Johnny Manziel could be Cleveland's quarterback of the future, but he'll begin the season behind Brian Hoyer on the Browns' depth chart.
Johnny Manziel could be Cleveland's quarterback of the future, but he'll begin the season behind Brian Hoyer on the Browns' depth chart. (Joe Robbins, Getty Images)

Johnny Manziel is not expected to start for the Cleveland Browns in the 2014 season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That doesn't mean the spotlight on Manziel will fade or that the debate about who should be playing quarterback for the Browns will disappear.

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While journeyman Brian Hoyer regained the starting job for his hometown team by beating out the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and the team's 2014 first-round draft choice midway through the preseason, many expect Manziel to find his way onto the field as a rookie.

It could be in a package of pistol-formation plays that first-year Browns coach Mike Pettine used during the preseason in trying — though not often succeeding — to showcase the talents of a player known as "Johnny Football."

Or it could be as an early-season replacement if Hoyer, who was unbeaten in three starts last season before tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in early October, struggles as he did for most of the preseason.

"Any way I can contribute to this team, whether it's looking at a certain coverage or looking at something during the game or having a certain package for me, whatever I can do to try to help this offense and help this team, that's the position I'm in, that's all I really want to do," Manziel said after a 33-14 preseason loss to the St. Louis Rams on Aug. 23.

Being the backup

Pettine even hinted late in the preseason that a two-quarterback system might be an option, depending on how the team starts the regular season, including a Week 3 matchup against the Ravens in Cleveland.

Manziel conceded after Hoyer was named Aug. 20 as the opening day starter that he "didn't necessarily feel like I was ready" to start against the Steelers on Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh.

"I don't think I played terrible, but I didn't do anything to jump off the page," Manziel said of his first two preseason games, one-point losses to the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins. "I made strides and got better throughout training camp, and that's what I wanted to do.

"Obviously it's disappointing, but at the same time I want what's best for this team moving forward, and I'm going to continue to come out here every day and give it my all and continue to get better as a quarterback. That's all I can do."

What also might have hurt Manziel's chances was his most publicized moment since being drafted No. 22 overall — a nationally televised flip of his middle finger in the direction of the Washington bench during a 24-23 loss at FedEx Field on Aug. 18.

Though Pettine said his choice at quarterback would be "whoever gives us the best chance to win the opener," the former Ravens assistant was clearly perturbed when told of Manziel's obscene gesture by a team official after the game.

Manziel was later fined $12,000 by the NFL.

"It does not sit well," Pettine said. "It's disappointing. It's what we talk about is being poised and being focused, that you have to be able to maintain your poise. That's a big part of all football players, especially the quarterback, that we have to keep our composure. That's something we'll obviously address with him."

Said Manziel: "I get words exchanged with me throughout the entirety of the game, every game, week after week. I should have been smarter. … With me, since my name has grown bigger and people have known who I am, it just continues to go as the games go on. I just need to let it slide off my back and go on to the next play."

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Rough transition

Manziel's inability to maintain his cool was only the latest transgression in what has been a rocky transition from college to pro football.

Off the field, Manziel has been criticized for the late-night party lifestyle that has been part of his persona since he won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman. What might have worked for Joe Namath and Ken Stabler in the 1960s and 1970s no longer plays well in the NFL.

On the field, Manziel struggled with making presnap reads (something he didn't have to do in college) as well as with the terminology of a playbook that seems to turn seemingly simple play calls into soliloquies under center compared with the three-to-five-word calls Manziel used in college.

Asked after the Washington game what the most difficult part of the transition has been, Manziel said: "Just really learning the playbook again. It's not necessarily how difficult it is — it's new, it's fresh, it's something that I've only heard for three or four months of my life compared to what I was used to for two years being at A&M."

That the Browns don't have many big-time receiving targets — and will be without Josh Gordon, who will serve a one-year suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy — doesn't help either Manziel or Hoyer, a sixth-year pro who has been on four NFL teams.

"It's exactly what I thought it would be," Manziel said of his rookie struggles. "I knew it would be a big step. I obviously didn't know exactly what it entailed, but I knew it would be a big jump for me and a big learning process."

The playmaking ability that reminded longtime NFL fans of Fran Tarkenton or Randall Cunningham — as well as younger fans of Michael Vick and Cam Newton — has been mitigated by Manziel's adjustment to the game's speed.

"It's definitely faster," he said in Landover. "It's the NFL. These are the best football players on the face of the earth, so it's definitely faster, quicker, and things close up a lot faster if you're hesitant."

Familiar struggles

Many are not surprised by the adjustment — even Manziel. He points to his first year at Texas A&M, when he sat out as a redshirt playing behind Ryan Tannehill, who was picked eighth overall by the Miami Dolphins in 2012.

"If people would have seen me my first year and a half at A&M, they would have said, 'No way this kid can get to where I'm at today,' Manziel said Aug. 20. "That's what people don't understand. First year and a half at A&M, I was terrible.

"I would have never gotten to this point if I played the way I did that first year and a half. If I continued to try and get better learning the playbook, got more comfortable, everybody, around the coaches, with the system, and then good things happened for me."

Manziel showed some flashes of his play at Texas A&M in Cleveland's third preseason game, completing 10 of 15 passes for 194 yards and running 7 yards for his first NFL touchdown, flashing his trademark "money" sign to Browns fans afterward.

"It was a great first experience in the stadium for me, and to get a touchdown was incredible," Manziel said.

Manziel said he believes starting the season with a clipboard in his hand rather than an earpiece in his helmet could help quell some of the hype that has followed him to Cleveland.

But Manziel is also realistic enough to know that what led to more fans buying his No. 2 Browns jersey than any other NFL player's jersey since the NFL draft is not going to prevent his fans in Cleveland — possibly even team owner Jimmy Haslam — from calling for Pettine to play him if Hoyer continues to struggle after knee surgery.

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"I'm the backup quarterback. I shouldn't be in the spotlight," Manziel said. "So who knows if that'll actually be the case. But it would be nice. It would be nice. I don't think it's going to happen, though."

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Browns by the numbers

0

Super Bowl appearances — one of four teams (with the Lions, Jaguars and Texans) never to have played in a Super Bowl.

2

Johnny Manziel's jersey — and also the spot he is on the QB depth chart.

5

The most wins the Browns have had in the past six seasons — they've gone 4-12 and 5-11 three times since 2007.

22

Ranking among NFL teams for franchise value ($1.12 billion) in Forbes Magazine.

Three things that need to go right for Browns

** Quarterback Brian Hoyer shows that last season's success before he tore his ACL wasn't a fluke, and he relegates Johnny Manziel to the bench to learn how to be a professional on and off the field.

** The defense gets to the quarterback the way first-year head coach Mike Pettine's Buffalo Bills defense did last year. The Bills had 57 sacks last season compared with 40 by the Browns.

** New running backs Ben Tate and Terrance West provide more than the 86.4 rushing yards per game that the Browns averaged last season. The Browns signed Tate as a free agent and drafted West out of Towson in the third round.

Three things that could go wrong

** The offensive line continues to look woeful during the regular season, negating any improvements in the passing and rushing games, causing Hoyer to run for his life.

** The attacking defenses that Pettine had with the New York Jets and Bills never materialize in Cleveland and can't put pressure on the quarterback. Opponents pick on young cornerback Justin Gilbert as they throw away from Joe Haden at the other corner.

** Nobody steps up to replace Josh Gordon as go-to wide receiver, leaving Hoyer to throw to the likes of NFL retreads Miles Austin and Nate Burleson. The front office is constantly questioned about why it didn't draft a wideout.

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