The 2014 season started out as Brian Hoyer’s miracle year. The UDFA quarterback had grown up in Cleveland and learned the pro game under Bill Belichick as Tom Brady’s backup in New England. He held off rookie Johnny Manziel for his home team’s starting quarterback job, and led the lowly Browns to a 6-3 record (and a share of the division lead) running offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s new play-action-based offense.
By week 15, though, he had been benched for Manziel, who belly-flopped. The Browns lost their last five games and finished 7-9 — still their best record since 2007 and third best of this century.
Last week, I looked at the Shanahan-Hoyer play-action game when it was clicking best, in the first five games. Today, we’re asking why it went wrong.
The short story is, several things changed - some that were Hoyer’s responsibility, some not so much.
Defenses adjusted, and the Brown’s running game fell apart — especially after injuries to three different centers. Hoyer clearly felt the pressure, both from strong pass rushing and from Cleveland’s front-office dysfunction — the owner and many fans were demanding that Johnny Football replace him. Under this stress, his decision-making and accuracy suffered. Oddly, the return of star wide receiver Josh Gordon was also a problem.
Hoyer’s season broke into three distinct sections. We’ve already discussed the first five games, where the play-action worked beautifully. Not coincidentally, the Brown’s run game was on fire during this stretch— third in the NFL at 146.4 yards per game.
Then, Pro Bowl center Alex Mack got injured. Depending on which source you read, he either broke his leg or got splashed with an experimental chemical that gave him special powers. Other OL injuries followed, and the Browns ended up starting four different centers during the season.
Cleveland won three of the next four games anyway on momentum, strong defense, and Shanahan’s use of the no-huddle tempo offense, but the run game faltered. The Browns rushing averaged fell nearly by half, from 146.4 YPG to 83.5 during the second phase.
Play-action starts with the run, of course. Hoyer didn’t pass much in Cleveland’s epic Week 6 beatdown of the Pittsburgh Steelers, completing eight of just 17 passes, but those eight completions averaged 24 yards each.
In Week 7, Gus Bradley’s Jacksonville Jaguars (with linebacker coach Robert Saleh) went right at Alex Mack’s replacement — right guard John Greco — and the results were ugly. Cleveland gave up three sacks (vs. five in the first five games combined) and got only 69 yards on 30 carries against a stuffed box, in a 24-6 loss.
As a result, the play-action game was smothered. Hoyer was 16 for 41 passing with a fumble and an interception. The jittery QB overthrew an open Jordan Cameron in the end zone from the five yard line (with 4:22 left in the second quarter).
The running game got even worse in games seven and eight against weak opponents (39 yards vs. Oakland and 56 against Tampa Bay) but Hoyer rose to the occasion, passing for 575 yards and three TDs in the two games.
Check out Shanahan’s reaction to head coach Pettine’s suggestion that he run on 2nd & goal from the four against the Raiders. He didn’t smile until Pettine said, “You know what? I trust you. Call your best play.” (Hoyer threw for the game-clinching touchdown, on a shotgun rollout pass.)
The team’s high water mark for the season was Week 10 against Cincinnati, a dominating 24-3 victory marked by the team’s last big rushing attack (170 yards) and efficient game management by Hoyer.
With 1:15 left in the first quarter, Hoyer threw a decisive 10-yard bullet to Travis Benjamin after the fake handoff. As is often the case for Hoyer, it was a bit behind his target though Benjamin still picked up another dozen yards after the catch.
The cracks were showing, though, especially after Hoyer lost one of his favorite play action targets —TE Jordan Cameron — for seven games to a concussion. Gus Bradley was the first DC to figure out how to neutralize Shanahan’s diminished offense, but he wasn’t the last.
Hoyer threw three interceptions in these four middle games, compared to only one in the first five, and he was lucky not to have more. Wily veteran Charles Woodson couldn’t quite pull in this pass against the Raiders, but he certainly wasn’t fooled by the play action on 1st and 10. A more accurate quarterback might have dropped the pass in, but Hoyer generally needs open receivers for passes this long.
After all this, Cleveland was still 6-3, tied for first place in a tough division. And then it all fell apart.
In his four remaining starts, Hoyer had eight interceptions and only one touchdown pass in 60 drives. (I don’t count end-of-half drives.) With a 49.7 percent completion rate and 1-3 record in those games on a team still in the playoff hunt, he was finally benched for good after losing to the Indianapolis Colts by one point in Week 14.
Shanahan remained squarely in Hoyer’s corner. After the Buffalo game, he confirmed to the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the first of Hoyer’s two INTs was WR Josh Gordon’s fault.
"His first interception was a great decision [by Hoyer anyway]. ...We had a Cover 2 seam where you're supposed to cross face and Josh just kept [going straight]. Quarterback's gotta let it go there. He threw it on time, he threw it aggressive. I thought it was a real good throw. They just weren't on the same page.”
