach Mike Pettine would not commit to how much he would work in team drills. Pettine said Gilbert had a good game against Jacksonville, which means with Williams' return the secondary's status goes from a concern to a strength.
Others limited in practice include defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin, who got a second opinion on his injured ankle. He will not, though, need surgery, according to ESPN's Adam Caplan.
Also limited or out are defensive lineman Phil Taylor (knee) and Billy Winn (quad) and wide receiver Rodney Smith (hamstring). Left tackle Joe Thomas was given his veteran's day off.
This shows coach Mike Pettine’s aggressiveness, which players can appreciate, but the calls can haunt a coach when they don’t work.
“When it doesn’t work out, absolutely,” Pettine said.
Pettine is not afraid to take his chances. The Browns are 2-of-7 (28.6 percent) on fourth downs this season, good for 28th in the league.
Two conversion tries came while down double digits against the Titans, so the need for six points instead of field goals was understandable. The Jacksonville call was tough to digest for two reasons. One, the Browns gave up all momentum entering the half because of the gamble. And two, they didn’t use their strength, the running game, to try to get one yard. Instead, they ran a route for Jordan Cameron that looked doomed from the start.
Pettine said he gauges situational football with fourth-down calls but also goes by “feel.” In the case of the Jacksonville play, Pettine felt his defense was playing well enough to stop the Jaguars in case the Browns didn’t convert, plus he didn’t want to settle for field goals all game. Turns out the Jags marched 76 yards downfield in 57 seconds to make it 7-6, the worst possible outcome.
“I get the analytics behind it, but to me, all the circumstances are different,” Pettine said of going for fourth downs. “I know you can just look at paper and say, ‘Hey, they’re converted at this rate,’ but to me, you have to factor in the circumstances of the game. That’s what I do, but I think in general, I’ll tend to be a little more on the aggressive side. It’s somewhere in between.”
Once the Browns convert a crucial fourth down on the road, Pettine can be justified in his confidence in his offense. That doesn’t make the Jacksonville call any less painful.
Pettine has conviction regardless. He knew he was going for the fourth down two plays before.
“When it was second-and-1 we made a decision, ‘Hey, we’re in four-down mode,’” Pettine said. “That’s ... you live with it.”
But it was a play that merits further attention, because of its bizarre nature and ... well ... yes ... its comic relief in a 24-6 loss in Jacksonville.
To not give it one more look seems irresponsible.
Explaining it requires recognizing one truth; when it was over, the Browns did not make crystal clear what happened because they did not want any one guy to be vilified.
Tackle Joe Thomas gave the company line when he said: "There was some confusion on that one. Obviously didn't get executed the way we wanted it to."
Which does pretty much sum it up.
What seems to have happened is that John Greco mistakenly snapped the ball, and Brian Hoyer and Ben Tate improvised an option play (of sorts), which, predictably, went nowhere. The play looked bizarre in every way possible, but it was a simple mistake. Which happens.
But the explanations and comments are nearly as fuzzy as the play itself.
The idea: Run the offense to the sideline as if a punt is coming, then as the play clock winds down run the offense back on the field to try and catch the defense napping.
Except no play is called. As coach Mike Pettine said, it's "no snap, no play." It's purely to try to draw a penalty, either by drawing the defense offside or with 12 men or forced to burn a timeout.
"I definitely think we were trying to catch them in a 12-man situation," Thomas said.
"Just really try to force them into a timeout or 12 men on the field or really just see what happens," Hoyer said.
The idea for the play came -- as many seem to do in these days in the NFL -- from the New England Patriots.
Hoyer said the team saw the Patriots run the gadget successfully, so they copied it. In New England the goal is to make the opposing team waste a timeout, and it's worked. Because naturally everything New England does must be copied, especially in Cleveland (#sarcasmfont).
Hoyer said the team had practiced the gimmick "a few times." Which means the Browns actually practiced running to the sideline, then running back on the field.
In one sense it worked in Jacksonville, because the Jaguars were a mess running on and off the field. Live, it appeared Greco saw a player from the Jaguars running to the sideline and assumed it was a 12th man. So he snapped the ball. The player was Jacksonville's 11th, but Greco and the Browns did not know that at the time.
Hoyer, though, said the man running off the field "had nothing to do with why the ball was snapped."
Pettine said he wasn't sure what happened.
"I don't know whether they thought that because a guy was running off that we had caught them with 12 and that he was snapping it to catch him on the field. I'm not sure," he said.
The bottom line is it was snapped, and nobody moved. Hoyer figured he had to do something to try to get the first down. So he ran right. Tate's reaction: "I was like, 'Oh my God what am I supposed to do?'"
So he ran behind Hoyer, and eventually took a pitch and ... well ... got blasted at the sideline.
