This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's October 13 Cleveland Issue. Subscribe today!
INSIDE THE ALLEYWAY entrance to Johnny's Little Bar, over a crooked support beam that's not, technically, supporting anything at all, a small, dingy brass plaque reads: in 1897 nothing happened here. It may have taken 117 years, but like it or not, Johnny's beer-back clientele is now smack-dab in the middle of Cleveland's remarkable Rust Belt renaissance. LeBron James' "Welcome Home" electronic billboard just went up around the corner. Across the river, the West Side Market is festooned with rainbow flags in preparation for the Gay Games. And a block to the south stands the Renaissance Hotel, with its ornate football-shaped ballroom where the 1964 Browns celebrated Cleveland's last championship; it's a space that surely will be put to good use when the Republican National Convention comes to town in 2016.
Since the days of Paul Brown, though, this has been a football town, so much so that even the team's current 15-year epic run of failure-the Browns would need to go undefeated until 2019 just to get back to .500 since re-forming in 1999-hasn't diminished fan support. The Dawg Pound finally had something to bark about in Week 2, when the offense finished off an 85-yard drive to cap a stirring 26-24 win over the Saints. It was Cleveland's first W in a home opener since 2004, a win bookended by gut-wrenchingly familiar close-call losses to the Steelers and Ravens, leaving the Browns 1-2 heading into their bye week and reigniting a debate as old and omnipresent as the Terminal Tower.
Inside the dark, comforting cave of the city's original "Johnny," fueled by a local beer named after the Cuyahoga River, the main topic of discussion remains the home team's quarterbacks, Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel. "So one of these guys is our savior?" snorts the gray-haired lifelong Clevelander at a table near the bar. "How many saviors does that make for the Browns now, 20? Manziel is just more bells and whistles." Adds a younger patron, "Only thing the Browns are good at is turnin' quarterbacks into basket cases. Wanna know who we'll love? Anyone who can win some games."
There has always been a deep connection between the way this town sees itself and the characteristics of its quarterback, from regal Otto Graham, who led the team to 10 straight championship games (winning seven) during Cleveland's heyday from 1946 to 1955, to scrappy, overachieving Brian Sipe and his Kardiac Kids of 1980, to the Rust Belt fatalism of Bernie Kosar. And now, the choice between hometown kid Hoyer and media superstar Manziel has grown to signify much more than just touchdowns or wins. The choice to lead the Browns has become a cultural capstone on Cleveland's rebirth.
"It's the local boy, the blue-collar, old-Cleveland mentality, battling against new Cleveland, the young, brash, flashy global citizen," says Richey Piiparinen, a lifelong Browns fan who also happens to be director of the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University. "What side of ourselves do we identify with? Who do we choose?"
GEOGRAPHICALLY, CLEVELAND is split down the middle by the impossibly crooked, gelatinous and occasionally flammable Cuyahoga River. And for more than a century, the city has had two distinct sides to its personality: steel mills, shipyards and factories on the west; arts, culture, science and schools, such as the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University, on the east.
Hoyer, who ranked ahead of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady in passer rating through Week 3, is the quintessential Cleveland west sider. The grandson of German immigrants, he grew up in North Olmsted, 10 minutes from the Dawg Pound, in a house in which his parents still live. As a kid, Hoyer dressed up as Kosar for Halloween and was in the stands when fans tore up the stadium after Art Modell and Baltimore hijacked their beloved team in 1995. How did Hoyer react? Just like every other person in Northeast Ohio. "I cried my eyes out," he says. "I'm still a Cleveland fan at heart, and for a kid who grew up here who now has a chance to influence this town, this is pretty special. I actually try not to think about it. It's too much."
Hoyer attended prep football powerhouse St. Ignatius, a private Catholic all-boys school in the historic Ohio City area, close enough to see the Cleveland skyline from the practice field. He was 16-7 as a two-year starter for coach Chuck Kyle, a Cleveland legend who has won three national titles and 11 state championships. Hoyer went on to Michigan State, where he was 16-11 as a starter, and after going undrafted in 2009, he hooked up with the Patriots and served as Brady's backup for three seasons. With a slight 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame and just a decent arm, Hoyer has survived because of his insatiable drive to master the mental side of the game.
"Brian really does embody the Cleveland mentality of the underdog," says Browns All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas. "He's the blue-collar third-string guy who doesn't have the cannon arm or the prototypical size or speed scouts are looking for. So instead, he has to fight and scratch and claw for everything he has and win with smarts and guts and hard work-in a way that really is a reflection of this city."
After bouncing from New England to Pittsburgh and Arizona in 2012, Hoyer became something of a poor man's LeBron the next year when he signed with the Browns. In Week 3 last fall, after starter Brandon Weeden went down with a thumb injury, then-coach Rob Chudzinski tabbed Hoyer over veteran Jason Campbell.
