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How could the Browns blow so many quarterback decisions in half a season?

Oct 29, 2013 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/USA Today

The Morning Kickoff …

Easy as 1, 2, 3: They say that quarterbacks are the toughest position to evaluate. I agree when it comes to college quarterbacks.

Projecting an NFL quarterback from a shotgun, spread gunslinger who plays 11 times a year in a college conference with no defense indeed is a guessing game.

Can he assimilate NFL defenses? How will he react with 260-pound pass rushers in his face? Can he fit the ball in tiny passing windows? Will he put in the hours to study defenses? What about new, complicated plays and unfamiliar language? All of these issues comprise a Rubik’s cube of decisions for an evaluator.

But when it comes to veteran NFL quarterbacks, passers with years of game tape on file, it shouldn’t be that hard. Either a guy can make plays at the pro level or he can’t.

So how do you explain the Browns’ mis-evaluations of their three quarterbacks this year?

The season started with Brandon Weeden No. 1, Jason Campbell No. 2 and Brian Hoyer No. 3.

Eight games in, it’s painfully obvious that the depth chart should have been the reverse – 1. Hoyer, 2. Campbell, 3. Weeden.

These mis-evaluations just might have cost the Browns a run at the playoffs. Incredible.

The background: Although CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi had their well-documented reservations about Weeden, they deferred to the experts when they first addressed the QB position – coach Rob Chudzinski and coordinator Norv Turner.

I am fairly certain that if Chudzinski and Turner would have concluded, “We can’t win with Weeden,” he wouldn’t have been back – in spite of $2.801 million owed in salary guarantees. But Chudzinski and Turner went to bat for Weeden because of his big arm, primarily.

Prodded by owner Jimmy Haslam to create “competition” at the position, Banner added Campbell in free agency, somewhat unenthusiastically.

Hoyer has widely been seen as “Lombardi’s boy,” based on Lombardi’s well-documented comments over the years as an NFL analyst, the fact Bill Belichick really liked Hoyer and Lombardi’s relationship with Hoyer’s agent, Joe Linta. Relationships between GMs and agents are the most overlooked aspect of team building.

Hoyer also received compelling reviews during Browns head coach interviews with Bill O’Brien, former Patriots coordinator; Ken Whisenhunt, former Cardinals head coach; and Ray Horton, former Cardinals defensive coordinator who was eventually hired in the same capacity by the Browns. That was enough for Banner to side with Lombardi on Hoyer.

So after the Cardinals lifted their second-round contract tender on Hoyer, who was a restricted free agent, the Browns had the lead on signing Hoyer via Linta. (Linta’s most famous client is Joe Flacco. And weren’t the Browns touted as a serious suitor in free agency for Flacco, perhaps forcing the hand of the Baltimore Ravens in re-signing Flacco at the expense of decimating their Super Bowl roster?)

In OTAs and training camp, in the absence of a pass rush and live hitting, Weeden excelled as a statuesque thrower of the ball. Campbell was next in line, but never took reps with the first team. And Hoyer? It seemed like the coaches banished him to another field to throw to the undrafted receivers.

Two developments happened just before the season started.

After two pitch-and-catch exhibitions created false optimism about Weeden, he had a terrible outing against the Colts. That sounded fire alarms in Berea.

And then in the preseason finale in Chicago, Chudzinski erred badly in giving Weeden the night off. Campbell acquired a flu bug and was a late scratch, giving Hoyer the full game. The coaches then were wowed by what they saw – Hoyer’s professionalism in directing a seemingly innocuous win. But they proceeded to the season opener with Weeden as the unquestioned starter.

Better late than never: Two awful outings by Weeden against Miami and Baltimore created the usual 0-2 hole to another Browns season.

On Monday, Chudzinski explained his decision to start the season with Weeden this way: “Brandon was somebody that we didn’t know a lot about, and we wanted to find out more about. He showed well and did well in the practices and in the preseason.”

A little lame, but I can buy that. Everyone believed Weeden deserved a shot in the new, vertical passing offense that accentuated his arm. After Weeden sprained his thumb, Chudzinski made the right decision in leap-frogging Campbell and starting Hoyer. Two wins by Hoyer energized the locker room and the season.

But what was indefensible was what happened as Hoyer and the Browns prepared for their third win in a row in the Thursday night Game 5 against Buffalo.

Weeden’s thumb was in a cast most of the short week leading up to the Thursday game. The day before the game, the cast was removed and Weeden threw some passes after practice to a couple receivers. Shockingly, Chudzinski named Weeden the No. 2 quarterback for the Buffalo game and de-activated the fully healthy and famously overlooked Campbell.

We know what happened. Hoyer tore a knee ligament early, propelling Weeden back into action. He took advantage of big plays elsewhere -- Travis Benjamin’s two momentum-changing punt returns, one for a touchdown, and T.J. Ward’s interception return – and the Browns won, 37-24.

Weeden returned to his starting spot the next week and blew a 17-7 halftime lead against Detroit. Then he started in Green Bay and threw the ball in Lake Superior.

That made it four miserable outings in four starts for Weeden, and four losses.

If Chudzinski had not hastily reinserted Weeden into the Buffalo game plan and instead chosen Campbell, then it’s conceivable that Campbell could have emerged the starter against Detroit and Green Bay. It’s impossible to predict how Campbell would have fared in those two games. But it’s quite obvious, given his strong performance in Kansas City, that he couldn’t have done worse.

Now the season, stuck at 3-5 at the mid-point, is in the hands of Campbell. With eight games left, the coaches still have a chance to make something of this season.

Let’s hope so, because their expertise will be needed when attention turns to the draft. I hope their cred hasn’t been hurt by this debacle. I still wouldn’t trust the choice of the next quarterback to others.

 

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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