Suffice it to say, Hoyer is not an option quarterback.
"Obviously we're not running speed-option on fourth-and-eight or whatever it was," Hoyer said.
He simply tried to make the most of the situation, with no blocking or clear plan.
Did the Browns outthink themselves, trying this gimmick with a backup center? Perhaps. But the play is not uncommon in New England and has worked. If it had worked in Jacksonville it would have been a first down at the Jaguars 38 with 14:20 left with the Browns down four. Had it worked, it could have been a game-chanting "momentum" play.
It didn't work, though.
Pretty much like everything else the Browns tried in Jacksonville.
So now they have another play to add to that lowlight reel that's been growing since 1999.
OFFENSE (74 snaps)
- Quarterback: Brian Hoyer 74
- Running back: Ben Tate 41, Isaiah Crowell 23, Terrance West 10
- Fullback: Ray Agnew 18
- Receiver: Andrew Hawkins 55, Miles Austin 55, Taylor Gabriel 42, Travis Benjamin 34, Marlon Moore 2
- Tight end: Jordan Cameron 70, Jim Dray 19, Gary Barnidge 1
- Offensive tackle: Joe Thomas 74, Mitchell Schwartz 74
- Guard: Paul McQuistan 74, Joel Bitonio 74
- Center: John Greco 74
Thoughts: Two one-sided games in a row and the Browns never made a hint of going to Johnny Manziel. ... There were a lot of questions about the running back distribution, but the numbers reflect where the Browns want to be. There is nothing crazy out of sync with them. ... West’s last snap was the failed third-down run when he ran into the back of Greco. ... He said he was trying too much to get the big play as opposed to taking what was there. The reason for that: His ability at a school like Towson let him turn short runs into big plays because he was so much better than the other players. That’s not the case any longer in the NFL. ... Hawkins continues to be the receiving workhorse. He’s been on the field for 70 percent of the plays. ... Four of the five offensive line have not missed a snap. ... Mike Pettine’s moves have worked in past games, because the Browns won. This week they didn’t, and that led to a loss. The playing time distribution really isn’t radically different from any other game. Which means the loss happened because what was tried simply didn’t work as well as in past weeks.
DEFENSE (73 snaps):
- Cornerback: Joe Haden 73, Buster Skrine 73, Justin Gilbert 45
- Safety: Donte Whitner 73, Tashaun Gipson 73, Jim Leonhard 7
- Outside linebacker: Jabaal Sheard 53, Paul Kruger 60, Barkevious Mingo 26, Eric Martin 7
- Inside linebacker: Karlos Dansby 72, Chris Kirksey 41, Craig Robertson 33
- Defensive line: Desmond Bryant 53, John Hughes 51, Ishmaa'ily Kitchen 36, Jacobbi McDaniel 7, Sione Fua 7
Thoughts: Pettine pointed out that lost in the loss was a very good game by Gilbert, and he was right. Gilbert had 45 snaps, more than he’s had since the second game of the season. He broke up one pass, had two tackles and generally had good coverage. This could be his “light goes on” game. ... The Jaguars success in running the ball could be partly attributed to the zeroes for many of the defensive linemen. Armonty Bryant, Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor and Billy Winn all missed the game. ... Hard to underestimate the contributions of Dansby to this defense. He is a rarity in this age of specialization; he’s missed two of 428 snaps this season.
Coach Mike Pettine said Rubin went for a second opinion on an injured ankle. He has missed the last two games.
Pettine was asked if surgery could be a possibility.
The Browns will have an update on Rubin’s status Wednesday.
Rubin’s injury highlights one of the more disappointing position groups on the team. The defensive line was supposed to be a team strength. But the defense ranks last in the league in run defense, giving 155.5 yards per game. Not all of that falls on the line, but it is the first ‘line’ of defense.
In a separate personnel move, the team waived fullback Ray Agnew and promoted Kiero Small from the practice squad.
“He’s been doing an outstanding job for us on the scout teams,” Pettine said. “We just felt it was time to promote him and see what he can do.”
There was also word that Seattle was about to sign Small to the Seahawks' active roster, which teams can do with practice squad players.
Luckily for the Browns, this week’s opponent, the Oakland Raiders, allow 145.3 rushing yards per game, which is 29th in the league. Cleveland is determined to run the ball. But if the Raiders can somehow keep the Browns in third-and-long situations at least half the time, they can thwart the Browns’ play-action and tee off on the depleted right side of the offensive line.
The Browns finished 4-of-17 on third down in this past Sunday's 24-6 loss to Jacksonville. They converted less than 25 percent of those attempts because of where they started; they faced 10 plays of third-and-7 or longer. Jacksonville held the Browns to 2.3 yards per carry, which made third down easy to manage for the Jaguars. The loss of center Alex Mack forced Paul McQuistan to start at right guard, where he struggled mightily. Sunday should be a chance for Raiders tackle Justin Ellis to apply pressure on Brian Hoyer up the middle.
