DETROIT — Johnny Starter?
The Browns’ quarterback derby will endure after one of the NFL’s most closely watched battles gained little clarity in the Detroit Lions’ 13-12 comeback win over Cleveland in Saturday night’s preseason opener at Ford Field.
Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel at times excited off the bench in his hyped debut. Yet the former Heisman trophy winner also appeared very much a rookie, leaving it too early to judge if he can wrest the upper hand from veteran and early frontrunner Brian Hoyer.
Neither quarterback produced more than a field-goal drive, opening the window for a late Lions rally. Third-string quarterback Kellen Moore found receiver Corey Fuller for a 20-yard touchdown with 1:05 remaining to ensure a winning debut for first-year Detroit coach Jim Caldwell.
As for the quarterback competition, new Browns coach Mike Pettine shed little light afterward, if only because the game provided few answers.
Manziel, who entered the game midway through the second quarter, completed 7-of-11 passes for 63 yards while rushing for 27 yards on six carries. The Browns’ first-round pick was at his best on the move, scrambling on one series for first downs on third-and-8 and fourth-and-1.
“I feel it was a good start,” Manziel said. “You've got to start somewhere.”
The big caveat for Manziel: he played with the backups, though that could soon change. The NFL Network reported that Manziel will start the Browns’ next preseason game against Washington.
“That decision hasn’t been made,” Pettine said.
Hoyer, who was sharp in three starts last season before tearing his ACL, completed 6-of-14 passes for 92 yards.
“For me, it was exciting to get back out there with a live defense,” Hoyer said. “I was surprised by how calm I was before the game. I wasn’t worried about the leg. ... I don’t chalk anything up to being rusty.”
Asked about holding off Manziel, he said, “I am not concerned about that. I’m only concerned with how I play.”
Pettine said both quarterbacks did “some good things,” noting Manziel’s ability to “create.”
In other years, Saturday’s game would have been a yawner. Preseason openers are practices dressed up with pomp and regular-season ticket prices. The starters either played a few series or not at all — including Lions star receiver Calvin Johnson (precaution) and Browns Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron (shoulder).
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford led only one drive — he completed 2-of-4 passes for 18 yards to set up a 37-yard field goal by Nate Freese — before handing off the Lions’ offense to backup Dan Orlovsky.
But this was no ordinary August night. Orange-clad fans scattered about the crowd, and an overflow mass of reporters — not to mention a national TV audience — came to see how Manziel’s electric, improvising game would carry over to the NFL.
If only a fast-forward button existed. Cameras trailed Manziel’s every move during warmups, then had to wait about an hour for their next action shot.
In the meantime, Hoyer had an uneven showing. The sixth-year pro from suburban Cleveland led the Browns to field goals on two of his three drives and mixed in a couple strong throws, including a 28-yard strike to MarQueis Gray. But he overthrew two balls inside the red zone and bounced another.
The Manziel era began with 7:32 remaining in the second quarter at the Browns’ 32.
Working out of the shotgun with a supporting cast of backups, Manziel went three-and-out on his first series — and his only drive of the first half. He opened with a six-yard pass to Anthony Armstrong but, after a three-yard run by Terrance West, was stopped for no gain on a third-and-1 scramble.
The knee-jerk reaction: That’s it? In his three months with the Browns, Manziel had done little to temper the prodigious frat-bro persona he built in three wild seasons at Texas A&M.
Yet for all of his off-the-field concerns, Manziel has always dazzled on the field — and he responded with flashes of just that in the second half.
Though he sometimes seemed skittish behind a piecemeal line and took a delay-of-game penalty, he endured several rattling hits, led the Browns on a seven-play, 26-yard drive punctuated with a 41-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff that put Cleveland ahead 9-6, and began to build momentum on his next drive.
A play after Manziel scrambled one yard for a first down on fourth-and-1 at the Lions’ 29, running back Dion Lewis lost a fumble.