What if we told you …
- Held the Bills to just 287 yards of total offense.
- Limited the Bills to two-of-15 on third down, with the first successful third-down conversion coming with seven minutes left in the game.
- Intercepted Buffalo quarterback Kyle Orton twice.
- Held Buffalo wide receiver Sammy Watkins to three receptions for 11 yards.
- Held the Bills to just a lone offensive touchdown.
You would probably say that the Browns won.
Now what if we told you that Johnny Manziel played almost the entire fourth quarter – and it wasn’t because Brian Hoyer was injured?
That was the case on Sunday as the Browns fell to the Bills in yet another disappointing loss to a team that the Browns really should have beaten.
The Browns lost the game, lost a prime chance to grab a solid hold on a playoff spot as Pittsburgh and Baltimore both lost, and may have seen their season come to an end as they now have to seriously consider making a permanent switch to Manziel.
The game turned on the Browns during a 10-second stretch in the third quarter as the Bills took a 7-3 lead on a Chris Hogan touchdown catch. Then on the Browns first play of the ensuing drive, Terrance West fumbled the ball and while Ray Agnew stood there doing … something … Buffalo’s Jerry Hughes returned the ball 18 yards for a touchdown and a 14-3 lead that felt so much larger than just 11 points.
That was because Hoyer and the offense simply could not get anything going. West had just 32 yards on the ground and Isaiah Crowell was even worse, putting up 29 yards on 17 carries. (And we thought all the problems with the running game were solved when the Browns released Ben Tate.)
Without help from the running game, Hoyer struggled, throwing two interceptions (giving him five for the past two games) and never getting into any kind of rhythm. Consider that after taking a 3-0 lead on a Billy Cundiff field goal in the first quarter, the Browns next nine possessions went like this:
- 3 plays, 3 yards, Punt
- 13 plays, 61 yards, Missed FG
- 3 plays, 0 yards, Punt
- 4 plays, 11 yards, Interception
- 3 plays, minus-8 yards, Punt
- 1 play, minus-2 yards, Fumble
- 3 plays, 4 yards Punt
- 3 plays, minus-1 yard, Punt
- 2 plays, 4 yards, Interception
How is that even possible?
That’s why it wasn’t a surprise when head coach Mike Pettine finally turned to Manziel in the fourth quarter with the Browns trailing 20-3.
Manziel promptly took the Browns on a touchdown drive to but the lead to 10 points and provide a brief glimmer of hope that another comeback in a season full of them was possible.
But the defense finally broke and gave up a 41-yard catch and run to MarQuies Gray on third-and-1 that effectively sealed the game for the Bills.
So now what?
The Browns return home next week to face Indianapolis to start a four-game stretch where Cleveland really needs to go 3-1 if they want to have a shot at the playoffs. Being at home should be an advantage, but if Hoyer comes out as the starter, will the home fans give him any chance at all?
But if the Browns are serious about staying in the playoff hunt, is the best course of action to turn to a rookie quarterback who has played a total of 12 minutes this season?
“The door is definitely open for a change at the quarterback position,” Pettine told ESPN’s Sal Paolontonio after the game. “It’s not like we’re just going to go back to Brian. This has been a cumulative thing where discussions about a change at quarterback have been more and more lively. We’ll evaluate both quarterbacks and have a decision soon.”
While you can make a case that Hoyer has finally reached his expiration date as the Browns starting quarterback, it’s not as easy to make the case that Manziel gives the Browns the best chance to win over the final month of the season. Going 3-1 against the Colts, Carolina, Cincinnati and Baltimore is a tall order – even for Johnny Football.
Manziel isn’t going to make West and Crowell hold onto the ball, or return Jordan Cameron to health, or get Josh Gordon to run the correct pass route, or teach the Browns how to return a punt, or stop the wave of injuries that continue to hit the Browns.
Of course none of that may matter, because if the Browns lose to the Colts – no matter who is at quarterback – the playoff run may be dead and the Browns will turn to Manziel anyway for the final three games of the season.
While there may not be an easy answer to this problem right now, one thing is certain: if the Browns make the switch and name Manziel the starter, it has to be for the rest of the season. The worst thing the Browns can do is turn into a team like Washington, which has spent the season stumbling around blindly from quarterback to quarterback with predictable results.
If Pettine and the coaching staff think Manziel is the answer starting next week, then there is no reason to think he isn’t the answer for the rest of the season.
So what if we told you that, as disappointing as Sunday’s loss to the Bills was, the season isn’t over for the Browns?
It’s just up to them to decide how they want these last four games to play out.
(Photos courtesy of The Plain Dealer)