The Great Lakes Prophet

And lo, it was written that an ordinary man from our own land would rise up as a prophet and lead our orange and brown-clad warriors out of the dwellings of the dungeons and into thine holy realm of relevancy. His coming would not be accompanied by the attention of a favorable draft pick nor by multitudes of silver shillings doled out during a free agent bidding contest, but rather through the humble and lowly path of a journeyman backup. It was foretold that this prophet would lead us to victory in battle thrice over enemies from the south, the north, and the east. Although he was struck down by a mighty blow during his last conquest, his followers believe that he will resurrect and continue to lead our battle-worn brethren. Many people have cried out his name and have exalted him as a pigskin deity. But hold your praise, brothers and sisters, for I tell unto you that Brian Hoyer is only paving the way for our Messiah; he is not the savior we seek.

There was (and still is) a ton of excitement regarding Brian Hoyer’s brief stint at the helm of the Browns’ offense last season as there should be. For this franchise, a three-game winning streak is equivalent to a division title for most other teams. However, the microscopic sample size for which we are using to anoint him as a franchise QB is way too small and not without its caveats. Here’s what we know:

  • Brian Hoyer is a smart quarterback. He saw what didn’t work for Brandon Weeden and avoided that – namely he got the ball out of his hands quickly. He hit his open targets (for the most part) and avoided throwing the football backhanded / underhanded.
  • Brian Hoyer started three games in a row – all Cleveland victories. In a beleaguered sports town such as Cleveland, this is all that matters. The Browns haven’t enjoyed too many three-game winning streaks since 1999. Hell, they haven’t enjoyed too many one-game winning streaks in that time frame. I will be the first one to say that wins and losses are team efforts and that it is hard to assign either to an individual player. On the flip side, I’ll be the first to agree with the “playing the hot hand” mentality.
  • In his first start of the season last year, Brian Hoyer led a nearly flawless last-minute game-winning touchdown drive on the road capped off by a throw that Brandon Weeden could not make if given 100 opportunities. Closely related to the point above, Hoyer got it done when it counted. After a so-so three-and-a-half quarters in Minnesota, Hoyer got the ball down three points with a couple minutes left. Not only did he produce a game-winning drive, but his game-winning pass was a thing of beauty. He dropped a ball right on Jordon Cameron where only Jordon Cameron had a chance to catch it. We’d seen Weeden try to make that throw before and we’d seen miserable failure after every attempt. The following week against Cincinnati, Hoyer had a similar touch throw to seal the game – another one that Weeden could never come close to completing.

Here’s what we also know:

  • Brian Hoyer sat behind Tom Brady. This means absolutely nothing. Matt Cassel sat behind Tom Brady and when Brady went down, Cassel performed very decently in a well-functioning offensive system. After the career backup and seventh round draft pick got traded (along with Mike Vrabel) to the Chiefs for a second-round pick, he swiftly proceeded to not be good at football, get cut, get signed by the Vikings, and not beat out Christian Ponder for the starting job. (Closely related story: why I wanted NOTHING to do with Kirk Cousins at the supposed asking price). Backing up a great quarterback does not make someone the next great quarterback. The backup doesn’t absorb that QB’s field vision, accuracy, or arm strength. I think the wonder and awe of backing up Brady comes down to this collective groveling people offer “the Patriot way” and the reverence certain people hold for the Belichick coaching tree which produces useless fruit time after time yet keeps getting institutions grabbing at the branches.
  • Brian Hoyer is from Cleveland. This, again, means nothing on the field. Sure, it provides the potential of a great feel-good story, but his knowledge and familiarity with the city won’t help him win games. I would like to bet that if he were from somewhere else, there would be close to zero fan support for him starting over Manziel.
  • Brian Hoyer was a backup for the Arizona Cardinals in 2012 and only started one game. The QBs on the team who started more games than him were Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, and Ryan Lindley. When you’re not beating out a group of passers whose most prestigious member is Kevin Kolb, chances are you’re not the next breakout NFL quarterback.
  • Brian Hoyer beat three meh teams. For the sake of argument, we’ll include the team win over Buffalo even though Hoyer went down in the second quarter. He looked good starting that game and was dropped pass away from a 90 yard TD toss. The 2013 Vikings were awful. Their defense was near the bottom of the league in most categories at the time Cleveland played Minnesota. His overall game was mediocre (30-54 for 321 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT). A couple of those INTs were nowhere close to his receivers. If it weren’t for the game-winning TD drive, the vibe on Hoyer would have an entirely different feel. The game against Cincinnati was a lot more promising (25-38, 269 yards, 2TD, 0 INTs). Cincinnati ended up winning the AFC North with a frighteningly good defense. However, they were a different team on the road than when they played in the friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium. Buffalo was another mediocre team which Hoyer only saw for a little over a quarter. Their defense was absolutely incredible, though, and was led by a burly, manly man named Mike Pettine who was truly a leader of men…
  • Jason Campbell delivered similar results as Hoyer upon taking over for Weeden. Going up against the vaunted Chiefs D, Campbell kept the Browns in it the whole way. If not for Devone Bess imagining his next artsy weed tweet, the Browns could have left KC with a win (already contradicting my earlier statement of not one guy winning or losing). He was able to steal a win from the defending Super Bowl Champion Ravens and nearly took down the Patriots up in New England – although the Browns losing had zero to do with our QB that day. This more speaks to how terrible Brandon Weeden is rather than how “good” Hoyer and Campbell are.

