- Ashley Fox
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BEREA, Ohio -- The letter sat in his mailbox for weeks.
After he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in October 2013, Brian Hoyer spent very little time at the Cleveland Browns training facility. He couldn't practice. He couldn't work out. And he certainly didn't feel like wading through the get-well-soon cards that piled up from fans.
Football can be so cruel. One minute, Hoyer was the local guy leading his hometown franchise out of the darkness. The next, he was just another casualty of the game.
Then-Buffalo rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso took care of that. Starting for the injured Brandon Weeden, Hoyer went into the Browns' Week 5 matchup against the Bills 2-0 after orchestrating wins over Minnesota and Cincinnati. Cleveland hadn't won more than five games in a season since 2007 but was 2-2 after the first month of the season, in large part because of Hoyer.
In the first quarter against the Bills, Hoyer scrambled for an 11-yard gain, but Alonso hit him as he started to slide. Hoyer's knees got caught awkwardly underneath him. His ACL popped, and his season was over.
Afterward, the cards and letters flooded into the Browns practice facility. After his 27th birthday Oct. 13, and after his second child, a daughter named Cameron, was born Oct. 15, and after his reconstructive knee surgery Oct. 18, Hoyer finally checked his mail. One envelope caught his eye. It bore the Bills logo.
Buffalo's defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine, wrote to Hoyer. He said he would never wish to see anyone get hurt the way Hoyer did, especially after Hoyer had gotten a chance to live his dream and start for the franchise he grew up loving. Pettine said that in preparing to face the Browns, he had developed an appreciation for Hoyer as a player, and he said he didn't think Hoyer was getting the recognition or credit he deserved.
It was compassion on a 3½-by-5-inch card.
"I thought at the time, 'What a classy move,'" Hoyer said. "And, to me, it really just speaks to the character of the type of guy he is -- and not just as a coach. He didn't have to do that."
Ten months later, Pettine is the Browns' new head coach, and Hoyer is in the midst of the toughest challenge of his career -- overcoming Manziel-mania.
Not that life in the National Football League has been easy. After starting two full seasons for Michigan State, Hoyer went undrafted in 2009 but signed as a rookie free agent with New England. He served as Tom Brady's backup for three seasons, lived in mortal fear of Bill Belichick and got into garbage time in a handful of games.
In 2012, the Patriots released Hoyer in the final round of cuts. He went back to Cleveland, moved in with his in-laws, worked out at his high school and waited for what he said became the longest nine weeks of his life -- until Pittsburgh called. Hoyer spent a minute with the Steelers, got put on waivers and then was claimed by Arizona. Hoyer started for the Cardinals in their season finale without having taken a single practice snap with the first-team offense.
That offseason, Arizona signed Carson Palmer and released Hoyer. He had options, he said, but chose to go to Cleveland because it was home and the Browns offered him a two-year deal with guaranteed money.
After a regime change in the front office and in the coaching staff following the past season, Hoyer knew the Browns were going to draft a quarterback in May. Weeden was gone, and Hoyer, the presumptive starter, was coming off reconstructive knee surgery. Plus, Cleveland had two first-round picks.
What Hoyer did not know was the Browns would use the 22nd overall pick to select Johnny Manziel, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M and easily the most popular and polarizing player in the NFL since Tim Tebow.
Within 24 hours of drafting Manziel, the Browns sold 2,300 season tickets ranging in price from $190 to $2,900. Manziel's jersey became the hottest item in the league. Last week, pairs of single-game tickets to Browns home games sold out within 30 minutes. Such is the power of the Manziel brand.
Throughout training camp, Hoyer and Manziel have split reps with the first-team offense. Although Hoyer was the favorite heading into camp, Manziel has impressed the coaching staff with his competitiveness, his ongoing grasp of the playbook and his work ethic. When the Browns play at Washington on "Monday Night Football," Hoyer will start, but Manziel will get equal time with the first-team offense. Later this week, possibly as early as Tuesday, Pettine, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains likely will decide who will be the starter for Week 1 against Pittsburgh.
"Hoyer's got to stop being his own worst enemy," said an NFL source with knowledge of the Browns quarterback competition.
According to the source, Hoyer has let the pressure of the competition get to him. It did not help that the Browns signed 34-year-old Rex Grossman this past week. That move prompted speculation that Hoyer was expendable, something Pettine repeatedly denied. Nevertheless, there were rumors Hoyer could be traded to Houston, where he would be reunited with former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, who is now the Texans head coach.
Even though Pettine has nothing but positive things to say publicly about Hoyer, it is indisputable that he and general manager Ray Farmer inherited Hoyer. They did not pick Hoyer. And Grossman, who started in Super Bowl XLI for Chicago and has made 47 career regular-season starts, played for Shanahan in Washington and thus knows Shanahan's version of the West Coast offense.
But if Hoyer is fazed by the competition, he will not say it.
"For me, it's just about coming out here wherever, whoever I'm practicing with and just play the best I can," he said. "That's all you really can do."
"We don't need a quarterback," said a caller to one of the sports talk radio stations in Cleveland. "We need a savior."
This is part of what Hoyer is up against.
Since their return to the NFL in 1999, the Browns are tied with the Detroit Lions for the worst record in football. Twenty quarterbacks have started for Cleveland, and only one, Tim Couch in 2001, has started all 16 games of a regular season. There have been 13 different opening-day starting quarterbacks, and six times the Browns have had at least three different starters in a single season, including 2013.
