As of this writing, the Browns haven't made it 100 percent yet, but it's clear that Johnny Manziel will make his highly anticipated first NFL start this week vs. Cincinnati. That a good or bad thing for the Browns? The game is a pick'em on NFL odds.
Move to Manziel Too Late?
I can't remember the last time a team in a division/playoff race in Week 15 of an NFL season decided to bench a healthy veteran starter and go with a rookie who has never started a game. I'm sure it has happened, but I can't recall when. But, really, Browns coach Mike Pettine has no choice.
Incumbent starter Brian Hoyer began the season strong, to the point there was talk the Browns might offer the free-agent-to-be a contract extension and let he and Manziel fight it out for the starting job again next training camp. That's clearly not an option now. Hoyer will be wearing a different uniform in 2015, and his recent play is probably costing him a few million dollars.
At one point the Browns were 6-3 and leading the AFC North. However, they have lost three of the past four games and Hoyer has just one touchdown pass and eight interceptions in that stretch. He has multiple picks in the past three games -- the first Browns QB ever with three straight games of no touchdowns and two-plus interceptions -- and hasn't had a rating over 61.3 in the past four. By comparison, Hoyer had 10 touchdowns and four interceptions in the first nine games -- not exactly Peyton Manning numbers but solid. Hoyer had a rating of 81.7 or higher in each of the first nine games but one. The only quarterbacks with lower season ratings than Hoyer now are Tampa Bay's Josh McCown, who probably won't start again this season (or be back with the Bucs in 2015), Jacksonville's Blake Bortles (an overwhelmed rookie on a two-win team) and the Jets' Geno Smith (no explanation necessary).
Pettine almost made this move last week but decided to give his veteran one more chance. Hoyer was only 14-for-31 for 140 yards and two interceptions in the 25-24 loss to Indianapolis. Cleveland had three drives start in Indianapolis territory but came away with a combined three points on those possessions. In addition, the Browns had only three first downs in the second half. Cleveland has one touchdown from Hoyer's past 29 drives.
The Right Call?
So what does Manziel bring? Hard to say. He appeared in relief of a struggling Hoyer in Week 13 against Buffalo and was 5-for-8 for 63 yards. He rushed for a 10-yard touchdown on his first series but fumbled deep in his own territory in the second.
Asked if Manziel would be ready to make his first NFL start on Monday, Pettine didn't hesitate in answering: "Absolutely." Pettine said he didn't go to Manziel against the Colts because the Browns had a 21-7 lead in the third quarter thanks mostly to two defensive scores.
At worst, Manziel should be able to provide a spark with his running ability and his overall electricity. The Browns' offensive coordinator is Kyle Shanahan, and he was the coordinator of the Washington Redskins in 2012 when mobile Robert Griffin III was sensational. Griffin had 815 rushing yards that season under Shanahan's guidance, including 344 on read-option plays. Expect plenty of designed QB runs and read-option plays.
Manziel is going to get the home fans worked up, which in turn usually gets the players more fired up. The Browns players are really going to want to do a number on the Bengals after Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis called the 6-foot Manziel a "midget" on Monday. Guys are very protective of their quarterbacks.
Does This Help the Browns' Odds at Win?
The Bengals are 2-0 against rookie quarterbacks this season. They beat Jacksonville's Blake Bortles, the No. 3 overall pick, 33-23 in Week 9. Bortles was 22-for-33 for 247 yards, two TDs and a pick for a rating of 96.4. In Week 12, Cincinnati won 22-13 at Houston and Ryan Mallett, True, Mallett isn't technically a rookie but in terms of starting experience he was. Mallett struggled, going 21 of 45 for 189 yards and an interception.
If you are looking for a mobile comparison to Manziel, consider Carolina's Cam Newton. He gave the Bengals fits in a Week 6 37-37 tie as Newton threw for 284 yards and two scores but also rushed 17 times for 107 yards and a score. No one is saying Manziel is Newton yet, obviously. The Browns will likely have a conservative game plan, while the Bengals surely won't defensively. They will want to throw plenty of blitzes and movement at Manziel to confuse the rookie. That can lead to big plays for both the offense and defense, but generally a rookie is going to be overwhelmed. Manziel is the fifth rookie QB in the past 20 years to start Week 15 or later. The past two -- Tim Tebow (2010) and JaMarcus Russell (2007) -- have lost. Manziel will be No. 3.
How will Manziel affect the Browns' NFL odds going forward? I believe you will see a rash of action from casual bettors on Cleveland games because sometimes those fans have blinders on when it comes to players they like. The sharps know that Manziel isn't ready yet. Cleveland also is finishing with three clubs all battling for playoff position. After hosting the Bengals this week, the Browns go to Carolina and then Baltimore. That's two good defensive teams in hostile territory. Fans will not make it easy from a noise perspective on Manziel when Cleveland is on offense. He's a guy fans love to hate.
The consensus reports show that the sharp NFL picks are going against Cleveland with Johnny Football in there, but at least the team will get a glimpse of what it will have next season.