The Browns’ offense is largely about rhythm -- getting a few quick first downs with the run to set up a big passing play -- but defenses will have eight players in the box unless the Browns can stretch the field with receivers early and often. Jacksonville did, and Oakland will try.
But that stopped when Mack stopped playing.
In the five games Mack played this season, the Browns averaged 4.4 yards per carry and ran for 724 yards.
In the one game he missed, John Greco stepped in at center and Paul McQuistan played right guard. The Browns ran for 69 yards and averaged 2.3 yards per carry.
It wasn't all Mack. The Jaguars defensive front sold out to stop the run and the Browns credited Jacksonville’s defense profusely.
But the Browns clearly struggled.
“I think when you lose somebody the caliber of Alex, I think everybody needs to step up, and that wasn’t the case,” coach Mike Pettine said. “Our guys across the board -- I don’t know what the individual grades were -- but I think it’s safe to say that none of those guys played their best game or, in a clear fashion, stepped up.”
Pettine said the coaching staff would evaluate how to best line up against Oakland on Sunday.
“We’ll put out there on Sunday the best lineup,” Pettine said. “The best five that we think gives us the opportunity to win.”
The Browns have three obvious options:
Keep Greco at center and McQuistan at guard. That setup worked against the Steelers, who struggle to stop the run, but not against the Jaguars, who evidently are adept at stopping the run.
Try Vinston Painter at right guard, if it’s determined that McQuistan was the issue. Painter has the build of a guard, with a powerful lower body and long arms. This would allow the Browns to keep Greco at center working with Brian Hoyer, and would give another guard a chance.
Move Greco back to right guard, where he started the first five games. The Browns then would have to find a center, and the candidate is Nick McDonald, who is just coming off the non-football injury list due to a wrist injury from a car accident the past summer. The Browns signed McDonald just before training camp knowing he’d be out the first six weeks on NFI. He also was in New England in 2011 and 2012, and Hoyer said he took snaps in practice from McDonald when the two were with the Patriots.
The decision may come down to practice. Pettine believes that those who practice well will play well, so he may examine all options during the week and then decide the best five after seeing them.
The Browns feel they have three good running backs, led by veteran Ben Tate. That’s generally a good problem. But when the Browns had a 2nd-and-2 from the 25-yard line and a 6-0 lead, it was the third-string back, West, who got two consecutive carries. Tate and fellow rookie Isaiah Crowell were on the sideline. A few minutes later, the Browns had botched a 4th-and-1 pass play and the Jaguars marched the length of the field for a 7-6 lead.
The maturation of West will continue until West decides to go North more often. He danced in the backfield for a 1-yard gain on second down, followed by a third down where West said he had seven yards to the edge but tried to cut inside for a bigger play and ran into center John Greco.
“I could have gotten the first down. Missed the cut,” said West, the third-round pick who has 243 yards on the season. “I was trying to go for the big play. When it comes back down to it, I should have gotten the first down.
West and coach Mike Pettine acknowledge West is aiming for the home-run play too often. But the reason why West strays from easy yards is he’s trying to impress in limited time on the field.
“On that play right there, I know I’ve got limited reps,” West said. “So when I’m in the game I’m trying to get that big play. I just have to go back to the books and take what the defense gives me.”
The Browns are fortunate to have tailback depth they like but playing time and lack of rhythm can be an issue. Both Tate and West have both alluded to this at different times.
If the Browns can adequately get all three the ball in ideal situations, golf clap for them. But that obviously wasn’t the case late in the first half Sunday. Tate is the workhorse and Crowell is an explosive back and neither were on the field for a crucial few plays. West is talented and seemed to bounce back from his inactive status in Week 6. He wasn’t ready for this specific situation.
“It’s different sometimes because running backs have to feel a defense out and get in a good rhythm,” said West about the rotation. “Everything’s going to be good at the end of the day. It’s about winning.”
He’s right. If the Browns had beat Jacksonville, then the rotation’s probably not an issue.
Picking up that first down might have sparked that win, though.
Pettine preferred to let quarterback Brian Hoyer try to finish the game on a positive note. Hoyer’s completion percentage dropped to 55.8 percent after a 16 of 41 passing performance in a 24-6 loss to Jacksonville in which the Browns found themselves in third-and-long all game.
Hoyer is still “firmly our starter,” said Pettine, who was asked whether anything has changed with the quarterback position or if he considered playing Manziel for a few plays as a change-up on a sluggish day.
