Browns head into season with hope
CLEVELAND -- The Browns, unspeakably miserable for years, have a major buzz about them. It may soon become deafening.
The Dawg Pound is barking -- and some of its more rabid members are begging -- for Johnny Manziel.
With starter Brian Hoyer on the sideline wearing a baseball cap and watching last week, Manziel, the Browns' rookie quarterback with the quick feet, rocket arm and penchant for partying, scrambled, pump-faked and launched himself into the end zone for his first touchdown as a pro.
Cleveland's crowd roared like it won the Super Bowl.
Manziel popped to his feet, and Johnny Football, love him or hate him, flashed the signature "money" sign he made famous during two memorable seasons at Texas A&M.
As he rubbed his fingers together, thousands of Browns fans in No. 2 jerseys, mimicked his gesture.
"That's for those guys," Manziel said afterward. "It's not for me."
But it's all about Johnny, 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, man of the people and maybe the one who delivers Cleveland from football purgatory.
The Browns drafted Manziel in the first round with an eye toward the future, and it may be much closer than anyone thought. Manziel will begin the season as Cleveland's No. 2 quarterback behind Hoyer, who fought his way back from offseason knee surgery and did just enough in training camp to hang on to the starting job.
Hoyer's got the job, but he won't have much security if he doesn't win. Cleveland's difficult early schedule -- Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Baltimore before the bye -- will make that even tougher.
Cleveland opens the season Sunday, Sept. 7 at the Pittsburgh Steelers.
First-year coach Mike Pettine plans to install a package of plays for the mobile Manziel, and it won't be shocking if both quarterbacks play in the season opener against the Steelers.
Manziel's getting better. He's adjusting to the speed of the game, making better downfield reads and doesn't seem intimidated by anything. Maybe because he's been inside a seering public spotlight for so long, he seems immune to the pressure. He expects to succeed -- even in Cleveland, where quarterbacks are chewed up and spit out annually.
His time is coming.
"I don't look at is as I was drafted to come in Day 1 and save the franchise," he said. "For me, there's no pressure, there's no timetable. It's to continue to develop, get smarter, get better, and whenever that time is, I'll go out there and play football like I've been doing for the past years of my life."
All eyes will be on Manziel, wherever he is, and here are some other things to watch with the Browns:
NATIVE SON: Hoyer's a great story. Nice guy. Hard worker. As a kid, he went to Browns games with his dad and he's now living out his boyhood dream. Unfortunately, unless he emerges from the first three games with at least two wins, Pettine could switch to Manziel. Hoyer has defied long odds before -- he was waived by three teams in nine months -- and the 28-year-old doesn't have the luxury of time.
PETTINE'S TURN: The only thing the Browns discard as quickly as quarterbacks are coaches. Pettine is Cleveland's third in three years and seventh since 1999. Billionaire owner Jimmy Haslam fired Rob Chudzinski after one season, canning him shortly after the 2013 finale in Pittsburgh.
This is Pettine's first head coaching gig since high school, and the man nicknamed "Blunt Force Trauma" better be ready to take some hits.
PLAYMAKERS WANTED: Pro Bowl Josh Gordon's NFL season suspension for another violation of the league's substance abuse policy leaves Cleveland's offensive cupboard bare. Gordon led the league in yards receiving last season, and defenses have to account for No. 12 every time he's on the field. Without him, the Browns don't have a deep threat capable of stretching teams beyond comfort. WR Miles Austin, slowed by hamstring injuries in two of the past three seasons in Dallas, could help fill the void, but he's not Gordon.
ZONING OUT: Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's running game is based on a zone-blocking scheme his dad, Mike, helped devise in Denver. With Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, elite center Alex Mack and impressive rookie guard Joel Bitonio, the Browns have good pieces up front to open gaps for RB Ben Tate, signed as a free agent from the Texans.
The Browns are counting on their running game -- and an attacking defense -- to keep them competitive.
SLOW STARTS: The Browns are just 1-14 in season openers since 1999. Too often, that first loss has been followed by many more. Cleveland has had only two winning seasons (2002, 2007) in its expansion era and the Browns have lost at least 10 games in 12 of the past 15 seasons.
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