On the eve of his first start, inside the team hotel in Minnesota, Hoyer pulled tight end Jordan Cameron aside and launched into a laundry list of scribbled hot reads, tips and tendencies. For starters, Hoyer had noticed that a 7-route, or a post/corner route, would work really well for the 6-5 Cameron against the Vikings' cover 2 scheme because of the way, on film, Minnesota's shorter corners tended to fall off underneath. "At first it was kinda like, 'Who is this guy in my face giving me orders?'" Cameron says. "This is the backup to the backup, but Brian had this immediate, demanding presence about him. And sure enough, all those things came up in the game-and we used them to our advantage. After that, it was like, 'I believe in this guy.'"
Hoyer completed 30 of 54 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns against the Vikings, including a 7-route against the cover 2 and the game winner to Cameron in the back of the end zone with 51 seconds to play. The next week, Hoyer had a passer rating of 103.9 in a win over the Bengals. He ran off the field and into the chaotic locker room-where he bumped into his beaming, awestruck dad, Axel, a financial adviser and season-ticket holder. "I'm like, 'Daaaaad, what are you doing here?'" Hoyer says, laughing. "He just shrugs and says, 'They said it was OK.' I was like, 'No, no, no! Get out. I have to focus on my job.'"
Four days later, the 2-2 Browns and their homegrown QB hosted Buffalo with a chance to take over first place in the AFC North. Local TV crews interviewed Hoyer's family members in their yards. "Hoyer the Destroyer" T-shirts sold out days before the game. "The town was buzzing," Kyle says. "A kid from Cleveland was running the show. They had won two in a row. It was that old feeling of, after all we've been through with The Drive and The Fumble and all that, sooner or later the football has to bounce the right way for the Browns, right?"
Wrong. Just 3:57 into the game, Hoyer attempted to slide after a run, and his right leg caught awkwardly under his body, tearing the ACL. The Browns won just one more game in 2013. It was, as they like to say at Johnny's, a case of pure OIC: Only. In. Cleveland.
Chudzinski was fired after less than a full calendar year, meaning in 24 months the Browns had churned through more head coaches than the Steelers have in the past 45 years. After being spurned by several of their top candidates, the Browns settled on Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as their new coach. The botched search cost CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi their jobs. Under new GM Ray Farmer, the Browns reportedly commissioned a $100,000 study that pinpointed Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater as the best quarterback in the draft. Then, with the 22nd pick and Bridgewater still on the board, they selected Manziel. The choice seemed like just another marketing gimmick, to go with the Browns Fan Advisory Board, the house DJ and zip lines at home games, and the team's new mascot, a bullmastiff named Swagger with a head the size of a mailbox-all of it targeted at an entire generation of young fans who have never experienced the team as anything other than a national punch line.
Nineteen hours after the Browns drafted Manziel, news broke that Cleveland's All-Pro wideout Josh Gordon would have to serve a lengthy suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy for the third time. Then in July, team owner Jimmy Haslam's Pilot Flying J truck-stop empire was forced to pay fines and refunds of more than $148 million after federal investigators accused the company of defrauding truck drivers. Only in Cleveland would the company run by the football team's owner line its pockets by ripping off truck drivers-a workforce that, more or less, represents the heart and soul of Cleveland's diehard Dawg Pound.
JUST AS THE BROWNS were bottoming out, though, the city's fortunes were heading in the opposite direction. Long seen as one of the parochial capitals of ancient industry and the decaying Rust Belt, Cleveland (pop.: 390,113) added more than 60,000 college-educated adults to its workforce between 2000 and 2012, according to a study by Piiparinen and colleague Jim Russell at Cleveland State. The number of newcomers in the 25-34 age group increased by 23 percent. Suddenly, Cleveland ranked seventh nationally in the skill level of its young workforce, outpacing Chicago, Seattle and even Austin, Texas, in the key "Brain Gain" demographic. And thanks to an added boost from the so-called LeBron Migration, even more young, highly educated adults are boomeranging-leaving the more expensive coasts and moving back home to the Midwest. In fact, last year more people moved from Brooklyn to Cleveland than vice versa.
At Johnny's, saying Cleveland is now a blue-collar town mostly in spirit can get you tossed into the Cuyahoga. But the truth is, the brain-gainers have saved this town.
You won't find them in Cleveland institutions such as Sokolowski's restaurant just yet, but they're swathed in Manziel gear and are just a few blocks over in the hipster enclave of Tremont. (The joke in Cleveland is that it's now pronounced Tre'mon.) If these fans seem oddly blissful, it's because of the designer coffee and hops, and the fact that they don't carry the same psychic baggage as longtime Browns loyalists. Their dads didn't kick out the TV screen after Red Right 88. To them, shame and suffering as a badge of honor is so 1990s. Their main concern is to be entertained and to be relevant, now.