That wasn’t the only play that Josh Gordon messed up after returning in Week 12 against Atlanta — the Browns’ last win. Hoyer had three interceptions that day, and two were targeted to Gordon in the last five minutes of the game, with Cleveland nursing a two-point lead.
Hoyer led the Browns 74 yards down to the Falcons six-yard line with 4:51 left. On first and goal, the offensive line sold the play-action run to the left very well, but TE Gary Barnidge failed to block DT Tyson Jackson, who came right for Hoyer one-on-one. The QB kept fading back and lobbed one to the back of the endzone, where Desmond Trufant, a 6'0" second year corner, was guarding the 6'3" WR.
Josh Gordon had 120 yards in the game on eight receptions, so it wasn't a crazy idea (though clearly not a great one). But Gordon made no effort on the ball whatsoever. He didn't jump or even turn around, just watched Trufant high-point it perfectly and get his feet in. Even his “incomplete” hand motion was half-hearted.
After Cleveland’s defense held, Hoyer faced 3rd and 7 from his own 19 with 2:43 left. He launched a deep pass to Gordon running a post pattern. About one second after the ball left his hand, Gordon cut out to the sideline, leaving Dezmen Southward with an effortless interception. After Atlanta kicked a field goal for the lead, though, Hoyer led a 61-yard drive in the final 44 seconds for the winning kick.
And Atlanta was Gordon’s best game all year. ESPN’s Pat McManamon wrote:
“The Browns were 6-4 without Gordon, 1-5 with him. Points per game dropped 43.5 percent, from 21.6 the first 10 to 12.2 the final six. First downs went from 20.3 to 15.1; passing yards from 243 to 172.5; and total yards from 359.1 to 277. Turnovers doubled -- from 1.0 to 2.2 per game -- and offensive touchdowns dropped from 2.3 to 0.5 per game. ...
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Gordon was targeted 48 times, ninth-most in the league. But he caught just 50 percent of the passes thrown his way -- which wasn't even in the top 100.”
It’s not that Hoyer didn’t try. McManamon notes that, before his final start against the Colts, the QB “sat with Gordon for an hour or two ... and went over every play and route with him.” The big WR still caught only two of seven targets for 15 yards combined.
Gordon doesn’t get all of the blame, though. Hoyer clearly felt the pressure, both on and off the field, and his decision making and accuracy suffered as the season spiraled out of control. His first interception against Atlanta was thrown way too low, almost right at safety Kemal Ishmael instead of tight end Jim Dray, who was wide open behind him.
And even Shanahan had to admit that Hoyer’s second interception against Buffalo was a terrible decision. Down 17-3 in the 4th quarter, the play action fooled exactly nobody; every target was covered. Hoyer threw at Taylor Gabriel anyway.
Da'Norris Searcy came off his man for the interception, but Stephon Gilmore -- the coverage cornerback -- had inside position, wearing the little wide receiver like a backpack. If Searcy had missed the ball, Gilmore might well have nabbed it.
Save some blame for Shanahan, too. Remember that this was his first year with a play-action based offense; he had been running read-option with RGIII in Washington. When the run game collapsed, he got too predictable.
Hoyer’s nightmare stretch began in Week 11 against Houston. Building off of Jacksonville’s defensive game plan, they went to two high safeties to take away the play-action explosion plays, and JJ Watt devoured Hoy Boy. Shanahan didn’t seem to have an answer, and word got around. By early December, Andy Benoit at MMQB wrote that:
"In recent contests, perhaps because of the two high safeties, the Browns drifted away from the rollouts and moving-pocket concepts that Hoyer had thrived on earlier in the season. It would be fair to reason that Hoyer’s recent struggles are simply being magnified by other problems with the offense."
Shanahan and Hoyer stayed just as aggressive, though, hence all the interceptions. Just like last year’s Super Bowl, Shanahan let his opponent (Atlanta) get back into the game by throwing again and again, even with a two point lead in the last five minutes of the game.
And Hoyer consistently threw dangerous passes that he is simply not accurate enough to get away with, maybe a side effect of watching Tom Brady up close for so long. As we saw last week, even when he’s connecting, Hoyer often throws behind his receivers and needs them to be wide open.
In the final analysis, Hoyer and Shanahan could have a great run in San Francisco — IF all goes well. Shanny has had a couple of years to refine his system, which obviously works, and San Francisco won’t have Josh Gordon at WR or the front office dysfunction that got Cleveland GM Ray Farmer suspended for texting abuse at coaches during games. They’ve got some offensive weapons like George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk and Trent Taylor that fit this scheme perfectly.
On the other hand, Hoyer has accuracy issues and some brittleness under pressure, and Shanahan has done best with this system only when his center is Alex Mack. Like literally, him. Can Jeremy Zuttah make it work? WIll the rest of the OL hold up, and avoid injuries? Can Shanahan and Hoyer learn to temper their admirable aggression with some patience?
The answers to these questions will determine whether Hoyer and Shanahan can rekindle the early magic of their 2014 collaboration.