How Patriots backup Brian Hoyer became the winningest QB in Browns history

Published: 8/15/2018 11:17:32 AM
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In 1999, the NFL launched an expansion franchise in Cleveland, called it the “Browns” and began pretending it was the same organization that won the 1964 NFL Championship with Jim Brown, fired Bill Belichick in 1995 and moved to Baltimore later that year.
It is not that organization.
That organization became the Ravens and went on to win Super Bowls XXXV and XLVII. The New Browns are probably the least-successful expansion team in NFL history. They’ve appeared in exactly one postseason game and have only played in a handful of December games in which they were not already eliminated from playoff contention. They have lost 31 of their last 32 games. The franchise has started 28 men at quarterback in its 19-year history, a time in which the New England Patriots started only five. Of all these quarterbacks, only one man had a winning record during his time in Cleveland.
That man is Patriots backup Brian Hoyer.
Hoyer did not come by this winning record cheaply. Between 2013 and 2014, he started 16 games for the Browns, a full season’s worth, and won 10 times. There is no other New Browns starter who grabbed even a lucky 1-0 or 2-1 record. Derek Anderson played quite well in Cleveland, the lone New Browns quarterback to make a Pro Bowl, but even he finished with a 16-18 record after 34 starts.
Hoyer’s readiness to start for New England is a question that can only be evaluated in circumstances Patriots fans hope will never come to pass. But in the wake of losing a significant luxury in the game’s best (former) backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, to the realities of the NFL salary cap, some can’t but help but worry that New England’s season is a lost cause if Hoyer sees extended action.
This is where Hoyer’s time in Cleveland is worth examination. In the midst of the New Browns’ dismal history, hope began to emerge when Hoyer, then a fifth-year career backup, joined the team in 2013. To that point, he had spent three years behind Brady and made his only career start for the 2012 Arizona Cardinals (throwing for 330 yards in a loss).
When he arrived in Browns camp under new coach Rob Chudzinski, Hoyer brought an element the team had been missing. Steve Gera, a special assistant to Chudzinski, said Hoyer was a presence whose palpable confidence immediately energized the team.
“He has this self-assurance and this swagger that I think was really important for us, that was important for the culture of the Cleveland Browns to begin with,” said Gera, who is now the chief executive of the Gains Group, a sports innovation agency that helps clients like FC Barcelona integrate technology and data. “The way he spoke with the players in the huddle. The way he spoke with the staff. That was the thing that I think appealed to some of my fellow coaches and myself. Super competitive. Very assured. Something we needed at the time, obviously.”
Patriots offensive lineman Trent Brown, Hoyer’s right tackle last season in San Francisco, echoed the sentiment about Hoyer’s competitiveness.
“Brian Hoyer is a great guy, great teammate, can’t really ask much more,” Brown said. “I feel like all those guys (successful quarterbacks) do a great job of commanding the huddle and keep the show running.”
When second-year starter Brandon Weeden injured his thumb in a Week 2 loss, Chudzinski promoted Hoyer from third-string to starter, bypassing Jason Campbell on the depth chart, to start in Week 3. In his first start, Hoyer threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns (with three interceptions) in a win over Minnesota. That earned him another start in Week 4, and he beat the Bengals (an 11-win team that year), with 269 yards, two touchdowns and no picks.
After a win in Hoyer’s third start, Cleveland had a 3-2 record and the city was excited about football in a way that has proven rare over the last quarter century.
“At 3-2 as a coach for the Cleveland Browns, I didn’t have to buy a beer anywhere in the city,” Gera said.
But Hoyer, in a development that proved terribly unlucky for his career, for Chudzinski’s career and for the 2013 Browns, tore his ACL early in that third start.
“Brian’s gone for the season,” Gera said. “That definitely had an effect certainly on the amount of positivity we had. (We lost) the energy that he had. The energy that we were building after three consecutive wins.”
The Browns had just one more win the rest of the season, and Chudzinski lost his job. Hoyer would return in 2014 and with Weeden and Campbell gone, he began the season as the starter under new head coach Mike Pettine. But Cleveland had drafted Johnny Manziel and saw him as the passer of the future. Hoyer began the year with seven wins in 11 games, but after losing three of four starts late in the season, the Browns made a change.
With a shot at the playoffs still in reach, Pettine chose the Heisman winner over the undrafted quarterback mired in a losing streak.
“The dynamic in the NFL period, if you’re a coach, you have to take your shot, go away from a player who you deep down inside may believe is better, just because of the circumstances of your job,” Gera said.
Cleveland did not win again that season and is 4-47 since replacing Hoyer as the starter.
Hoyer next went to Houston, where he made nine starts, went 5-4, and won four of his final six games to help the Texans claim the AFC South.
Hoyer had mixed results over the past two seasons. He played well for a Bears team that went 1-4 in his five starts, with six touchdowns, no interceptions, a 98.0 passer rating and 7.23 yards per attempt, all very good numbers. However, he failed to win a game after securing the starting job in San Francisco, and his stats were among the worst of his career. The team around Hoyer was notably weak, but Garoppolo went 5-0 with the same group later that season.
Hoyer has played for six teams and eight offensive coordinators. This may be the first time in five years that he enters a season with absolute certainty about his place on the depth chart. But he said that has not changed the way he prepares.
“Every season’s its own season,” Hoyer said. “I think for me, it’s always about just doing what I can to prepare to play when I have the opportunity and to do whatever I can to help the team. So, look, this is my 10th training camp. I think I have that pretty well figured out — go out every day and just play the best I can.”
Gera sees Hoyer as a player who has never quite found a situation where he could capitalize on his potential.
“There are players who because they wound up with the coaches they wound up with, the circumstances they wound up with, never achieved what they could have achieved,” Gera said. “You can make the case that he fits that mold.”
It’s possible Hoyer had the right coaches and the right circumstances in 2013. He was playing well with Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Josh Gordon later that season broke out as one of the league’s most productive receivers. Unfortunately for Hoyer, the ACL injury cost him a chance to see what he could do with Gordon and Turner.
However, Gera points out that the Patriots excel at getting the most out of their players, and if they need to use him, Hoyer will be in good hands.
“What I always observed that I thought was brilliant about the Patriots,” Gera said, “is they fit their scheme to their personnel and strengths better than any other team in the league. If Hoyer has to play, they’re going to put in the people and the pieces around him that amplify his abilities the best.”
Dave Brown is a freelance correspondent who covers the Patriots for the Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter @ThatDaveBrown.

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