That's why, to the brain-gainers, the electric and unpredictable Manziel is already Johnny Cleveland. "We're flipping the script on Cleveland and Cleveland football by doing something unconventional with a QB like Manziel," says architect Jennifer Coleman, a Cornell grad, chairwoman of the Cleveland Landmarks Commission and one of Cleveland Magazine's Most Interesting People in 2013. "It's not about grinding him down to conform like we have with so many other quarterbacks but embracing him and his unique gifts. There's a vibrancy and uniqueness and a style to the way he plays that is very relatable to what's going on in Cleveland. But this is not a town blinded by glitz. He could be Cleveland's adopted son, but in this town, he's got to prove it."
Manziel has a ways to go. After the draft, Hoyer stayed in town with his wife, Lauren, his high school sweetheart, and their toddler son, Garrett, and infant daughter, Cameron, rehabbing his knee and studying new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's complicated scheme. In his spare time he attended charity softball games and taped ads for a local aluminum siding company.
Manziel, on the other hand, was slow to curb or even take responsibility for his myriad off-the-field shenanigans, slow to learn the offense, slow to read defenses and, with his lazy, loopy Tebow-esque delivery, slow to develop into a classic pocket quarterback. The only things Manziel seemed to excel at were social media miscues, merchandise sales (the Browns team shop sells 12 Manziel T-shirt designs) and, most of all, getting the hell out of Cleveland on weekends. This might explain how Manziel can lead the league in jersey sales but finish second to Tim Couch's old No. 2 jersey inside FirstEnergy Stadium. "The money sign thing? What is that s---? That's just not Cleveland," says Nick Restifo, St. Ignatius' longtime offensive coordinator. "Young kids who don't know any better see him as a star. But after a while, even the people who were pulling for Manziel were saying, 'Jeez, what an a--hole.'"
The divide became evident at training camp. Near the end of the first practice, Hoyer and Manziel stood shoulder to shoulder at midfield. One of them had been mentored by Tom Brady, joked a fan; the other by Justin Bieber. When the horn blared, signaling the end of practice, Hoyer turned abruptly to his left, Manziel pivoted to his right and each quarterback strolled off the field in opposite directions. Flanked by his linemen, Hoyer moved away from the crowds to a quiet, shady part of the field, where he spent a few stolen moments with his family, pushing his son's stroller around the end zone. Meanwhile, Manziel, escorted by young, sharply dressed team officials, strolled toward the swooning masses at the VIP tent. He spent the next 15 minutes signing autographs and posing for pictures, mostly with female fans. The crowd of 3,700 seemed to sense the Cuyahoga-like split that had just taken place and started in on the call-and-return chant that has echoed around the city ever since. "We want JOHN-nee!" followed by "HOY-yer, HOY-yer." Unmoved by the chanting, Cleveland's future remained on one side of the field. His backup stayed on the other. But no one really knew, just yet, who was who.
Halfway through camp, after Manziel lost his cool in a preseason game, flipping off the Washington bench, Hoyer was awarded the starting job mostly by default. Manziel might own the trademark, but other than an occasional improvisational flash and an illegal catch, he isn't close to being everyone's Johnny Cleveland. Not yet. "I need to be ready, though," Manziel says. "Whether that's soon or extremely down the line, I need to be ready."
The numbers suggest it's only a matter of time before Manziel and the new Clevelanders take over. Of the past 91 quarterbacks drafted in the first round, 58 percent started by Week 8 of their rookie year-a timetable that seems about right after yet another OIC start to the Browns' season. Hoyer has, at times, been brilliant. In Week 2, he orchestrated that game-winning drive against the Saints, which included a 10-yard completion on fourth and six at the Cleveland 38. Dating to last season, Hoyer has thrown 156 passes without a pick, and he had a career-high passer rating of 127.1 against the Ravens in Week 3. But with the game in his hands against Pittsburgh and against Baltimore, he seemed to shrink and press in the spotlight. With a chance to win on the final drive in Pittsburgh, the Browns went backward 11 yards in three plays. In the fourth quarter against the Ravens, Cleveland was 0-for-4 on third downs, and Hoyer didn't complete a pass in the final 10:07.
Given Manziel's undeniable force-of-nature improv skills, especially late in games, it's hard, even for Hoyer, not to wonder about the length of his leash. "There are people who like me and people who like Johnny, and that's just the way it is," he says. "But none of that is going to help him or me play better on the football field, and really, that's all that matters in Cleveland."
Finally, something all Clevelanders, old and new, can agree on.