CLEVELAND: The right knee injury quarterback Brian Hoyer suffered less than four minutes into Thursday night’s game against the Buffalo Bills has implications beyond the Browns’ record this season.
If Hoyer misses a significant amount of time, it will complicate the Browns’ decision on whether to select a franchise quarterback in the first round of the NFL Draft on May 8.
That dilemma seems to loom.
Hoyer left FirstEnergy Stadium on crutches after the Browns’ 37-24 victory. Coach Rob Chudzinski told Alex Flanagan of NFL Network at halftime that he feared Hoyer has torn knee ligaments and he will undergo an MRI Friday, although Chudzinski wouldn’t discuss that possibility after the game.
The Browns’ new regime seems to have decided that Brandon Weeden is not the future of their franchise. Weeden sprained his right thumb Sept. 15 at Baltimore to open the door for Hoyer. But Chudzinski chose Hoyer to start against the Bills even after Weeden returned to practice this week and was medically cleared to play.
Weeden was obviously rusty when he took over. The same flaws he showed when the Browns opened 0-2 were still apparent. Weeden held the ball too long, failed to hit open receivers and continued to take a beating with five sacks, running his season total to 16. But he found a rhythm in the second half and finished with a 95.3 rating, improving from 67.4 after two quarters.
The Browns’ wild victory also included Travis Benjamin’s 79-yard punt return for a touchdown and strong safety T.J. Ward’s game-clinching pick six with 1:44 remaining, 14 points that were none of Weeden’s doing.
Weeden could lead the Browns to the playoffs and he still might not be able to crawl into the good graces of CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi. Only a Super Bowl might save him.
Hoyer, on the other hand, seemed on his way to proving he might be a player the Browns could commit to for years. They were impressed with his poise, his leadership, his study habits, his attention to detail and his command of the huddle. Coaches and teammates raved about him.
Long-time fans even compared Hoyer to Brian Sipe, the idolized leader of the Kardiac Kids, and it wasn’t just because of their similar stature. A North Olmstead native and St. Ignatius graduate, Hoyer is a hometown hero.
But starting his fifth year in the NFL, Hoyer had played only two full games in 2013. He’d seen a total of 63 minutes and 48 seconds of action in leading the Browns to victories over the Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals and in his brief stint against the Bills.
Before he was signed on May 17, Hoyer had made only one pro start, that in the season finale in 2012 with the Arizona Cardinals. Spending most of his career as Tom Brady’s backup in New England, Hoyer had played in a total of 15 games for the Patriots and Cardinals. He was a favorite of Lombardi, who remains close with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, his former boss in Cleveland. But some figured if Hoyer had been waived by future Hall of Famer Belichick in 2012’s final cuts, Hoyer’s long-term success in the NFL was a long shot. (Although outsmarting Belichick would have been fun.)
The 96 passes Hoyer attempted for the Browns in three games equaled his total in his previous four seasons.
Those 192 attempts are not nearly enough for the Browns to commit to Hoyer and use their two first-round picks in May’s draft to shore up other weaknesses.
The Browns’ future took a horrifying turn with 11:13 to play in the first quarter. On second and 9 from the Cleveland 36, Hoyer eluded the Bills’ rush and scrambled for an 11-yard gain down the Browns’ sideline. As he slid, Hoyer was hit by Bills’ rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso. Hoyer’s left leg bent under his body and his right leg hyperextended.
After being attended to for a few minutes on the bench, Hoyer walked to the locker room under his own power.
Facing the uncertainty of how Hoyer will recover from the injury – especially if there are multiple knee ligaments involved –- the Browns will likely be forced to move on without him in their long-term plans. He turns 28 on Oct. 13. If his anterior cruciate ligament is torn, Hoyer could be 30 years old before he’s 100 percent.
That’s not to say the Browns will turn their back on Hoyer. The possibility of having two No. 1 quarterbacks is always a position of strength in the NFL, even though trades are rare. A crafty businessman like Banner may be anxious to see how Hoyer plays when he returns. With what he learned from Brady, he could be the perfect mentor.
But Hoyer’s valiant scramble and the ensuing hit probably ensured the Browns will select a quarterback in the first round of the 2014 draft. It no longer seems a matter of if, but whom.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.