Here’s what we don’t know about Hoyer:

  • His ceiling. Have we seen it already? Was it his game against Cincinnati? Will he ever be better than that? Can he repeatedly put a team on his back and lead them to victory week-in week-out? Can he go on the road against the best defenses in the NFL and produce?
  • His basement. Have we seen it already? Was it the first three quarters against the Vikings when he threw two TDs and 3 picks? Or will it be much, much worse?

Much like a rookie quarterback selected in the draft, Hoyer has a lot of question marks. His three-game sample size gave us reason to hope in Cleveland. However, there was a reason that he had virtually no NFL experience up until last September. There was a reason that the Cardinals didn’t start him ahead of their less-than-promising crop of QBs and let him walk in the off-season. There was a reason the Patriots didn’t try to trade him for the supposed second-rounder they want for current backup Ryan Mallet. There is a small chance the Browns got uncharacteristically lucky with Hoyer, the next great QB twice written off. However, there is a better chance that the two separate groups of scouts, coaches, and general managers who get paid millions of dollars to look for precisely what many fans think they see in Hoyer let him go because he is not the next Tom Brady.

With all of that considered, I was never more excited to watch the Browns play than last season’s Thursday night game against Buffalo. Hoyer ran a watchable offense. With still so much unknown, there was reason to feel comfortable with the unknown of Hoyer over Weeden. While he may not be a franchise quarterback, I definitely think he is a respectable choice to put under center for the near future. He has at least earned the right to prove that he is not the guy but rather a career backup – and a great backup to have at that.

A quick word on the competition between Hoyer and Manziel: Save for a Peyton Manningesque season from Hoyer, the Browns will be Manziel’s team within two seasons. With injuries and such, there’s a very good chance he will play this season. However, I think both he and the Browns are much better served with Hoyer playing (well) for as much of this season as possible ESPECIALLY if Josh Gordon is not in the lineup. As romantic as the notion is that Mr. Football’s first career start is on the road against the Steelers and he puts up gaudy numbers in a win and galvanizes Browns nation and leads us to the playoffs, the far more likely scenario consists of Dick LeBeau sending every blitz from his playbook at Johnny, destroying his body, and having a hand in writing the first ominous chapter in the Book of JFB. We’re not a playoff team this year, fans. We have time to wait. There’s no sense in playing a small, mobile rookie quarterback on a poor-to-mediocre team who is not yet used to the speed of the game.

So hold strong, brothers and sisters! For while in the care of Brian Hoyer, attending our Sunday service will be more enjoyable than days past. I do imagine that he will cause some of our apathetic neighbors to convert to our group, will lead some of our followers who were led astray in times of despair back to the flock, and will reward his most loyal followers with many a Sunday celebration. But I do say these words again: Brian Hoyer is not our quarterback Messiah; but I am perfectly content with a prophet for now.