Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer passes during an offseason practice at the team's facility in Berea, Ohio, Wednesday. (Mark Duncan / Associated Press)
Berea, Ohio — When Cleveland Browns quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel stepped onto the practice field together for the first time during organized team activities this week, it wasn’t as if they were entering a steel cage for a fight to the death.
But there haven’t been any warm, fuzzy feelings between the two, either, as coach Mike Pettine recently pointed out at the Akron Browns Backers banquet.
“I was thinking about sending him a birthday card,” Hoyer said Wednesday, joking about his competition with Manziel after the team’s second practice of OTAs. “No, I totally get it.
“I don’t think we’re in (the quarterbacks room) not being friendly. But when you’re gunning for the same job, there is a little bit of an edge to it.”
As former the Michigan State QB rehabilitated this offseason from the torn right anterior cruciate ligament he suffered last October, he braced himself for the Browns drafting a quarterback with whom he would compete for the starting job. Hoyer knew it was inevitable, although he never thought about asking the organization to trade him.
“I think — and everyone else has made it clear — that (they’re) not going to be just kind of pushing me aside,” said Hoyer, a North Olmsted native and St. Ignatius High School graduate. “So I knew, even going back to last summer, that this was the place that I wanted to be and it ended up working out and I got back here, and then I got a chance to play.
“This is my hometown. This is where my family’s from. This is where I want to make a difference in this program and this organization. I’ll never shy away from competition, and it’s something I had prepared myself for. I didn’t know who it would be. It was almost a sense of relief when (Manziel) was drafted, because I knew exactly right then and there what it was going to be.”
Pettine and owner Jimmy Haslam have declared that Hoyer is No. 1 on the depth chart and that Manziel is a backup. Still, the Browns traded up from No. 26 overall to No. 22 to draft Manziel on May 8, so they’ll definitely give the rookie nicknamed Johnny Football a shot to win the job.
“It’s always nice for those guys to say those things, but I know when it comes down to it, what matters is what takes place out on this field,” Hoyer said. “... I don’t need to be handed anything. We’ve made it clear it’s going to be a competition and what those guys have said is pretty much what has been said to me, so I really don’t make too much of it.”
As for General Manager Ray Farmer, he believes Manziel has a lot of work to do to beat out Hoyer, who led the Browns to back-to-back wins last September before he was hurt.
“It does feel different because, as of right now, I’m the top guy and before I’ve always been coming from behind,” said Hoyer, who spent the first three of his five NFL seasons as the backup to New England Patriots star Tom Brady. “So this does feel a little different, but to me, my mentality has never really changed. I’ve always kind of thought of myself as the starter and prepared that way because you never know when that opportunity is going to come.”
During the nearly two-hour practice Wednesday, Hoyer took first-team reps, followed by Tyler Thigpen and then Manziel. Hoyer participated in all seven-on-seven drills, but he sat out two of the three 11-on-11 periods because the team doesn’t want anyone to accidentally run into his surgically repaired knee. The Browns allowed him to enter the final 11-on-11 session because the plays were operated out of shotgun and the defensive linemen were instructed to take a few steps and let up instead of rushing.
Hoyer, 28, quipped about the coaches and head athletic trainer Joe Sheehan possibly filing a restraining order against him because he has been texting them excessively while pushing for clearance to fully participate. He insisted that he’s only reminded about the injury when his knee brace occasionally slides down.
“It’s about making sure we’re smart and making sure no one knocks into me,” said Hoyer, who threw an interception and a touchdown pass on a deep post route in 11-on-11 action. “At the same time, I know I’m going to get tackled in less than three months, so I’m ready to go.”
When Hoyer watched team drills, Thigpen took reps with the starters and Manziel toiled with the second-string offense. Manziel is obviously grappling with a steep learning curve.
“It’s just like any other rookie, that he’s just inconsistent,” Pettine said. “I think a lot of it’s the mental part of it. He’s more worrying about getting the formation right, making sure the motion’s correct and he’s got the cadence, then he’s got to worry about where guys are. Kind of being good mechanically takes a backseat to learning the system first, and I think you see over the maturation process, once all that stuff becomes second nature a little bit, he’ll be a lot more comfortable. And I think he flashed some things today that made him kind of who he is — the ability to make plays on his feet.
“We’re going to take advantage of his mobility. You don’t take a guy that’s made a living being a mobile quarterback and tell him all of a sudden he has to be a statue. When he’s in there and we have actually things set for him in a game plan, there will be some things to take advantage of what he can do with his feet.”
But Manziel must usurp Hoyer in training camp and the preseason if he wants to display his skills in the Sept. 7 season opener at the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the meantime, he appears willing to play an unassuming role while studying and adjusting.
Hoyer, Pettine and several players described Manziel as quiet and dedicated.
“He’s just doing a good job of being a rookie, coming in, keeping his mouth shut,” Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Joe Thomas said. “Rookies are supposed to be seen and not heard. If he follows that, he’ll do well here.
“I’ve just been impressed with the way he’s handled his business coming in as a rookie and understanding that he’s got a lot of work to do and the things he did in college don’t mean anything in the NFL.”
As for the hype and media attention surrounding Manziel, Hoyer said it doesn’t frustrate him because it doesn’t affect him.
“It’s the greatest sport in the country, and anytime there’s a big story, people want to hear about it,” Hoyer said. “So I think it’s great for this league. I think it’s great for the team. But when it comes down to it, the stuff that really matters is what happens on the field.”