I can’t think of a better time for Cleveland to host a Thursday Night Football game than tonight. Obviously we’re all still feeling the sting of the Indians loss from last night so it’ll be great to turn our focus on a Browns team that is 2-2, tied for the division lead, and really playing fun football for the past two weeks.
So much of the praise for the turnaround of the Browns season has been placed on Brian Hoyer. I get it, he’s a QB and a local kid and so many people had negative opinions of Brandon Weeden that if another guy comes in and the team starts winning most people are going to fall in love with him.
This praise is misplaced though in my opinion. Hoyer has been what I would call “adequately mediocre”. That’s not meant to be a negative on him or anything, to be “adequate” means that he’s getting the job done. At the end of the day the point is to win games and Hoyer has done that. But I don’t think Hoyer has had a whole lot to do with either of the wins he’s been under center for. Sure he had a nice game-winning drive in Week 3 against the Vikings (digging the team out of the hole he dug with a couple dumb interceptions). But he has been far from spectacular. I watched the coaches film from this past week’s win over the Bengals and Hoyer only made one or two really good throws depending on how you feel about the “throw it to Jordan Cameron split out wide in single coverage and let him catch it because he can’t be covered” play on the goal line. Really the only tough throw he made was on the second TD drive when he hit Cameron deep pass in a hole in the zone coverage. Other than that he just threw short quick stuff. Much was made of him “leading” the Browns on two 90+ yard TD drives when in reality those drives were mostly runs and short, quick passes.
Now I’m not the only one who doesn’t think that Hoyer has been as amazing as many fans do. Pro Football Focus has Hoyer rated as the 21st QB in the NFL, five spots behind Weeden for the record. In Week 3 he was 18th in the league and in Week 4 he was 15th. So he hasn’t been bad and he hasn’t been good either. He’s been right in the middle of the pack…a spot you might call “mediocre”. Bill Barnwell and Robert Mayes of Grantland talked about Hoyer and the resurgent Browns on their podcast yesterday and questioned why things are working with Hoyer and how they didn’t with Weeden. They mentioned the obvious difference in that the offense has been designed to get the ball out quicker and wondered why they didn’t do that Weeden. Now is that Hoyer making that adjustment or is that The Norv realizing that their offensive line was so bad that that change needed to be made? We can’t say for sure.
But what I’ve noticed watching on film is that the mere presence of Josh Gordon on the field has caused opposing defenses to stretch deeper and that has opened up the shorter stuff underneath. Props to Hoyer on taking what the defense is giving him. I thought he pressed a little too much in his first start that led to some turnovers. Against Cincinnati he did a much better job of hitting his check-downs, like I pointed out he should do last week. And you know what? That’s fine. He’s playing well enough to win.
The reason that his play, while adequately mediocre, has been good enough to win, though, is because of the real deservers of praise: the Cleveland Browns defense.
This is a unit that has been spectacular through four games this season. PFF has them rated as the 7th best defense in the NFL. The fact that they only gave up six points to a playoff team from last year is nothing short of outstanding. Good defense is tough to come by these days so when you have one it’s a huge luxury. They’re dominating the line of scrimmage and playing tough, hard-hitting, ball-hocking football in the secondary. Joe Haden dominated AJ Green and even Buster Skrine has been sneaky good this season. Ray Horton has found a way to utilize TJ Ward as a roving/monster type player to where he’s making plays at the line, in the box, in the flats, and in the secondary. They really are a blast to watch, especially when Horton has them doing things like this before the snap…
Look I get that talking/writing about defense is boring. Heck, I spent 600+ words telling you why Hoyer and offense was NOT the story and I’ll be lucky if I can squeeze out half that on why the defense IS. But if you watched last week’s game against the Bengals you have to realize that that was a defensive win. Look at the Bengals’ drive summaries:
On six of the ten drives they surrendered less than 25 yards and on the drives where they did allow significant yardage they were able to limit the damage by forcing field goals instead of yielding touchdowns. The Browns got the lead early and the defense never let the Bengals get back into it. It’s especially impressive when you look at what they did from the fourth drive on when they reduced the Bengals to looking like a kitty cat of an offense.
So as we go forward this season, try not to get too over-wrapped-up about Brian Hoyer and remember that the real story and real people deserving of praise play on the defensive side of the football.
Now about my pick for this week’s Browns game…
BROWNS (-4) over Bills
I’ll be honest I get nervous when the Browns are actually favored. But when you boil it down there’s no reason why the Browns should lose this game. If Hoyer continues to play adequately mediocre football on offense and let the defense take care of the rest then they should be fine. The Bills are coming in with a rookie QB who was shaking on his other road start and is playing in his first primetime game after only playing four days ago. I think the Browns defense is going to give EJ Manuel a miserable evening and are really going to make a name for themselves playing in the national spotlight. Lay the points and let the Brownies lift your spirits, Cleveland.
 On the first TD drive much of the yardage was gained on a jailbreak screen to Travis Benjamin that went for 39 yards.
 In Week 2 PFF had Weeden rated as the 6th best QB in the NFL that week, leading credence to what I was seeing with my eyes and arguing that Weeden was playing well with what he had to work with. I still want to see him with Josh Gordon on the field. I think him coming back has been the biggest difference for the offense…not Hoyer.
 One last thing about Hoyer being adequately mediocre. Most young QBs are, or at least should strive to be, adequately mediocre early on in their career. Heck, that’s what Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger did early on in their careers and they won Super Bowls doing it. I’m not saying that Hoyer is going to turn out to be as good as those guys; that would be crazy. But me saying that he’s playing adequately mediocre right now is in no way suggesting that he can’t turn into a better play-making type QB down the road.