Next six weeks vital for Johnny Manziel

BEREA, Ohio -- The old line in the NBA is it’s not important who starts games, it’s important who finishes them.

So it will be with the Cleveland Browns in training camp.

It’s not who starts camp No. 1 on the depth chart (Brian Hoyer), it’s who finishes No. 1 (Hoyer or Johnny Manziel).

Because that person starts the season for the Browns and gets to take the first snap in Pittsburgh, a dubious honor, given he’ll be facing probably the greatest defensive coach in NFL history in Dick LeBeau.

That aside, the key for the quarterback competition might be the next six weeks, when Manziel is not on the field. It’s during that period he can put in the time -- and if need be reps -- to learn the Browns' playbook, which is far more complex and intricate than anything he ran at Texas A&M. At this point, Hoyer is simply the better quarterback. On the field, he's smarter. He has a better understanding of the offense -- and, more importantly, of NFL defenses. The Browns' general manager has admitted it, as has the coach. But ... Manziel can catch up.

Manziel is a confident guy, but the worst thing the Browns -- or any team -- could do is throw him on the field before he’s ready.

The Browns have done that with countless players since 1999, and most of them suffered for it. Bill Walsh said in the offseason between the ’98 and ’99 seasons that forcing a rookie on the field too soon can “traumatize” a player. There’s probably no better word for it.

Manziel threw some very nice passes on his final practice day, but he also showed that a rush end coming up the field on his designed rollouts will give him trouble. Paul Kruger looked like he was about to swallow Manziel on some plays.

It’s all in shorts, though, and coach Mike Pettine cautioned on falling into the trap of judging a guy before he plays in pads.

It’s what ESPN’s Ron Jaworski meant when he kept stressing that Hoyer’s experience was so meaningful.

“This is big-boy football,” Jaworski said. “They don’t wrap you up and drag you down. They want to bend your facemask on defense.”

Thus, Manziel can’t spend too much time thinking on the field. He has to be able to read, react and throw.

What’s interesting with Manziel is that he might be the guy who actually looks better with pads and going full speed, because when that happens, the Browns will be able to see him at his elusive best, making those “Johnny Football” plays.

If he can get those done while practicing in pads, it will help his cause. But if that’s all he does because he doesn’t understand the offense, he’s a walking target.

The Browns' coaching staff has been around long enough to understand that if Manziel plays in the second or third quarter of preseason games, he’ll be facing other backups and vanilla defenses. Opposing teams won’t give him different looks, won’t challenge him.

So, he might succeed. Which is why Pettine will want to see him in games with the starters against the starters. Even if the defensive scheme is not regular-season complex, the players will be.

Manziel’s presence has been the dominant theme of the Browns' offseason practices. Stories about him have drawn more attention, more hits and more complaints.

For the Browns, it seems there has been a Groundhog Day quality to the quarterback situation for many years. A daily question has become: “Who will start?”

Manziel is by far the biggest name and celebrity to be part of the discussion. As a result, he’s tough to ignore.

The good news, though, is that once training camp starts, the learning process will be over; every snap will matter. And every player alongside and opposite Manziel will be fighting his toenails off to win a job.

At that time, things get real. Where it ends will be one of the mostwatched stories of NFL preseason.