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If Johnny Manziel shows anything in camp, Browns should start him

The Cleveland Browns are handling Johnny Manziel with the tenderest of kid gloves.

While being quirky in gushing over three weeks of Manziel's offseason work, they are not inflating expectations, not overselling. They say publicly they'll take “baby steps” with him, which may be appropriate for a guy not far removed from a 10-week stay in rehab.

Privately, the Browns have to hope Manziel has a transformation that brings him far closer to the hyped guy they drafted than the guy who left so many questions after his rookie season.

And they have to hope Manziel shows something during training camp, because if Manziel merely leaves camp comparable with Josh McCown, it makes more sense to play Manziel than McCown.

McCown is a 35-year-old veteran who brings experience and leadership, and the right to be the No. 1 heading into camp. He brings nothing to make any team (other than the Browns) sit up and take notice that he should be a starter.

Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo admitted this past Saturday that he was very involved in McCown’s signing and said McCown had never been comfortable with a team or system that relieved pressure from him by running the ball.

Maybe that will help.

Problem is, the track record indicates otherwise.

At his age and with 12 years of experience -- he was a free agent and turns 36 on July 4 -- McCown is, as they often say in the NFL, what he is. That is, a perfect backup who can step in and hold the fort for a few games if need be.

Manziel, though, is a former first-round draft pick with the college achievements and skills that bring excitement.

If his personal situation is strong and he dedicates himself to being a professional, he brings possibility to a Browns season woefully short of it. His road will be difficult. There will be challenges and at the most basic level he has to prove he can play in the NFL -- a great uncertainty given the way the Cincinnati Bengals treated him last season.

But the possibility exists.

The praise for Manziel for simply doing what he’s supposed to be doing in the offseason program seems a bit over the top. Except Manziel is just one year removed from floating swans and Vegas bathrooms. So every step is a step. And with Manziel, every step matters more than it might with a Joe Thomas or Joe Haden. But as Thomas has pointed out, the offseason steps matter far less than the in-season ones.

Through 11 games last season, the Browns did not have a reason to play Manziel outside of impatience. After 13, they went with the decision to play a guy who was clearly not ready. A team that started 7-4 and was competing for the playoffs submarined its season with its own impatience and second-guessing.

But that’s last year.

This season, they have a quarterback heading down the back nine and another on the second hole who yanked his drive in the woods and plopped his approach in the water on the first.

The Browns can say that McCown will be the starter in OTAs and entering training camp, because he has to be. Quarterback competitions, as Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has said and the Browns have proven, never work.

But the Browns have never said Manziel can’t win the job. That door is always open.

This is not a novel concept. The best guy plays. If McCown is the best guy or if Manziel still looks unprepared, then play McCown.

But if Manziel takes care of himself personally and professionally, and if he does anything at all in training camp, he should start. And the Browns should stick with him.

Another year of uncertainty is another year of delay in finding the quarterback. The Browns need to find out about Mr. Football so they can make plans for the future.

Where the Browns go with McCown is fairly certain.

Where they might go with Manziel isn’t.