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Johnny Manziel pushes QB competition wide open

Coach Mike Pettine has been asked twice if he will name Josh McCown the Cleveland Browns' opening-day starter at quarterback.

Twice he declined to do so, but did say that McCown is firmly No. 1 on the depth chart.

Pettine no doubt has good reasons for not saying McCown will start, but it doesn’t seem to do much to quash what could easily turn into a messy situation.

The only real reasons not to name a starter are that the job is up for grabs or that the job is so secure it’s absurd to name the starter -- there’s no need, for example, to name Joe Thomas the Browns' starter at left tackle.

The Browns seem to be in neither situation right now. They have insisted all along that McCown is the No. 1, which eliminates competition, but they refuse to make it secure.

With a backup such as Johnny Manziel, speculation is inevitable. In Thursday’s loss to Buffalo, Manziel threw for 24 yards in the third quarter and led an impressive touchdown drive in the fourth, but then got nothing going in a two-minute situation where a field goal would have won the game.

By last season’s standards, Manziel did well.

By the standards of a guy who spent 10 weeks in a treatment facility, Manziel did well.

By growth measurements, Manziel has come along.

By the standards of an NFL quarterback, the Browns have him No. 2.

“We have a pretty good plan, we feel, for Johnny’s development, and I think we’re on schedule with it,” Pettine said. “He’s shown great improvement from the day he set foot back in the building.”

Manziel deserves credit for everything he’s doing. He has worked especially hard at becoming a pocket passer, a huge transition given the way he played in college. He may well get to the point of being an effective NFL starter.

But the Browns say he isn't there yet.

They’ve also sold to every veteran on the team that McCown gives them a chance to win, and the veterans have bought in. Pulling the plug on McCown now would send a message the team doesn’t want to send -- because Manziel has not won the job. He’s merely done better than a year ago.

The other element the team has to deal with regarding Manziel is the external pressures that come with him. Fair or not, Manziel brings hype, attention and distractions that others don’t. And it happens even though Manziel has worked tremendously hard, as he said, to tamp down the hype.

Think this discussion would be taking place if the backup were not a player whose nickname included the name after the sport he plays?

Johnny Football deserves credit for the work he’s done and the progress he’s made. But naming McCown the starter would merely certify what the team has been saying.

It would put an end to all the speculation and chatter about Manziel and allow the starting quarterback, and the team, to focus on what matters most: winning the opener.