Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) warms up as Brian Hoyer (6) watches before a preseason NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
PITTSBURGH (AP) – Mike Tomlin believes Johnny Manziel will make a living in the NFL. Eventually. The Pittsburgh Steelers coach, however, isn’t buying the notion that the man who quelled the mania surrounding Johnny Football is merely a placeholder.
Last Tomlin checked, Brian Hoyer could throw the ball too.
“(Hoyer) is a football junkie,” Tomlin said. “It’s his job and his hobby and he loves it.”
Then again, Tomlin is a little biased. Hoyer spent a month with the Steelers in 2012 when injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich left them scrounging the waiver wire for help. They found it in Hoyer, who served as the backup behind Charlie Batch for a couple weeks while Roethlisberger healed from a rib injury. Hoyer never made it onto the field during a game. But he still earned Tomlin’s respect.
The quarterback who will start Sunday’s season opener for the Browns against the Steelers, Tomlin says, hasn’t changed much since he buried himself in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s playbook and showcased enough arm strength for the Pittsburgh wide receivers – and the cornerbacks trying to cover them in practice – to take notice.
“What you don’t see on tape is what is most impressive about him,” Tomlin said. “He’s really intelligent, football smart. He has great ideas and knows how to fit his skill set. He’s not going to lose games above the neck.”
Hoyer didn’t lose much of anything during two promising games with the Browns last season. He completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and racked up five touchdowns in wins over Minnesota and Cincinnati before a torn ACL in his right knee forced him to watch Cleveland lose 10 of its final 11. That led to a regime change with new coach Mike Pettine and the team grabbing Manziel – and all the Johnny Football mania that came along with it – with the 22nd pick in the draft.
Yet Manziel’s ascension to starter hit two road blocks: His transition to the NFL has gone slower than anticipated and Hoyer didn’t back down from the challenge.
That competitiveness is one of the reasons the Steelers brought Hoyer in when disaster struck in 2012. It’s also one of the reasons Tomlin remains wary even though his team has dominated the Browns over the last decade, winning the last 10 games played at Heinz Field and going 18-1 against the Browns when Roethlisberger is healthy. It’s not like Hoyer purged his brain the moment Pittsburgh cut him after Roethlisberger’s fractured rib healed.
“He is going to work to play to his strengths and attack our perceived weaknesses,” Tomlin said.
The Browns hope some of that knowledge rubs off on Manziel. Though the Heisman Trophy winner will be Johnny Clipboard on the first snap, the Steelers expect to see the owner of the NFL’s hottest selling jersey in the huddle at some point.
Tomlin says the Steelers are putting together a game plan that includes packages to deal with the chaos Manziel brings.
“They didn’t draft (Manziel) in the first round to watch,” Tomlin said.
Maybe, but Pettine didn’t make Manziel the starter either. Instead he stuck with Hoyer, who is learning his fourth different offense in two years after spending time with Pittsburgh and Arizona in 2012 before joining the Browns last year. He learned under former coach Rob Chudzinski only to watch the Browns blow it up – again – in the offseason. Pettine brought in Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator, whose former pupils include Robert Griffin III.
Hoyer isn’t exactly Griffin, but that’s hardly a bad thing. The Browns looked competent and borderline dangerous during his cameo under center. Doing so again without wide receiver Josh Gordon, who has been suspended for the year by the league for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, will be difficult. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And the Steelers know it.
“I would imagine he’s spent the necessary time and then some in terms of preparing himself for this opportunity,” Tomlin said. “We’re fans of Hoyer because we know him firsthand and have seen him work on a day-to-day basis.”
NOTES: Tomlin said RBs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount will play on Sunday. Both players are facing marijuana possession charges stemming from a traffic stop on Aug. 20. … Rookie WR Martavis Bryant did not practice on Monday due to a shoulder injury but has not been ruled out of the opener. … It’s unclear whether recently re-signed DE Brett Keisel will start but Tomlin praised Keisel’s performance in the preseason finale against Carolina, calling it “above the line.”