Preseason National Football Leagues are missable affairs for fans of winning football teams. It is thus not all that surprising that people who follow the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills are looking forward to watching Thursday’s exhibition contest featuring those two sides that have been known for losing for years. Those running the Bills are attempting to learn if there is a starting quarterback to be had on the current roster, while the Browns are still waiting to see if second-year quarterback Johnny Manziel will ever be ready to take the keys of the team’s offense. The old adage teaches that defense wins championships in the NFL, and both the Browns and Bills have taken that saying to heart heading into the 2015 season.
Even a great defense can only do so much, however, if it is constantly on the field during games. Defenses of the Browns have learned that the hard way over the years, and that will again be the case in 2015 unless Cleveland can get the job done on the other side of the ball. While veteran Josh McCown will be tasked with leading the Cleveland offense unless something goes terribly wrong between now and September, head coach Mike Pettine will need to use the final three preseason games to determine how much Manziel has improved since his disastrous rookie season. Get ready, everybody, because Johnny Football is about to be featured on national television.
Bills at Browns preview: Johnny Manziel 2.0
Gone is the Johnny Football persona that performed the money sign after finding the end zone and that made headlines with off-the-field activities, and in its place is, by all accounts, a more mature Manziel who is doing everything necessary to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. It should be remembered by everybody — fans of Manziel and of the Browns and also those who do not believe the young QB will ever be anything of merit at the pro level — that Manziel 2.0 does not right now have to be at the caliber of a Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco or any other starter. Manziel merely needs to continue to improve as he has throughout training camp.
With that said, the bulk of the snaps during Thursday’s game should go to Manziel ahead of McCown or anybody else on roster of the Browns. Pettine and his staff know what they have in McCown. McCown is a veteran who has been down this road before, and he needs nothing more than a handful of warmups to be ready to go for Week 1. Every time the offense of the Browns takes the field against the Bills presents another learning opportunity for Manziel, who needs all of the in-game lessons he can get before the games begin to matter.
The hope for the Browns is that McCown plays well enough for Manziel to be able to sit and learn from the sidelines, perhaps for the entire upcoming campaign. While Manziel impressed onlookers by completing 7 of 11 passes and rushing for a 12-yard score during his outing against the Washington Redskins last week, he remains a work in progress. The time for Manziel to put in the work is now when the final scores are meaningless and forgotten. The Browns should be willing to play Manziel for at least two full quarters against the Bills.
Bills at Browns preview: Justin Gilbert
Unlike the previously mentioned Manziel, cornerback Justin Gilbert is not an investment in the future. Gilbert was meant to be a significant contributor on defense last year, but all indications are that he has taken steps in the wrong direction after a rookie season than was even worse than Manziel’s. Second-year pros making mistakes can be forgiven, but Gilbert has not even looked like a capable backup throughout the majority of his brief NFL career. The technique that he flashed during his days at Oklahoma State has curiously disappeared, he is failing to adequately communicate with fellow defensive backs, and he is being picked apart by opposing quarterbacks who know that Gilbert is a liability on the defense of the Browns.
The Browns would gain nothing in cutting Gilbert at any point of 2015 so long as he is available and does not cause any trouble. His contract is fully guaranteed per the terms of NFL rookie deals. That he has struggled throughout summer sessions and that he pulled up with a flat tire during Tuesday’s joint practice with the Bills is a major concern for a young player who was supposedly working with the likes of Joe Haden before camp opened. Gilbert missing an exhibition game because of a knock is something that he and the Browns do not need right now. He has to take the field against Buffalo if at all possible.
Bills at Browns preview: Running backs
The offense of the Browns is meant to be built on a solid backfield running behind one of the best offensive lines in all of the NFL. You wouldn’t have known that by watching last Thursday’s game, as no Cleveland running back did himself any favors against the Redskins. Despite rumors linking the Browns with Ray Rice that have existed for well over a week, the team has not brought the maligned veteran or any other possible replacement running back into camp. That will have to change if neither Isaiah Crowell nor Terrance West step up and have even decent performances against the Bills.
Crowell and West are still battling to prove that they belong near the top of the depth chart, and rookie Duke Johnson remains sidelined with a hamstring injury that has made him a spectator for far too long. As concerned as fans of the Browns are about McCown and Manziel, and understandably so, the team’s inability to do anything of note on the ground is downright alarming. McCown, as steady and stable as he is at this stage of his career, would be hung out to dry against even an average defense if he does not get help from those in the backfield. As insignificant as these games may be, it would do wonders for the confidence of their teammates if both West and Crowell silence doubters on Thursday.