BEREA, Ohio -- When finally a quarterback question came Saturday morning -- after those about Buster Skrine, Desmond Bryant, Josh Gordon and a raucous practice fight delayed the inevitable -- Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine began to answer, then stopped himself.
"By the way, we just set a record for ... was that about eight minutes in before I got a quarterback question," Pettine laughed.
Actually, the wait for the quarterback has felt interminable this summer in Cleveland. But finally, as training camp ended Saturday with a session opened only to season ticket holders and decision day nears -- circle Tuesday on your calendar in pencil -- a small bit of clarity seems to be emerging as the Browns prepare for Monday night's game against the Washington Redskins with Brian Hoyer starting and Johnny Manziel coming off the bench to play with and against starters.
In a conversation after practice, Pettine was asked directly if Hoyer is in the lead as the starting quarterback.
"Yeah, I would say that," Pettine said. "Johnny has definitely closed the gap. But Brian has gone out and done his job. There were a couple of throws he had in the game he'd like to have back but that was his first live game back after the knee injury. That's not easy. I thought he was very poised, very confidence. I've heard people say when you have two quarterbacks, you don't have any. That's laughable to me. When you have two quarterbacks, you have two quarterbacks."
How to interpret that? Hoyer is ahead of Manziel in the competition to be the opening day starter, barring a collapse against Washington. But, given Manziel's improvement, Hoyer will likely be on a very short leash in his chance to retain the job long term. The Browns open with a brutal trio of opponents, all of whom are expected to be strong on defense -- Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Baltimore.
Then, though, comes a conveniently-timed bye, which would present Pettine the opportunity to change quarterbacks if the need has arisen. Pettine even seemed to be preparing everyone for an eventual two-quarterback shuffle when he pointed out that only once since the Browns returned to Cleveland in 1999 have they managed to get through the entire 16-game regular season with just one quarterback.
Browns fans need no reminder of their torment, of course, but in underscoring Hoyer's poise he was also harkening back to his own experience with how teams function around quarterbacks. When Mike Pettine was on Rex Ryan's staff with the New York Jets, they twice went to the AFC Championship game with Mark Sanchez. Pettine saw how Sanchez was managed -- the Jets failed to provide him with much competition, ultimately to his detriment, but they did surround him with a top defense, a very strong offensive line and a very productive running game -- to success. The Jets later tried to put too much of the offense in Sanchez's hands, without giving him enough weapons, and he failed. But there are lessons to be learned from Sanchez's early years that apply in Cleveland now.
"I took positives from it," Pettine said. "It proved you can win with a rookie quarterback if you build the right team around him. And people have proven that in the league. That's why I'm not opposed to playing with a rookie. That first year we were No. 1 in the league in most categories on defense. One of the better offensive lines in football. Mark wasn't put in tough situations that you don't want to put rookies in. Third and 6 plus, down by 10 points, a two minute drive. When you can keep the quarterback ahead of the sticks and ahead on the scoreboard, he will naturally look a lot better. There's a lot of different ways to win. If you don't have a quarterback you are comfortable with, those top five or six guys, where you can put it on them to run the show and win the game for you, I think you have to have a team around them."
That is how the Browns want to play this season, no matter who the quarterback is and it is almost certainly the way they will be forced to play because of the looming suspension of top receiver Josh Gordon. The Browns' patience for a decision from the league on Gordon is wearing thin, but their options are even slimmer. There is a large drop-off after Gordon -- Miles Austin is the No. 2 receiver and Nate Burleson has a hamstring injury. It is hard to imagine a potent passing game, no matter who is slinging it.
That would seem, on the surface, to favor Manziel, who can famously make plays with his legs. But if the Browns badly need someone to manage what could be close, low-scoring games -- Pettine does not like the now-derogatory use of the phrase game-manager -- then Hoyer is the perfect fit because while he can not provide the dynamism Manziel can, he also isn't likely to make as many mistakes as a rookie whose first instinct when plays break down is to take off, and who is still a tick slower than Hoyer when making decisions. Especially considering that the Browns' first game is against Pittsburgh -- whose defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is 17-2 with 13 passing touchdowns allowed, 21 interceptions and 64 sacks against rookie quarterbacks since 2004.
"I see Brian as poised. I see him as efficient. I see him as a good decision maker," Pettine said. "A guy, who in a small sample size, was a winner here and that says something."
Hoyer's three-game winning streak last year was especially noteworthy because it came immediately in the wake of the Browns' trade of running back Trent Richardson, which was widely interpreted as a signal that Browns brass had given up on the season in exchange for building toward the future. Hoyer led the Browns to two victories, then suffered his knee injury in his third start, which also ended in victory. Had Hoyer not gotten hurt last year, the circumstances of this competition would have been much different -- if there was one to start with, and if Pettine were even here -- and would probably have much more closely resembled the competition in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars immediately declared Chad Henne the starter, freeing rookie Blake Bortles to develop free of the practice scrutiny and pressure that has enveloped Hoyer and Manziel.
"But experience-wise, he's much closer to a rookie from a playing standpoint," Pettine said of Hoyer. "To me, they were much closer to being on equal ground. Brian is slightly ahead because of his time in the league. I won't second guess that. I felt it was good for our team."
It has probably been good for everyone except Hoyer, although he does not show any frustration with his current role --- and with the air of inevitability that surrounds Manziel now. Hoyer apprenticed under Tom Brady in New England and it is obvious that one of the things he picked up was Brady's smooth dismissal of outside noise. Hoyer said Saturday he is unaware of much of the kerfuffle that has surrounded the Browns this summer, or that Monday night's game is being hyped as Robert Griffin III versus Hoyer's backup. While Manziel gamely admitted he is not ready right now to face Pittsburgh -- he knew immediately it would be misinterpreted -- Hoyer struck the tone of an elder statesman who has seen all the obstacles in front of him.
"I think the best quarterback should play regardless of the situation," he said. "It's a situation I dealt with last year when I came in and we kind of said it was a week-to-week thing. For me, I just want to be the starting quarterback of this team whatever the situation is."
That situation is fluid certainly, although it seems to be tilting in Hoyer's favor for now. The Browns hoped this decision would be easier -- that one of their quarterbacks would seize the job decisively -- but that has not happened as both learn the offense. Then again, nothing much has come easily for Browns quarterbacks for 15 years.
"I was happy when the schedule came out," Pettine said. "At Pittsburgh. That would be an instant test for us. Where are the Browns? How much ground have we made up?"
The answer might not only come in the opener, if Hoyer is the starter then. It might be more telling to know who the starter will be when the teams meet again. In Week 6, two weeks after the Browns' bye.