Browns coach Mike Pettine insists rookie Johnny Manziel has not surpassed veteran Brian Hoyer in the race to become the team's starting quarterback and neither player should be labeled an obvious leader of the derby because it's too close to call at this point.
ESPN's Bob Holtzman reported a team source told him Manziel is ahead in the quarterback battle in the aftermath of the Browns' 13-12 loss to the Detroit Lions on Saturday night in the preseason opener. Pettine, though, refuted the report.
"It's untrue," Pettine said Sunday afternoon during a conference call. "I'm not sure who his team source would be, but to me, the people most involved in the decision are myself and 1/8quarterbacks coach3/8 Dowell Loggains and 1/8offensive coordinator3/8 Kyle Shanahan. So it's something that I'm not going to pay a lot of attention to because I don't like being in the business of anonymous sources."
So is one of the quarterbacks ahead or is the competition a dead heat right now?
"No, we put Brian out there with the ones 1/8Saturday3/8 and that was for a reason because he was ahead because of his edge in experience and the lead he had with the playbook," Pettine said. "He's done nothing to have that taken away from him, but Johnny has made some improvement, a lot of improvement. With the things where he was behind in the spring, I think he's gotten a pretty firm grasp on.
"As we said before, it was 1/8Manziel3/8 versus the playbook, and he's handling it well. It was his first live-game situation of an active play clock and having to get the call and repeat it and get everybody lined up and the motions executed, which we do a lot of. He's really gone from one extreme to the other, and I think he's handled it well. Brian, on the other hand, has been solid."
Manziel's coaches believe he'll be best prepared to succeed once his pocket presence fully develops.
"He's definitely a work in progress with that," Pettine said. "But he's shown a solid improvement in it."
The coaches have not decided which quarterback will start in the second exhibition game Aug. 18 at the Washington Redskins, Pettine said. Still, it would be surprising if Manziel, the 22nd overall pick in this year's draft, doesn't get a shot to show what he can do with the first unit in game action.
Pettine expects both quarterbacks to work with the first-team offense during practices this week. Hoyer worked exclusively with the starters in spring practices and through the first week of training camp, but he and Manziel began splitting time with the first-string offense last week.
Pettine said Hoyer and Manziel were "solid" against the Lions, even though the Browns failed to score a touchdown.
Playing with the first-team offense, Hoyer led the Browns on two field-goal drives in three series, two against the Lions' starters, and completed 6 of 14 passes (42.8 percent) for 92 yards, posting a passer rating of 65.2. At least two of his passes were dropped, including one that went off the hands of All-Pro receiver Josh Gordon in the back of the end zone.
In four series with the second-string offense, Manziel completed 7 of 11 passes (63.6 percent) for 63 yards, posting a passer rating of 79. He was the victim of one dropped pass. He also ran six times for 27 yards (4.5 average), including a long gain of 16 yards. He led the offense to a field-goal drive and orchestrated another potential scoring march that fizzled when the Lions recovered running back Dion Lewis' fumble at their 31-yard line.
So did anything happen in the exhibition opener that changed Pettine's assessment of the quarterback duel?
"No, and to me, if there was a clear-cut favorite at this point, it would probably mean that one of them wasn't playing very well," Pettine said. "And it's a good problem to have, having two guys that we think are both capable of being NFL starters."
Browns strong safety Donte Whitner told Sports Illustrated's Peter King he believes the locker room is split 50-50 on the Hoyer-Manziel debate and would be OK with either one starting.
Pettine said he still wants to name a starting quarterback before the third preseason game Aug. 23 against the St. Louis Rams, but he conceded that deadline is not "1,000 percent etched in stone."
He is definitely sticking to his belief, though, that starting a rookie quarterback in the NFL is not ideal. But at the same time, he knows some have succeeded out of the gate.
"I've always felt in an ideal situation that the rookie gets a chance to sit behind someone and learn," Pettine said.
When Pettine, Loggains and Shanahan make the final call on which quarterback will start the regular-season opener Sept. 7 at the Pittsburgh Steelers, they'll try to pick the player they believe is the best man for the job this year.
"When we sit down and look at the big picture, it's who gives us the best chance to win," Pettine said. "That's the bottom line."
Does Manziel give the Browns the best chance to win because his mobility adds a dimension to the offense and the team lacks playmakers, especially if Gordon is lost to a suspension?
"I don't see it that way," Pettine said. "1/8Manziel3/8 does have a certain skill set that we hope to take advantage of if he is out there, but that's not the way we look at it. It's what I said before: We're going to look at everything involved and whoever gives us the best chance to win, will be out there."
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