Browns quarterback Josh McCown is ambivalent about starting again because the opportunity has come at the expense of Johnny Manziel.
McCown wants to play because he’s a competitor, but he’s also a willing mentor of Manziel, who was demoted from starter to third string last week after he partied during a bye-week break, then failed to tell the Browns the truth.
Although McCown is excited about returning to the driver’s seat when the Browns (2-8) host the Baltimore Ravens (3-7) on Monday Night Football beginning at 8:30 p.m. at FirstEnergy Stadium, he’s definitely not giddy about how he got there.
He lost the starting job because of a painful rib injury and the franchise’s desire to see what Manziel could do, not poor performance.
But now he’s quick to point out he hasn’t it “earned” it back.
“In fairness, it’s hard to use that word ‘earned’ it in this situation. It was just the product of the circumstance, and it’s unfortunate,” McCown said last week. “You understand that you have a job to do, and the coaches make the decision and tell you you’re playing and you move forward accordingly. But at the same time, I’m in the room with [Manziel] every day, and we’ve built a relationship. I’m a big advocate of his and a fan and a friend as well. When somebody goes through that, you don’t want anybody on my team to have to deal with circumstances like that.”
ESPN didn’t want these circumstances, either.
There’s nothing sexy about showcasing two teams with five combined wins in prime time.
Still, if Manziel were playing, at least the network could hang its hat on coverage of the popular and polarizing former Heisman Trophy winner whom the Browns drafted 22nd overall last year.
Now it has a matchup of veteran quarterbacks with a combined age of 70 — McCown, 36, and Ravens backup Matt Schaub, 34, who’ll replace Joe Flacco in the aftermath of the former Super Bowl MVP suffering a season-ending knee injury.
Of course, McCown isn’t worried about the nationally televised AFC North game being viewed as a dud by most fans.
“Obviously, neither team is having the season that they want, but I think all of us as players have so much respect for the game,” McCown said. “When you grow up, it’s Monday Night Football and the music, and we just appreciate it. I do think with the different teams I have been on, there is an added energy to it. I would think that would be no different Monday. Understanding the history of this division and these two teams and what it means to this city, from our end of it, there is a lot of excitement for us players.”
It’s been a brutal, dismal season for the Browns, who have lost five in a row. But one of the few bright spots was a 33-30 overtime win against the injury-riddled Ravens on Oct. 11 in Baltimore.
So the Browns have a chance to sweep the season series for the third time in the expansion era. They went 2-0 against the Ravens in 2001 and 2007.
“It would mean a ton from all angles — No. 1 because it is your next game, and you need to win your next game, especially when you are 2-8,” McCown said. “For us moving forward and the feeling we need to have in our division, if we want to become the type of team that we have talked about, you have to win these division games. To be able to sweep a team that has played at such a high level in this division for so many years, it would be a very good thing for us just from a confidence level.”
If anyone has reasons to be confident entering the game, it’s McCown.
His record of 1-6 as a starter this season is deceiving because he has completed 65 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns, four interceptions and a rating of 95.2. He passed for a career-high and regular-season franchise record 457 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, posted a rating of 111.3 and rushed for a touchdown earlier this season against the Ravens.
“He played really well against us the last game, “ Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We didn’t play very well in the back end, and we gave up way too many passing yards, too many big plays.”
Added Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams: “We know what he did to us the last game, so we definitely need to get to him and disrupt him.”
McCown knows the rematch won’t be a cakewalk. Since their Week 9 bye, the Ravens have allowed just 235.5 yards per game.
“We got rolling [last time], but we have a ton of respect for this defense, especially the front, and it’s certainly evident on tape that they’ve tightened things up,” McCown said. “We’ll be aware of that and go in there being smart with the football, but at the same time, doing the things we need to do to move it.
“When you face a division opponent, you get to see them a second time. The chess game, so to speak, is a little different because you take what you did well, and you wonder if you can use that again and try to match that off what you’ve seen on tape from the last few weeks.”
McCown suffered the rib injury Oct. 25 in a 24-6 loss to the St. Louis Rams, and it was exacerbated Nov. 1 in a 34-20 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. He missed the past two games, and even though he insisted he feels much better, he conceded he’s not sure how it’ll respond once he absorbs a hit for the first time in nearly a month.
Browns offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has faith McCown’s ribs won’t hinder him, though. Impressed by the Ravens’ stout defensive front, DeFilippo and coach Mike Pettine planned to pass their foes into submission in the first meeting between the two teams. McCown threw 51 times and completed 36 passes (70.6 percent) during his historic outing.
“From everything Josh has told me and from everything I have seen at practice, I have noticed, to me, he looks very, very healthy,” DeFilippo said. “We are going in with a no-holds-barred mentality. We are going to try to attack this defense like we try to attack defenses every week. I am not going to hold anything back. I think he is healthy and ready to roll.”
And the Browns are ready to roll with McCown after their strange shake-up at the game’s most important position.
“When the decision was made in the first place to go with Johnny, I think everybody still felt really confident in Josh. It wasn’t like Josh lost his job,” All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas said. “We think he’s been doing a great job all season. It was more a matter of trying to get Johnny some work, more time to improve himself, and prove what kind of quarterback he can be, and I think he slipped up a little bit. The decision was made by the coach, and I think, overall, everybody respects that decision.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.