A dozen takeaways from the Cleveland Browns offseason of work, which sounds odd because if there's work it's really not an "offseason."
Coach Mike Pettine's balancing act starts on the first day of training camp. Which means he has to give two quarterbacks plenty of time and opportunity while getting one ready to start the season. Then he has to decide when to name the starter, which he admitted is a difficult task. “If you do it too late,” he said, “then nobody is ready for the opener. If you do it too soon, then it wasn't a true competition.” So there will in fact be a “competition,” though the difference between this competition and others is that Pettine admits (candidly) that Brian Hoyer will be the starter on the first day, and it is up to Johnny Manziel to seize the job.
It still seems significant that the Browns treated Hoyer like the starter. They gave him reps to get him accustomed to the offense, and he generally did well in them. More important, they protected him when they could, limiting the rush in some 11-on-11 drills and not putting him under center to keep folks from rolling into his knee. Drafting Manziel changed Hoyer's world, and the Browns understand what Manziel brings and what it means to have him on the sidelines. But they are showing Hoyer some respect as well.
A lot of folks have commented on stories and posts that there is too much Manziel coverage. I hear the criticism and it's fair, and I wrestle with the best way to approach it and try to provide enough coverage of the entire team while still covering the quarterback spot, which with the Browns has been nothing but a consistent position of change and interest. Although some lament the coverage, stories with the name "Manziel" in the headline remain among the most read on the site.
I don't know if it will affect the decision, because the best player should play. But the Browns open the season against, A) Dick LeBeau and a Steelers team that will do all it can to avoid a slow start, B) Rob Ryan and a Saints defense that will attack before the teams even take the field and, C) the Ravens. That is a tough three-game draw for anyone. The Browns might need that bye in the fourth week, but if Hoyer starts and wins two of three ... well, then things just got a lot more interesting.
Jabaal Sheard raised some eyebrows when he said he'd be lining up more as an end than as a linebacker. Pettine didn't hide from the reality, saying Sheard would be a "rush linebacker" and Barkevious Mingo would drop more into coverage. Sheard could be a free agent after the season; the way he's being used and the way he looks, he could make himself a lot of money in this defense.
Pettine has a very refreshing way of answering questions; he's direct without being condescending and honest without saying too much. I can't imagine him hiding behind platitudes and games when practices start for real. It almost seemed like he should have been applauded when he said you can't fall into "the trap" of liking a guy too much based on practices in shorts and without pads.
As for the attacking system, this was Pettine's explanation: “The more that you can shorten the amount of time that the quarterback has to process -- you want to make him react quicker or at least think he has to react quicker -- then I think that's going to be in the defense's favor. We've studied it. We've put a stopwatch on when the balls come out versus us versus other teams, and there's a marked difference that it's coming out quicker when teams play us. You don't have to cover as long, and that's the benefit of it.”
He added that he wants his defense to be "more calculated than reckless." Rob Ryan's defense in Cleveland at times seemed reckless. Pettine said he won't “blitz just to blitz.” He also said there may be times a cornerback blitzes, but he's still just the fourth rusher. The idea is to disguise and confuse, and give the quarterback one more thing to think about. No games have been played, but Pettine's combination of football acumen, common sense and years of wisdom from growing up with a coach as a father bring the Browns good things.
Running back Ben Tate has shown a bit of a 'tude since joining the Browns. He's criticized Manziel-mania, pointing out the rookie hadn't even thrown a pass in the NFL and that Manziel had won "the Heisman or whatever." This week he said there was nobody in the running back room who scared him. OK, then.
Donte Whitner stands out. He's active, involved, aggressive and when he's off the field he's patient, honest, direct and forthright. Much to like there.
The most improved position on the team: Running back. Yes, it's hard not to improve the group that played last season. But Tate and Terrance West seem to form a potent tandem. Combine that with the on-paper theory that the zone-blocking system should be better for the athletic players on the Browns' line and the Browns might actually turn the NFL on its ear by running the ball successfully.
While standing on the sidelines chatting with Ron Jaworski, the ESPN analyst said this: “In this profession, if you're a quarterback you'd better be the first guy in and the last guy out.” Which of course brings to mind former Browns great quarterback Brian Sipe. One of the team's employees when Sipe was quarterback often said you could set your watch by him, because if he was supposed to be in the building at 9 he'd arrive at 8:59. In Sipe's case, the “it” factor took precedence over first in-last out.