And I think: Cleveland GM Ray Farmer could have two of the top five picks in the draft next April. The Browns have Buffalo’s first-round pick from the Sammy Watkins trade. Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston (if he comes out) or Brett Hundley … plus either a bookend tackle from a reportedly rich tackle crop next year, or another defensive piece. It’s way too early to project things like this, but two picks in the top five of any draft is gold—gold, Jerry, it’s gold!—and Farmer might just have made a golden deal to help the Browns of 2015 and beyond, even as the team faces another apparently lean year now.
Then I think: Manziel versus Mariota in training camp next July. I mean, the national press is going to rent the Courtyard in Berea for a month.
...and I think: The media will then do it the next year, as well, not only cozying up to whoever is the big pick that year (Maybe Braxton Miller if he redshirts this year), but also a new coach and a new GM.
Because quarterback controversies kill every team that has them. Just ask Browns fans, who've been through four of them since they came back.
Even worse, there is solid evidence that sticking with a single quarterback is more likely to succeed than trying to pick between two quarterbacks. Four instances in recent memory (three from 2012, one from a few years earlier) come to mind when I say that.
1. The Indianapolis Colts have just come off a season in which Peyton Manning sat out due to neck surgery. The QBs that filled in for him were, shall we say, less than adequate, and they tumbled to the number 1 pick in the 2012 draft. There were plenty of rumors spreading around starting in December: Would the Colts stick with Manning, or would they draft another QB, like the cerebral kid out of Stanford, Andrew Luck?
With that first pick, they answered everybody: Andrew Luck would be their QB of the future...
...except, they decided, he'd be their QB of right now. And they released Manning to do it.
There was no QB controversy in camp; no wondering whether it would be Manning or Luck starting the first game. Instead, the Colts made a choice, and stuck with it. There was no question in their mind who their QB was, and they made sure he was ready.
And he was. The Colts had a leader, and they rode that leader to an 11-5 first season (even if he wasn't that impressive in the passing stats), then an equal second season (with far better passing stats). Manning didn't do to badly either, elevating a pretty good Broncos team to the AFC Championship his first season and the Super Bowl his second. But the key here is, the Colts made their choice, and stuck with it, and they returned to prominence after a single lousy season.
2. The San Francisco 49ers looked like they might go the way of Manning, but instead they stuck with their much malinged number 1 pick, Alex Smith, and signed him to a 3-year contract. Then, in week 9, he got a concussion, and in stepped their latest first round pick, Colin Kaepernick, who impressed Jim Harbaugh so much in 2 weeks of work that he made Kaepernick the starter. With Kaepernick under the helm, the 49ers went all the way to the Super Bowl. But now it looked like there was a controversy on Harbaugh's hands.
Instead, the 49ers decided to trade Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs, who immediately made him their starter. No competition, no controversy. The 2013 season was great for both: Smith led the Chiefs to the playoffs for the first time in 4 years, and Kaepernick led the 49ers to the NFC Championship game...where they lost to the next team on our list...but again, note that every single time Jim Harbaugh made a decision on this list, he stuck to it.
3. The Seattle Seahawks had acquired Matt Flynn from the Green Bay Packers, and had every intention of having Flynn be the starter...until their 3rd-round pick out of Wisconsin via NC State intervened. Russell Wilson turned heads against second teamers in the first preseason games, so much so that Pete Carroll gave him the start in the second. And after that, Carroll made a controversial but firm decision to make Wilson the starter for game 1. After a shaky start to the season and the Hail Mary-gate that got the NFL to agree to terms with the referees so they'd handle the games rather than replacements, Wilson steadied himself and guided the Seahawks to the postseason. Then in 2013, everyone knows the story of the total team led by Wilson on offense and a stellar secondary that won the whole ball of wax by destroying the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLIX. As for Flynn, he'd get his release and end up back with the Packers...which happen to be the last stop on our list...but not before pointing out that once again, the coach made firm decisions as to who his starting QB was...and he stuck with them.
4. The Green Bay Packers selected Aaron Rodgers, whom many believed was the best quarterback in the draft, with the 24th overall pick (this was the draft that the 49ers took Alex Smith 1st overall). Of course, the Packers already had a starting quarterback in Brett Favre, and even though the Packers were losing with him, neither Mike Sherman nor Mike McCarthy had the slightest doubts about who was starting: Brett was there until he retired. McCarthy, however, made sure that Rodgers would be ready when he needed to be (and he was when Favre went down to injury, but then he fell to injury himself).
Then, finally, Favre retired in 2008. There was no panic to find a quarterback in the draft; the Packers had groomed Rodgers to be the eventual starter, and start he did. 4,000 yards passing in his first season, and even though he struggled and there were questions on whether he could close out games, he worked through them in returning the Packers to the playoffs in 2009, and then winning the Super Bowl in 2010.
Here is a slightly different formula with the same hook: There was zero question who the starter of the Packers was in any season Rodgers was in. The only question was if Brett Favre was going to retire. No matter what, the coaches stuck with the man who was their starting quarterback. And that's something the Cleveland Browns coaching staff, GM, and owner must do if they want to right the ship. The two Browns examples (opposed to the 4 counter-examples) are in their only two winning seasons. In 2002, Tim Couch was the starting quarterback. Then came the big hit and concussion in the Ravens game. Kelly Holcomb stepped in for two games, but here was the important part...even under fan pressure (remember, they cheered Kelly Holcomb coming on while Couch was still out on the field), Butch Davis put Couch in as the starter. And for all the troubles of that season, he led them to the playoffs...then he broke his foot in the final game, Holcomb lit up the fans in the playoff loss, and we had the first of the QB controversies that the Browns still haven't recovered from. I keep saying that if Butch Davis had stuck with Tim Couch over Kelly Holcomb, both might still be in the NFL today (though this stopped being remotely true a few years ago, of course). But sticking with Couch wasn't what killed Butch Davis: it was not sticking with either quarterback fully. And that's the problem. And will be the problem this year: You'll hear the Johnny chants the minute Brian Hoyer does something wrong...like you heard the Char-lie chants whenever Trent Dilfer did something wrong...and then he came on, and led to the 2nd decisive moment that gave the Browns a winning season. When Frye stunk up the joint against the Steelers week 1, the Browns traded him away and forcefully said Derek Anderson was their guy. He proceeded to put up 328 yards and 5 touchdowns in leading the Browns to a shootout win over the Bengals, thus keeping their trust in him...at least until he got injured at the end of the season and the Bra-dy chants started.
And thus, the dichotomy: You see the teams that have quarterback controversies stay low year after year...while you see the teams without controversies rise up. It may not be for long, and from the look of it, the 49ers might not be for long, and certainly the Browns' two times weren't for long...but they rise up, as opposed to those teams that never rise up when they have quarterback competitions. Mainly because those competitions have a tendency to split a locker room, and thus it has no rudder for direction, even from the coaching staff. Meanwhile, coaches who forcefully choose who their guys are and stick with him not only install a rudder on their team, but an extra jet or two to the back of their boat, which propels them to victory. And as long as the Browns fail to do that, they'll have the equivalent of a single oar, and thus will only be able to move their ship in one big circle.