CLEVELAND — This city began Sunday shrouded in fog and brimming with expectation. Ever since Browns Coach Mike Pettine had announced a change at quarterback, the wait had been excruciating, the five days passing like a kidney stone.
Four hours before kickoff, fans streamed into the parking lots ringing FirstEnergy Stadium, arriving early to immerse themselves in the communal experience of preparing for the unknown.
They came to watch their beloved Browns engage in that phenomenon alien to northeast Ohio, meaningful mid-December football. They also came to watch an elusive, unconventional, reckless, exuberant and wholly unpredictable rookie who might — or might not — yet be their savior at quarterback.
They came for Johnny Manziel.
So did the Cincinnati Bengals, who contained him in the pocket, turned his confidence into indecision and celebrated sacks and pass deflections by mocking him, making the symbol for money that Manziel uses in his touchdown celebrations. They rubbed their fingers together so often that they might have worn holes in their gloves.
Like Tim Couch and Spergon Wynn and Luke McCown before him, Manziel lost his first career start, a 30-0 drubbing that eliminated the Browns (7-7) from A.F.C. North contention and left them on the verge of missing the playoffs for a 12th consecutive season.
As poorly as Brian Hoyer played before being benched during the week, throwing eight interceptions and one touchdown pass in five games, the Browns were never shut out, nor did Hoyer record a passer rating as low as Manziel’s 27.3. Cleveland gained 107 yards on offense, to that point the lowest total in the N.F.L. this season, according to Pro Football Reference, and had only three plays that gained more than 10. The Browns crossed midfield once.
Looked like a rookie, played like a rookie, Coach Mike Pettine said.
Manziel said: I’m not using the rookie excuse. It’s not me.
As Manziel spoke Sunday afternoon, he sounded dumbfounded, as if still processing how he could possibly be intercepted twice and throw for only 80 yards (on 10-of-18 passing) or how he could direct an offense that went 1 of 10 on third down.
No, he said, he was not overwhelmed. No, the game did not move too fast. No, it was not too difficult.
At his slippery best, Manziel excels at improvisation, at throwing from odd angles and playing hide-and-seek with defenders and wriggling free from tackles. All this he did Sunday — just not enough. Moments of clarity were interspersed with overthrows, missed reads and poor decisions. The Bengals (9-4-1), humbled by a 24-3 loss to Cleveland on Nov. 6 and annoyed with all the attention heaped on Manziel during the week, relished their dominance.
Explaining why he flashed the money sign after sacking Manziel, defensive end Wallace Gilberry said, He kind of brought that on himself.
He added, I wanted to do it before he did.
The Browns did not install a new playbook to accommodate Manziel’s skills but integrated elements they had not practiced much since training camp. Their offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, emphasized shotgun and pistol formations and the zone read, much as he did when he coached another mobile quarterback, Robert Griffin III, in Washington.
In preparing for Manziel, the Bengals sensed that would happen, but they had only 18 regular-season snaps of game film to evaluate. Cincinnati’s intent, in simple terms, was to keep Manziel in the pocket and neutralize his scrambling. They wanted to turn Johnny Football into Johnny Dropback.
Let him beat us with his arm, linebacker Rey Maualuga said.
Gilberry said, It’s like when you’re playing basketball and you know a guy can only go one way. So you take that away from him, and you make him one-dimensional.
Manziel ran onto the field for his first series already trailing, 7-0, and his five first-half possessions went like this: three three-and-outs and two interceptions.
The first interception tormented Manziel. He failed to execute a play he had success with all week during practice. He did not trust himself. He hesitated. He threw late toward Andrew Hawkins, and Dre Kirkpatrick grabbed the ball.
The second galled him even more. Avoiding pressure, he stepped up in the pocket and floated a pass that Adam Jones caught in the end zone.
I just need to throw the ball and let it rip, Manziel said, and I didn’t do a very good job of that.
At halftime, Cleveland trailed, 20-0, and it all must have seemed familiar to Manziel. In the last competitive game he had started, he helped Texas A&M overcome a 21-point halftime deficit against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
As if he needed a reminder Sunday, Cincinnati is not Duke.
It’s good for him to learn how rough this league really is, Browns receiver Josh Gordon said. It’s really tough. You’ve got to earn a win. You really have to earn it.
All week, Browns players and coaches had sensed a certain energy. Jim O’Neil, the defensive coordinator, said that everybody in the building can feel the buzz. It extended far beyond team headquarters.
I could barely sleep last night, Brett Siglow, 24, a college student from Akron, said between bites of a chicken wing. I was like a little kid before Christmas.
Across the parking lot, Justin VanHouten stood beside his proud purchase: a $37 inflatable swan he bought on Amazon for the occasion — not the one, alas, that Manziel lounged upon in June with a bottle of liquor. VanHouten explained what Manziel, and this season, represented.
It’s amazing that we’re not talking about the draft, said VanHouten, 28, of Wooster, Ohio, a law student at Ohio State. Having enough wins that we’re focused on the now instead of the future is weird.
Manziel, the 21st quarterback to start for Cleveland since 1999, symbolizes both for the Browns. Sunday’s loss does not change what his employers liked about him when they drafted him 22nd over all in May, or what needs improvement. This, as Manziel said, is an ongoing process.
And so Pettine said Manziel would start next week at Carolina, where he could be opposed by Derek Anderson, another quarterback who was lauded in Cleveland before failing.
Going into it, I even knew that one bad start — I’m not going to be written off forever, Manziel said, adding: It’s going to take time and reps. The best quarterbacks to ever play this game have struggled early.
A city hopes.
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