Cleveland — If the Detroit Lions were deciding their backup quarterback based strictly on the final preseason game, the choice might seem obvious to those scanning the box score or taking in the game on television.
Josh Johnson, a late addition to the competition, clearly outperformed Tom Savage, the front-runner who earned the start in the Lions' fourth and final preseason game, a 20-16 loss the Cleveland Browns Thursday night.
Savage, who missed the previous two exhibition contests while recovering from a concussion, faced a steady stream of pocket pressure due to leaky protection. Playing the first half, he completed five of his nine throws for a paltry 33 yards. And if you factor in the three times he was sacked, the Lions headed to the locker room with six net yards in the passing game.
Johnson came in to start the second half, and after briefly giving way to newcomer Luis Perez early in the fourth quarter, returned to finish the game.
Johnson led the Lions' only touchdown drives on the night, capping the first series with a zone-read run before connecting with rookie tight end Isaac Nauta for a 20-yard scoring strike late in the fourth quarter.
The ability to run the zone-read, and Johnson's mobility in general, adds a potentially unique dimension to Detroit's offense when he's in the game.
"It just adds another element for the defense to defend," Johnson said. "To me, it puts more pressure on them. It opens up the run game a lot more. They have to choose how to defend me or choose our running backs. And it kind of helps in the passing game because it helps define the defense."
Johnson also had a chance to win the game, getting the ball back with the Lions down four and 34 seconds remaining. But after another 20-yard hook up with Nauta, the offensive line surrendered back-to-back sacks, running the clock out.
Lions coach Matt Patricia said the competition was still open entering the game against the Browns, and a review of the film would be part of the overall evaluation, but not a deciding factor.
"We’ll certainly do our due diligence to go through the tape and making sure we’re making smart evaluations as we go through it," Patricia said. "We’ll take the full body of work, including the spring, and we’ll go back through all of it and make sure we’re making a good decision."
While it's not definitive, that comment would appear to bolster Savage's chance to emerge as the option. Unlike Johnson, who joined the team in mid-August while Savage was sidelined, the latter has been here for the duration of the offseason program.
Still, Thursday provided the first opportunity to compare and contrast the two in the same environment. Beyond the obvious visual test of pocket presence and passing accuracy, Patricia said the evaluation will extend to how the two performed situationally and the command they showed of the offense, from the huddle to the sideline.
"It was great opportunity for us to look at both of those guys take over an offense and see what they can do with it," Patricia said.
Whether Johnson wins the job or not, he has no regrets on settling for an opportunity to compete in Detroit after turning down other suitors.
"I appreciate everything," he said after the game. "Coach Matty P has been great since I’ve been here. It’s been a short time, I’m just trying to pick up things very fast. It’s my first time in coach (Darrell Bevell’s) system and they've been a tremendous help."