It wouldn’t be the Cleveland Browns without some controversy stirring up on the quarterback depth chart, would it?
Cleveland came into training camp after spending much of the offseason claiming veteran Josh McCown was the official starter for the team. Johnny Manziel, fresh out of rehab after a rough rookie year, wasn’t going to be anything more than a backup for the time being. That was that, no questions asked.
And yet, two weeks into the preseason, controversy is cooking up once again with the Browns.
McCown, who’s looked like a solid starter up to this point, struggled badly in last night’s preseason game against the Buffalo Bills. He ended the night with just 57 yards passing and two interceptions, often looking like he was forcing passes much more than he should.
Meanwhile, Manziel grabbed headlines thanks to his 96-yard touchdown drive, and finished the night netting 118 yards on 10-for-18 passing. It wasn’t all great, as he failed to generate much in a fourth quarter two-minute drill. At the same time, compared to last season, it was a huge step in the right direction.
Coach Mike Pettine has already claimed there will be no changes to his depth chart, with McCown still set as the team’s starter. Honestly, I think this is the right call. However, come next preseason game, Manziel needs to see a significant amount of time with the starters.
Again, Manziel was hardly flawless last night. He couldn’t move the team into field goal position to try and win the game late, and at one point tripped over himself after taking a snap. Bottom line: there’s still room for improvement.
That said, what we’re seeing from Manziel this preseason is night and day from the skittish, inaccurate performance we saw through all of 2014.
Manziel showed much more poise in the pocket last night, a skill he’s been improving since camp opened. No longer was he showing signs of happy feet, only fleeing the pocket when it was absolutely necessary.
There was a lot to love about the aforementioned touchdown drive, as well. While he did his fair share of running in the backfield, it was done more to extend the play instead of being a panic move. The touchdown pass to wideout Shane Wynn was a thing of beauty, and understandably set social media ablaze.
The point is we’re finally seeing Manziel trending in the right direction. At the same time, he’s nowhere near his ceiling. So, the answer to this situation is not to swap him in for McCown in Week 1, as some Browns diehards suggested last night. It is, however, important to see how Manziel plays with the starting offense.
What better time to do so than next weekend’s preseason dress rehearsal game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?
At the end of the day, while Manziel played well against the Bills, he also did so against their second team defense. Buffalo’s starting unit is one of the fiercest in the game, and as Pettine noted, the drop-off in talent with the backups is pretty significant. Until we can see him play this way (or better) against starters, you really can’t fully evaluate him.
The transition Manziel is making certainly has to be comforting for Cleveland, as the front office was raked over the coals for the decision to stick with him after a miserable rookie season. Likewise, the Browns need to continue staying the course, sticking with McCown despite Manziel’s improvement.
Make no mistake, though. Manziel will start for the Browns at some point this year. Cleveland needs to prepare for this, and giving him time with the starting offense should be the next step.