Last Thursday’s win over the Buffalo Bills was the absolute definition of a Pyrrhic victory for the Cleveland Browns. The team now sits at 3-2 in a tie with Baltimore and Cincinnati atop the AFC North, but the lasting image will be Brian Hoyer’s right leg twisting unnaturally under his body after an awkward slide and a big hit by Bills stud rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso.
The primary point of impact was Hoyer’s head, causing the quarterback’s right leg to stick in the turf under him and causing the torn ACL that would result, but no penalty was called. And now we’re here.
Brandon Weeden did “lead” the Browns to victory after replacing Hoyer on Thursday night. Let’s give credit where it’s due. But he still looked lost working through his progressions and uncomfortable in the pocket. His defenders (are there any left?) will point to the two deep throws that he put on the money for Greg Little and Josh Gordon on the touchdown drive, but both of those passes involved a single pre-snap read that told Weeden exactly where he would be throwing the ball before he even called for the snap.
Weeden will have Josh Gordon catching passes – a luxury he was without for his first two starts (both losses) this season. But, judging from his play against Buffalo, even that can’t salvage him as the Browns quarterback.
Now, the organization finds itself in a peculiar predicament. As mentioned, the Browns are tied for the AFC North more than a quarter of the way through the season. Show me someone who predicted that and I’ll show you a bold-faced liar. However, the man who turned the season around was Hoyer, and he will be standing on the sideline for the next 11 games with that torn ACL.
Ironically, most observers thought the Browns’ decision to start Hoyer over Jason Campbell (who had backed up Weeden in the first two games) in Minnesota for week three assumed it was a sign that Joe Banner and company were tanking this season before the calendar even turned to October. The Trent Richardson trade further solidified this opinion. It was a new low for many Clevelanders.
But then, Hoyer wasn’t horrible. He – with some help from special teams trickery – defeated the Vikings on the road and followed that up with a win over the Bengals, who were many people’s trendy pick for the Super Bowl. There was hope again in Cleveland.
However, this is still Cleveland, so some supernatural force had to tear Hoyer’s ACL and knock Browns fans back down a few notches. Having the abysmal Weeden back in suggests that the team would shift back into tank mode in the hopes of landing a top draft pick that could be spent on a true franchise quarterback. But, since the team managed to beat Buffalo, the 3-2 record necessitates that the front office and coaching staff decides to go for it and take whatever steps necessary to contend for the playoffs. The NFL is not the NBA, where it is better to bottom out and secure ping pong balls for the draft lottery. The NFL playoffs are crazy enough that sometimes just getting in is enough. No team can afford to pass up a chance to earn a postseason berth.
Weeden is clearly not the long-term answer. Regardless of how this season ends up, the Browns will be picking a quarterback next spring. Luckily, the 2014 QB class figures to be deep enough (if all of the expected characters declare for the draft) that Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi will be able to find a well-regarded prospect no matter where the Browns pick in the first round. Also recall that Cleveland now holds the Colts’ first round pick from the Richardson trade, and the front office will have two opportunities to find their quarterback of the future.
The final 11 games of this season are less solidified. Barring miraculous and instantaneous improvement, the Browns probably won’t remain in the playoff race with Weeden at quarterback. He just hasn’t shown that he has the tools necessary to be even a serviceable NFL starter. As I tweeted during Thursday’s game, Weeden has an NFL arm, but it is connected to a CFL brain and USFL feet. A big arm alone isn’t enough to get by at this level. Ask JaMarcus Russell.
The question then is whether a better option exists. Is it Jason Campbell? He sure didn’t show any signs that he would be an upgrade in his few snaps at the end of the week two loss in Baltimore. It also seems implausible that the coaching staff would make the decision to bench Weeden for Campbell after they passed over Campbell to start Hoyer just three weeks ago.
Is anyone better than Weeden still available? Josh Freeman would have been an upgrade – yes, he would have been – but the Browns decided they weren’t interested in making a run at him. After seeing the money he got from the Vikings (almost $3 million for one year), it’s a little easier to understand why Banner and Lombardi bowed out of the race for his services.
Matt Flynn was released by the Oakland Raiders on Monday after falling to third on the depth chart. He has parlayed one monster game in week 17 of the 2011 season into $14 million over the past two seasons, in which he only made one total start. Is he better than Weeden? I certainly don’t know, especially when factoring in the reality that he would be learning a new playbook on the fly.
The other available quarterbacks – Matt Leinart, Vince Young, Tyler Thigpen, et al. – have similar question marks. They have all failed at least once as a starter and now are looking to catch on as a backup somewhere. They could probably perform decently in that role, but the Browns already have Campbell as a backup.
On Monday, Rob Chudzinski told the media that the Browns are “looking at our options” at the quarterback position. However, with the available options, it seems like any player the Browns bring in would not be to fill the starting role. I’m sorry Browns fans, but it might be time to make peace with the fact that you’ll be watching Brandon Weeden play quarterback for the rest of this season.