“We’re not going to hit the panic button after a loss,” said Pettine, pointing out Hoyer’s struggles were symptomatic of problems with the entire offense.
Pettine is still not ruling out an offensive package for Manziel, who hasn’t played a snap the last three weeks after limited action the first three weeks.
Against Jacksonville, receivers dropped three passes and the Jaguars batted down four Hoyer throws. Hoyer said his play needs to improve.
“A few missed throws, a few times I could have been more patient in the pocket,” Hoyer said. “Sometimes you have to just hang in there a little bit longer.”
Pettine stresses his coaches go into every week to determine which players maximize the Browns’ potential and increase chances to win – including quarterback. But Hoyer’s leash was never one game. It was longer, very possibly the entire season. The Browns need to see what they have in him. They weren’t ready to gift him a new contract after five good games and they aren’t ready to dump him after one bad one.
Brian Hoyer was more blunt.
"We sucked," he said. "It sucks to admit it."
There will be no arguments on either point.
But as Hoyer and the Browns move on, a team that desperately wants to win and a quarterback who enjoys his job have to understand the importance of the next two games. At home. Against the winless Oakland Raiders and the one-win Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Win both and the Browns are 5-3 heading to a Thursday night game in Cincinnati.
But if they lose both, it's not tough to read the signposts. At a minimum, the chatter and drama about the rookie with the No. 2 on his jersey will grow.
Hoyer still has the backing of his coach, who said nothing has changed with the quarterback, that Hoyer "is still firmly [the] starter."
"We're not going to hit the panic button because of one loss," Mike Pettine said.
Like everyone, Hoyer had a bad game in North Florida. He admitted as much when he said watching it as a team was probably as bad as watching it live.
But losing changes the prism of how a game is viewed, and how players are viewed. Two weeks ago Hoyer led the greatest road comeback in NFL history. One week ago he was praised for soundly beating the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Browns and their fans were enjoying the vague scent of a possibly successful season.
A week later and suddenly Hoyer has had two sub .500 completion games in a row.
Perspective really is an amazing thing.
The truth? Somewhere in the middle. The Browns have won two and lost two close games. They've won one by a large margin and lost one that way. That reality would put them right where they are, a .500 team with a 3-3 record.
Almost every team this side of the 1972 Dolphins has one clunker a season. It wasn't too long ago that folks were ripping Tom Brady after a bad game. How's that look now?
The Browns, though, do not have Brady's track record or history. They are a team trying to prove they are different from the past six, which all lost at least 10 games a season.
Jacksonville was a chance to show growth and maturity.
It didn't happen.
"The good thing that came out of that game," said receiver Miles Austin, "is that we can correct it."
Good teams overcome bad games and move on. Bad teams let them linger -- as has happened so often in the Browns recent past -- and the negatives multiply.
How the Browns -- and Hoyer -- rebound against Oakland will answer much about how the rest of the season progresses.
The Browns showed in the first five games they want to run the ball 30-plus times, average 5-plus yards a carry and handle third downs with play-action. It's a good strategy, but one that Jacksonville put in the microwave and covered with aluminum. So many stats illustrate the Browns' struggles against Jacksonville's rush defense, but here are two: The Browns faced 10 third-and-longs Sunday, and they gained one yard or less on 65 percent of their plays. That last one is a bit shocking considering, even without Mack, who's on injured reserve after suffering ligament damage in his left leg, the Browns still have a cornerstone left tackle (Joe Thomas) and two steady second-round picks (Joel Bitonio and Mitchell Schwartz).
Kyle Shanahan will find a way to run more efficiently, but if the running game stalls again, an exit strategy is necessary.
To get Hoyer and the running backs comfortable, the Browns must figure out what to do with the right side of the line. John Greco moved from right guard to center and Paul McQuistan struggled mightily as a result. Jags tackle Sen'Derrick Marks had his way all afternoon.
This is where Nick McDonald comes into play. The center/guard hybrid is off the non-football injury list, meaning the Browns face a three-week decision window on whether to activate him or place him on IR. Assuming McDonald is caught up, playing him at center and keeping Greco at his natural right guard spot could work. Or the Browns can try Vinston Painter at right guard. The rookie certainly looks the part.
The Browns know they can't replace Mack, one of the game's best centers. But they need more than 2.3 yards per carry.
"He's the best center in football -- yes, that hurts," said receiver Andrew Hawkins of Mack. "But we know John is an incredible lineman. He's underrated, honestly. I thought he played pretty well today for it being his first game at center against one of the toughest run defenses in the NFL. We'll build off that and we'll rally around John."
Expect the Browns to find more creative ways to get Jordan Cameron the ball. One catch for 5 yards won't do for Cleveland's best pass-catcher. If it's not in play-action, work more of the quick game with Hoyer.