BEREA: As the Browns prepared to step onto the national stage in prime time against the Buffalo Bills, they rallied around quarterback Brian Hoyer, the man most responsible for making the team relevant after it stumbled to a record of 0-2 to begin this season.
The defense has been stellar, the coaching staff has been creative and wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron have stepped up during the two-game winning streak the Browns (2-2) are riding as they enter their showdown with the Bills (2-2) at 8:25 tonight at FirstEnergy Stadium. But it is Hoyer who has provided an undeniable spark since he leapfrogged Jason Campbell two weeks ago, ascending from third to first on the depth chart to replace Brandon Weeden, who suffered a sprained right thumb Sept. 15 against the Baltimore Ravens.
A North Olmsted native and St. Ignatius High School graduate, Hoyer is now aiming to become the only quarterback to throw at least two touchdown passes and win his first three starts with the Browns. He’ll have a chance to accomplish the feat in the spotlight on NFL Network.
“He just has that look of intensity in his eye all the time,” Gordon said. “We really can get behind it. That’s the great thing that we needed to see coming from his position. Just from being a replacement guy, that’s what everybody thought at first, but he wanted to prove a lot more than that. He’s definitely got our full support, and we’re looking for him to lead us to victory.”
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski named Hoyer the starter against the Bills, even though Weeden returned to practice this week and has been medically cleared to play. The old adage that players can’t lose starting jobs due to injury obviously doesn’t apply when someone like Hoyer resurrects a team.
Chudzinski, though, has yet to commit to Hoyer as the starter beyond tonight.
“That’s not my concern,” Hoyer said. “This league, it’s literally an hour-to-hour, day-to-day, week-to-week business, so I can’t get caught up in that. The only thing I can worry about is what I can control, and that’s my preparation and play.”
Although Hoyer has started only three games in his five-year NFL career, he learned how to prepare from some of the best. As an undrafted rookie from Michigan State University, Hoyer beat out three other quarterbacks to become the backup to New England Patriots star Tom Brady. He spent three seasons with the Patriots, learning from Brady and coach Bill Belichick.
“There I think you just learned how to prepare and cover all your bases,” Hoyer said. “You never felt underprepared, and I think I’ve taken that with me everywhere I’ve gone. I think people say, ‘I believe in luck and the harder I prepare, the more luck I have.’ I think that’s kind of hand in hand with the way I think.”
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Hoyer has completed 55-of-92 passes (59.8 percent) for 590 yards and five touchdowns with three interceptions this season. His passer rating is 83.2.
But his preparation is most evident when it matters most. In the past two games, he has led the Browns to a 17-6 home win over the Cincinnati Bengals and a 31-27 road win over the Minnesota Vikings by capping fourth-quarter drives with touchdown passes.
During those two marches combined, Hoyer completed 11-of-16 passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns (scores of 7 yards and 1 yard ) with no interceptions.
He’s also ranked fourth in the NFL with a passer rating of 117.3 in the fourth quarter, trailing only Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos, Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers and Alex Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs.
“It’s preparation of dealing with it in practice, knowing that you’ve got to make a play because you’re down,” Hoyer said. “It’s obviously an imaginative situation, but you kind of put yourself in that mental state, and then it carries over to the game.”
Wide receiver Davone Bess sees shades of Brady in Hoyer.
“To be able to sit behind somebody like him and be able to pick his brain and see how his approach is to the game during the workweek is phenomenal,” Bess said. “You can see it in his focus.
“[He has a] sense of urgency, tempo, just the way he gets in and out of the huddle. [He] gets the guys moving a little faster. It brings this attacking mindset to the opposing defense.”
Added cornerback Joe Haden: “If you’re behind one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, you have to learn something. You learn the way to study film. You’re with him all the time, so I hope all Tom Brady had rubbed off on him.”
Offensive Norv Turner resisted comparing Hoyer, 27, to anyone else, but he didn’t hesitate to praise him.
“It’s obvious from the two games that Brian has the physical ability to play,” Turner said. “To me, it’s very obvious that he brings an energy and enthusiasm to the game, and I think those are great qualities for a quarterback or for any player.
‘‘So I just think he’s his own guy, and he’s got a lot of confidence. And I think that helps him right now go out and play the way he’s playing.”
Hoyer and Turner acknowledged the Bills could create problems for the offense. They lead the NFL with nine interceptions, five of which they tallied Sunday against Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, the reigning Super Bowl Most Valuable Player.
“They’re a complicated defense, so they try to confuse you,” Hoyer said.
“You’ve just got to be ready for what they throw at you and get your pre-snap read and confirm it on your post-snap.”
But if the Browns are reading Hoyer right, he’ll be prepared to combat the Bills despite a short turnaround after playing Sunday. He’ll also be confident enough to execute, even in the face of adversity.
“I love his confidence,” Haden said. “His release is really quick. He makes all the throws. He’s just not afraid of the moment. He just stepped in there, no hesitation, and he just carries himself really well.
“He comes off to the sideline and comes over to the defense and comes slapping us on the helmet. He’s just really involved. When you have a quarterback walking around that’s super-confident, it makes you feel better.”
Backup QB decision
Chudzinski has yet to officially name the No. 2 quarterback for tonight, but Turner said it would be Weeden as long as he’s comfortable after coming off an injury and getting only one real practice under his belt during a short workweek. Campbell is the only other option.
“If we feel Brandon’s comfortable, then obviously that’s what we’re going to do,” Turner said Wednesday. “But he’s really just had one day of practice.”
Rookie learning curve
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton made it clear that he doesn’t believe rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo played “well” in his first NFL start Sunday. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Mingo had the lowest defensive grade against the Bengals, even though he tallied three tackles, including a sack, and a batted pass.
“I didn’t use that adjective — ‘well,’ ” Horton said Wednesday. “But I think he played like a rookie. He did some very good things, and he did some not-so-good things. I think that’s a work in progress, [but] athletically he’s off the charts.
“I hope, as he gets better, more comfortable, you’ll see the defense really start to take off also because we can do so many things with him. But I’m very pleased with athletically what he did on the field, and we’re trying to eliminate his rookie mistakes.”
Horton said he understands Mingo is playing catch-up partly because he missed the final two exhibition games and the regular-season opener with a bruised lung. Mingo, the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, has three sacks in three games.
He’s expected to make his second consecutive start Thursday in place of Jabaal Sheard, who’s recovering from a sprained left knee he suffered Sept. 22 against the Vikings.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.