The Cleveland Browns lost a heart breaker on Sunday 24-25 to the Indianapolis Colts, and many are blaming their quarterback, Brian Hoyer, for the loss. In fact, I can hear the cries of Browns fans right now. Bring in Johnny Football! Hoyer’s been terrible! And who can blame them? Hoyer has, in fact, been terrible: completing 14 of 30 passes with 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions last week against the Colts, giving him 49.7% with 1 TD and 8 INTs over the last four weeks. Pro Football Focus has rated him as the third worst QB in the entire league so far this year.
But as tempting as it is, Browns’ head coach, Mike Pettine, has to leave Johnny “Football” Manziel on the bench.
Brian “All I Do Is Win” Hoyer is the best option for several reasons, but most immediately relevant is that he gives them the best chance of winning. The Browns have far exceeded everybody’s expectations and accumulated a 7-6 record, good enough for last place in the amazingly-competitive AFC North. And although they have a 3% chance of making the playoffs, they’re not done yet, sitting just one(-ish) game out of a playoff spot.
So how could Hoyer possibly be the best option? Anybody would be an upgrade, especially a Heisman Trophy-winning first-round draft pick! Nope. Wrong. You’re all dumb.
Quarterback is clearly the most difficult position in the NFL. From what I’ve learned, the leap in difficulty level between college and the NFL for quarterbacks is greater than for any other position. Don’t believe me? OK, how well have the other rookie QBs done this year? Blake Bortles (taken well ahead of Manziel in the draft) is last in the league in ESPN’s Total QBR rating, and on a play-by-play basis he’s been far and away the worst QB in football according to Pro Football Focus. The other rookies, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, and Zach Mettenberger, are also in the bottom half of the NFL by those two measurements. Translation: they’ve been overwhelmingly underwhelming.
What about second-year quarterbacks? Just as bad. Geno Smith, E.J. Manual, and Mike Glennon have all been mediocre at best. Not until we get to third-year quarterbacks do we start to see some promising results. Of the eight players from the 2012 draft class who have started games at QB this year (Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles, Austin Davis, Colin Kaepernick), three are currently rated as above average this year (Luck, Tannehill, and Wilson), and all but one (Davis) has had at least one such season in the NFL.
Granted, there is some selection bias there. Bad quarterbacks get weeded out of the league, younger QBs get a longer leash, bad teams are more likely to start younger players, have bad coaches, be behind in games and put their players in more difficult situations, blah blah blah. Fine, I didn’t do a particularly scientific study, and if you were convinced Johnny Football should be starting in Cleveland next week, I probably haven’t changed your mind. So how about I keep throwing some more anecdotal evidence in your face?
A few quarterbacks stand out as those who have been consistently among the top-10 in the league for the past decade or so : Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Philip Rivers. Let’s take a look back to see how these franchise quarterbacks performed in their first few years in the NFL. Yippee, story time!
Aaron Rodgers, a late first-round pick, famously backed up Brett Favre during his first three seasons. Rodgers took over in 2008 and was an immediate success, although it took him until 2009 to reach superstar status. His first full season as a starter was easily his worst in every major statistical category.
2008 season (year 4): 64% completions, 7.5 yards per attempt (YPA), 28 TDs, 13 INTs.
2009-2013 average season (years 5-10): 66%, 8.4 YPA, 34 TDs, 9 INTs.
You probably don’t remember this, but Peyton Manning was really bad as a rookie, despite being the first overall pick in the draft out of Tennessee. He had more interceptions than touchdowns for the 1998 Indianapolis Colts, who finished the year 3-13 during Jim Mora’s first year there as head coach. He turned it around in years two and three, though, finishing in the top-6 in passer rating both years. Peyton had a down year in 2001, his fourth season and first under new head coach, Tony Dungy. Peyton improved each of his next three seasons through 2004, when he set the record for most passing TDs in a season and became fully entrenched as the superstar we know him as today.
1998 season (year 1): 57%, 6.5 YPA, 26 TDs, 28 INTs.