The team has had three owners, seven general managers, seven head coaches and 12 offensive coordinators, including two head coaches who called the plays. Each of the past three seasons, the head coach has been fired after losing the season finale to Pittsburgh.
As a result, the Browns have had 13 losing seasons and zero playoff victories during that span. Simply put, Cleveland fans are starving for a winner.
Manziel was that in two seasons at Texas A&M. He went 20-6 as the Aggies' starting quarterback, won two bowl games and took home the Heisman Trophy following a magical 2012 season that included a nationally televised win over then-No. 1 Alabama.
Hoyer played quarterback for local legend Chuck Kyle at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland. He was the backup quarterback when the Wildcats won a state championship in 2001, then he started as a junior and senior. He also won a state baseball championship as a starting pitcher his sophomore year.
But Hoyer doesn't have the athletic résumé Manziel boasts.
"There's the die-hard Cleveland people that want their Cleveland guy," said Doug Dieken, who played offensive tackle for the Browns for 14 seasons and has been the radio color analyst for Browns games for nearly three decades. "But there's also those people that say, 'I saw this kid [Manziel] play in college, and boy, was he exciting.'
"So they just want somebody that's going to win because it's been so long since this football team has won, and that's what they're looking for. They'll accept whoever it is if the guy wins. But if you don't win, then you've got no shot."
While the Browns should have a formidable defense with newly acquired veterans Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner, they will have a glaring need at wide receiver if an arbitrator upholds the NFL's yearlong suspension of Pro Bowler Josh Gordon. Whoever the quarterback is can't throw the ball to himself.
Kyle does not pretend to know whom Pettine will choose to start Week 1 against Pittsburgh, but he knows Hoyer. After getting released by the Patriots in 2012, Hoyer called Kyle and asked if he could come throw to St. Ignatius' receivers. Just about every day during that nine-week stretch before the Steelers called, Hoyer would arrive at the sprawling campus on the west side of town and throw pass after pass to teenagers who eventually got the nerve to ask him to tell stories about Brady.
"The situation he's in -- it's a difficult situation," Kyle said. "Knowing him, he handles things with maturity, he really does. I think coaches would probably tell you he's professional. What he can handle is his business and be as thoroughly prepared as he can be. That's what he'll do. That's what he did in high school.
"But I think it's difficult for Brian. I think just the media thing, not the competition. He's been on fields with great quarterbacks, and that's fine. It's just ... here's Johnny Manziel all over the nation and reporters in to see Johnny Manziel. It's like, 'Yeah, and I'm trying to be the quarterback, too.' He's got to block that out, and I think he's doing that as best he can, but it's a little different."
Hoyer still has the letter Pettine wrote to him the past fall. It is displayed on his desk in his office at home. Shortly after receiving it, Hoyer obtained some Browns stationary and wrote Pettine back to thank him for taking the time to reach out to him.
When the Browns hired Pettine, who formerly was the New York Jets defensive coordinator, to be their head coach in late January, Hoyer was at the practice facility rehabbing his knee. When Pettine arrived, Hoyer was the first player to welcome him. He again thanked him for the note.
"People talk about [how] they've never really heard of Mike Pettine, but for me, I played in New England when he was in New York, so I knew exactly who he was," Hoyer said. "Then when we were playing against him as the Browns versus Buffalo, I was nervous because I knew how tough his scheme was. When I wrote him, I just kind of talked about that, like how much I respected him. Kind of a mutual-respect thing."
Said Pettine: "You always kind of root for the overachiever, and that was a guy you felt was better than a lot of people gave him credit for. When we went into that game, breaking the film down, we were like, 'This kid's legit.' That was something that was a heartfelt thing. You see a guy that's worked that hard to get to that point starting in his hometown and to have that happen to him, I'm sure it was a devastating thing for him."
It was. But Hoyer aggressively rehabilitated his knee and returned to practice ahead of schedule. He wears a brace in practice but otherwise shows no effects of the injury.
Hoyer said he has sworn off social media, including Twitter, and has quit watching "SportsCenter" or reading sports websites in an attempt to block out the external noise about the Browns' quarterback competition. He said he is competing only against himself -- and not against Manziel.
Pettine said he would "take into account" the fact that Hoyer is a local guy. He said he understands what it means to Hoyer to be the starting quarterback for the Browns, "but at the end of the day, we have to go with the guy out there that gives us the best chance to win."
Maybe that's Hoyer. Maybe that's Manziel.
"I've never been handed anything," Hoyer said. "For me, I feel like I was under-recruited, undrafted, I got cut by New England. I had to kind of fight my way back in, got a few starts and then I got to where I was last year. And then, even at that point, I had to wait for Brandon to get hurt to get my opportunity. Then things were going well, and then I got hurt. So I've been through a lot of adversity, and I think that only makes you stronger. Maybe it was meant for that way to prepare me for where I am right now and have to deal with this situation."
Asked who he thinks will prevail in the most-watched quarterback competition in the NFL, Hoyer said, "Me, obviously."
It is clear Pettine likes Hoyer as a player and a person. He would not have written that letter if he didn't. But will Pettine pick Hoyer over Manziel? And if he does, for how long can Hoyer endure? Time will tell.
The only certainty is no one will be patient for long.
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20hEric D. Williams