Will Cleveland Finally Draft Its Franchise QB?
By Steven King
It’s the 2014 NFL Draft and the Cleveland Browns are looking for a franchise quarterback.
Now there’s a shock.
Not really. That was meant as a cruel joke that is not one bit funny on the North Coast.
Oh sure, ever since the expansion era began in 1999, there have been blips on the screen when it appeared the club might have found the passer around whom it could build, such as:
*After Tim Couch – the No. 1 overall draft pick in 1999 – had done some very good things in his first year playing for coach Butch Davis at the end of the 2001 season, the Browns gave him a contract extension.
Maybe he was ready to really shine, they thought. Or maybe not.
After making some clutch plays to help deliver them to their first – and only – playoff berth in 2002, he broke his leg in the regular-season finale against the Atlanta Falcons and was never the same. He was unceremoniously waived at the end of the 2004 preseason and was soon out of football altogether.
*Then it was Kelly Holcomb’s turn. After finishing out the playoff-clinching victory over the Falcons in 2002, he went to Pittsburgh and sliced and diced the Steelers with a career performance of 429 passing yards and three touchdowns in a wild 36-33 loss.
Maybe Cleveland had caught lightning in a bottle with the sudden awakening of this sleepy-eyed career backup. Or maybe not.
In the ensuing offseason, the clock struck midnight and Holcomb, the franchise’s version of Cinderella, turned back into the raggedly guy he had been. He was gone from the Browns after the 2004 season.
*In an almost identical way, Derek Anderson came out of nowhere to burst upon the scene at the end of the 2006 season and, then, much more prominently in 2007, when he tied for second in franchise history with 29 touchdown passes and became the team’s first quarterback in exactly 20 years (do you remember some curly-haired kid from 1987 named Bernie Kosar?) to make it to the Pro Bowl, The Browns scored points in bunches and finished 10-6, but lost out on a playoff berth on tie-breakers.
Maybe they had really caught lightning in a bottle this time. Or maybe not.
Anderson lost that magic in the offseason and turned back into the seventh-round draft choice he had been in Baltimore in 2005. Cleveland got rid of him after the 2009 season.
It is now 2014 and, after ridding themselves of 2012 first-round choice Brandon Weeden in the offseason, the Browns are once again in the market for a quarterback as they enter next week’s draft. This from the team that played its first 10 seasons in the original era with just one man at the position in Pro Football Hall of Famer Otto Graham.
Will this search be different than all the other ones? Who knows?
What we do know is this: with two first-rounders at Nos. 4 and 26, three picks among the first 35, five choices in the opening three rounds and 10 selections overall, the club is set up nicely both in terms of quality and quantity to make it different. And if Cleveland doesn’t do it this time, then it has no one to blame but itself – in the person of first-year GM Ray Farmer, who is in a great position to etch his name into club history by finally hitting on a consistently good quarterback in the draft or deep-six his career before it even gets started in earnest by bumbling, stumbling and fumbling away this golden opportunity by coming up with yet another dud.
Cleveland St. Ignatius High School product Brian Hoyer, who played well but only briefly in 2013 in his first season with the club before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament, will almost certainly enter this year as the starter. But he was brought in under the previous coaching staff and, as such, must play well right away for new coach Mike Pettine to keep his job.
If not, then Hoyer will get the quick hook in favor of whatever quarterback the Browns take at, or near, the top of the draft. And make no mistake about it, just as sure as it will snow and get cold again in northeast Ohio next winter, they will take a quarterback at, or near, the top of the draft. They know they must get a young quarterback – no more AARP-qualifying guys like Weeden -- to bring along even if he doesn’t start right away.
The NFL is quarterback-driven, and until a team gets its franchise – or at least a very good – player at that position, then it has no chance to win on a regular basis. So the charge is there, just as it’s been there since a year before the turn of the century.
Throwing a little monkey wrench into the works, and making the task a little but more of a challenge for Farmer, is the fact there are several factors in play here. He must figure out a way to piece them all together and make them work in concert to thrust the last-place team upward in the AFC North standings.
The Browns likely won’t select a quarterback at No. 4. That’s too high for a group whose members – Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (size, durability and living too much of the high life), Central Florida’s Blake Bortles (mobility), Fresno State’s Derek Carr (no “wow” factor), Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater (a Brandon Weeden-like pro day) and Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo (level of competition) -- all have an issue or two or three, making it a risky proposition to take them that high. Instead, they’ll take one of the two best wide receivers in Clemson’s Sammy Watkins or Texas A&M’s Mike Evans – who is gaining some steam of late – or Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack. In that way, then they will get better value and more of a sure thing with the pick.
But Farmer has said all along there is a quarterback he likes above all the others (Bridgewater, maybe?). The guess here – and again, it’s only a guess because he has guarded his draft plans like sensitive government secrets – is that he will wait to see if his guy drops. And if he does, then Farmer will have to calculate when that fall has been enough that he will risk losing him if he waits any longer. After making that determination, Farmer will put together a package to trade up to get him.
Now, if Farmer lands one of those elite pass catchers AND his quarterback of the future, then he will have done great work indeed – at least on paper. What Farmer has no doubt figured out is that despite the six consecutive losing seasons – with no win total above five – the Browns have a lot of talent. Sure, there are holes, but the talent level is still such that if they can score highly at those key offensive positions, then they could be setting themselves up for a Kansas City-like turnaround.
After a brutal 2012, the Chiefs got a good, relatively young quarterback in Alex Smith and, coupled with returning talent at a number of positions, used that to roar into the playoffs last year. Smith played well, to be sure, but he was more of a facilitator than someone who tried to put the team on his back and carry it. It was a formula that worked swimmingly in Andy Reid’s first year in charge.
Could Hoyer do for Cleveland when Smith did for Kansas City?
But if Hoyer could do that and the team enjoys a good draft, it would cause Browns fans – tired of seeing a great franchise being dragged through the mud in this expansion era – to consider canonizing Farmer.
If Hoyer flops, though, and the draft is a flop as well, then Farmer will join the list of all the failed general managers the team has had since 1999.
In both cases, Farmer will be seen as the man who has orchestrated it all and will get 100 percent of the credit, one way or the other.