In 2014, Kyle Shanahan took the offensive coordinator job with Cleveland, a long-hapless franchise that was 4-12 the year before and has still only made the playoffs twice in the last 27 years. The Browns drafted QB Johnny Manziel with the 22nd pick of the first round, ignoring Shanahan’s advice to draft Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo instead, and veteran journeyman QB Brian Hoyer held off the flashy quarterback to win the starting job.
Together, Shanahan and Hoyer crafted one of the great turnarounds in recent NFL history — for about half a year. Then it all fell apart spectacularly, leading to Hoyer getting benched and Shanahan talking his way out of his three-year contract at the end of the season. He went on to Atlanta, of course, to run an offense that got to the Super Bowl this past year.
The 2014 Browns jumped out to a 7-4 record despite their star receiver, Josh Gordon, being suspended for the first ten games. They ended 7-9, which was still their best record in many years despite their late, total collapse.
Arguably the best stretch was in the first five games. They went 3-2, but the losses were both to strong teams (Pittsburgh and Baltimore) on last second field goals. Hoyer threw six TDs and only one interception during that stretch
Their early success was built on the play-action pass, something Niners fans will see again this year with Shanahan and Hoyer teaming up once again. This article will focus on that strategy and how it was used in the first five games, when Hoyer was playing his best.
A successful play-action pass is the payoff after a lot of preparation. That includes, first of all, simply running the ball a lot. In the two best games of that stretch, against Baltimore (in Week 3) and Pittsburgh (in Week 6), Hoyer threw just 25 and 18 times, respectively. But his quarterback rating was 127.1 and 113.0. Only once in those first five games did any Cleveland receiver have more than 100 yards, and that was tight end Jordan Cameron — because he had two explosion plays off of play-action. We’ll break those down in a little bit.
The strategy only works when the defense is trying to stop the run and the offensive line makes it look like you’re running again. One of the reasons Shanahan prefers the outside zone run is that blockers can fall back into pass protection after a run fake with less of a “tell.”
As Hoyer recently explained, the OL’s actions are more important to the play-action than the fake handoff:
“For us, offensively, we just try to run the play like it's the run. ... The majority of it is done by the offensive line. When the offensive line comes off like it's the run, you can see times where we watch the film and the linebackers are reacting to them. They're not even looking at us.”
Once you get the defense guessing, you’re in great shape. As Shanahan said on June 14:
“... if it looks the exact same and that guy does what he does to make a zero-yard run, but he also has to get under a 15-yard route, that puts that guy in a bind. If he’s stopping the run, it’s going to help out the receiver and the quarterback. If he’s not stopping the run because he’s so worried about the receiver and quarterback, now you’re getting four yards before that guy shows up. It makes people hesitate.”
In Week 3 of 2014, Cleveland lost to Baltimore, 23-21, but Hoyer had a 127.1 quarterback rating, completing 19-of-25 passes for 290 yards. He had a 76 percent completion rate, 11.6 ypa, one touchdown, and no interceptions.
With five minutes left in the first quarter, it was 2nd and 12 at the Ravens’ 47. Cleveland sold an outside zone run to the left, but Hoyer curled right and threw 43 yard bomb to speedy WR Travis Benjamin on a deep route to the left corner. Shanahan’s best play actions are often thrown to the same side of the field that the faked run was going.
Benjamin was wide open but the 50-yard pass was not long enough or fast enough — Benjamin had to slow down to catch it, allowing the Ravens Matt Elam (26) to catch up and prevent the touchdown. If Hoyer had hit him in stride, it would have been an easy TD.
The Week 6 win vs. Pittsburgh, 31-10, was special. Pittsburgh wasn’t just the better team. They had bullied the sad-sack Browns to an almost unimaginable level for a full decade. Ben Rothlisberger’s record against Cleveland was 18-1 going into the game.
The headline in the Cleveland Plains Dealer said it all:
Cleveland Browns, Brian Hoyer put a long-awaited beatdown on Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-10
Hoyer’s stat line was not especially impressive: just 8-of-17 for 217 yards, only a 47 percent completion rate. But he averaged 27 yards per completion with one touchdown pass and no interceptions for a 113 QB rating.
After two 3-and-outs in the first quarter, the Browns scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives in the second, and Pittsburgh never recovered.
That burst was built around two long passes to TE Jordan Cameron, both play-actions out of 13 personnel (with one running back and three tight ends) That’s usually a jumbo run package used when teams need to pick up a couple of yards for a touchdown or first down, which helped sell the run.
The play design for the first bomb was beautiful. Cleveland showed an outside zone run to the right, one of their bread and butter plays. Cameron, who was blocking as part of the run fake, made it look like he missed a block and stumbled, then kept running deep right, completely uncovered.
Hoyer faked the handoff and ran a naked bootleg curling to his left, then threw deep right completely across the field. Cameron was so open that the TV highlights announcer said, “Cameron was so wide open he had to, like, call for a fair catch on that [play].”
Again, the ball was under-thrown, allowing the defensive back to make the tackle. And Hoyer knew it. He told the local paper:
"It's a naked so there's no one protecting you and you get a little antsy,'' said Hoyer. "I probably could've waited a second and got him a touchdown so he didn't get chased down by (Steelers DB Brett) Keisel.''
On the next drive, Hoyer and Shanahan did it again. It was 3rd and 1 at midfield, with the team nursing a fragile 7-3 lead against a Steelers team they had no reason to think they could beat. A run was the obvious call, with the jumbo lineup in and the Browns barely passing the whole game. Boom.
Again, the pass was slightly behind the tight end but close enough to grab it in stride for the touchdown. And again, Hoyer acknowledged it.
"He did a great job of going up,'' said Hoyer. "It was a little bit behind him, but he ripped the ball away and ran in for the touchdown.''
No one claims Hoyer is a great quarterback, not even Hoyer. The beauty of the play action approach, when it’s working, is that it minimizes the demands on the quarterback while allowing him to hit explosion plays (to wide open receivers). A West Coast offense, on the other hand, requires a QB with excellent short-range accuracy and timing, and receivers who aren’t going to drop the ball.
So Shanahan’s approach seems like a good fit for San Francisco — providing they can establish a decent running game in the first place. The obvious question, though, is “Why did the winning strategy fall apart in Cleveland, getting Hoyer benched?” That’s a question for another article.