1999-2003 average season (years 2-6): 64%, 7.5 YPA, 30 TDs, 16 INTs.
2004-13 average season (years 7-16): 67%, 7.9 YPA, 36 TDs, 12 INTs.
Drew Brees was taken out of Purdue by San Diego with the last pick of the second round in the 2002 draft. He played in only one game as a rookie, was very mediocre when he took over as a starter in 2003, was even worse the next year, but finally broke through in 2004, his fourth season out of college and his third as a starter. In the ten seasons since, Brees has never finished outside of the top-12 in passer rating.
2002-03 average season (years 2-3): 60%, 6.1 YPA, 14 TDs, 16 INTs.
2004-13 average season (years 4-13): 67%, 7.7 YPA, 33 TDs, 15 INTs.
Famously taken by New England with the 199th overall pick in 2000, Tom Brady backed up Drew Bledsoe until the second game of his second season, when Bledsoe went down with an injury. Brady came up big in the postseason, but he was nothing more than a solid NFL QB leading a talented, well-coached roster. Brady never finished better than 6th overall in passer rating until 2007, when Randy Moss came to town and he and Brady broke Peyton’s records. Tom’s been terrific ever since.
2001-06 average season (years 2-8): 62%, 7.0 YPA, 25 TDs, 13 INTs.
2007-13 average season (years 9-15): 65%, 7.8 YPA, 35 TDs, 9 INTs.
The 4th overall pick in 2004, Rivers was swapped for Eli Manning on draft day, and wound up as Drew Brees’s backup in San Diego. When Brees was traded to New Orleans in 2006, Rivers took over as starter in his third season in the league. He was good but not great for two years, but caught his stride in 2008, his first year under new coach Norv Turner, starting a streak of three consecutive years with a passer rating over 100.
2006-07 average season (years 3-4): 61%, 7.1 YPA, 22 TDs. 12 INTs.
2008-2013 average season (years 5-10): 65%, 8.1 YPA, 30 TDs, 13 INTs.
I hope that by now you’ve noticed a tend: it takes a while to learn how to be a good quarterback. Of these five superstar QBs, Peyton was the only one who even started as a rookie, and he struggled mightily despite being universally regarded as the best QB prospect since Dan Marino. Even the guys who didn’t play right away usually struggled out of the gate.
You might bring up Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson, but they are definitely exceptions to the rule. Luck played in a pro-style offense in Stanford under Jim Harbaugh and was considered the best QB prospect since Peyton, and statistically he was barely average his first year (54%, 7.0 YPA, 23 TDs, 18 INTs). Meanwhile, Russell Wilson has been playing under offensive guru Pete Carroll with an absolutely stacked roster, so he hasn’t had too much pressure on him up to this point.
Speaking of coaches, look at the guys whom our stars got to play for: Mike McCarthy, Tony Dungy, Marty Schottenheimer, Sean Payton, Norv Turner, Bill Belichick. Every one of these them is either an offensive genius or an experienced, well-respected, head coach. Or both. Coaching is far more important for the success of a team and its players in the NFL than in any other professional sport, and it clearly helps a QB to have some consistency on a year-to-year basis. Obviously it’s also easier to retain your position as head coach if you’ve got a really good QB, but who’s to say whether the chicken or the egg came first on that one? And I’m still waiting for somebody to call Mike Pettine a genius.
My point is that QB is way too difficult in the modern NFL for rookie QBs, and that Johnny Manziel has practically no chance of playing well in any of these last three extremely important games. He’s going to look over matched, get blamed for the loss(es), and never be given another chance, even though I’ve clearly demonstrated that it takes several years to learn how to play QB in the NFL. Brian Hoyer has been around for a few years, has backed up Brady in New England, and undoubtedly understands a pro offense significantly better than Manziel at this point. The Browns should stick with the guy who’s gone 10-6 as a starter for them over the last two season.
Just go don’t blame Johnny when everything blows up in his face. Or me. Because I told you this would happen.