Should the Browns Hold an Open Quarterback Competition?

Josh McCown has been unequivocally named Cleveland's starter, but should he be?

Many of us grew up in a dark time for entertainment. There was once an era where “on-demand” and “streaming” were unknown phrases in media. This was a time where you couldn’t Google anything you wanted and purchase it from your massaging, heated beanbag chair with one click on your laptop -– which is being fed through a high-speed internet network into your flatscreen television. If you wanted a movie, you wouldn’t find it on Netflix; you’d go down to the video store and check the shelves. If they didn’t have Terminator 2 in right then, you’d either wait or select the least-terrible option.

Kids these days have it so easy.

This “barren Blockbuster effect” is what the Cleveland Browns are facing in their search for a quarterback to lead them through the 2015 season. Without a true summer hit to play, they find themselves staring at a choice between the worn and static-riddled Josh McCown, the critically-panned Johnny Manziel, or the straight-to-video Thad Lewis and Connor Shaw.

McCown has been touted as “unchallenged” and a “virtual lock” to start for the Browns this year. Should that happen, or do the other options deserve a chance on the silver screen?

Be Kind, Rewind

This offseason for the Browns seems like a bad rerun of a Lifetime television movie, one that was first aired in Tampa Bay last year but somehow made its way onto Cleveland this year. That’s the feeling that the headline “Josh McCown is Undisputed Week 1 Starter” should give anyone. I’ll put this out here right now: McCown is a terrible choice to start for any team, no matter how bad the quarterback situation.

I can prove this statement quite simply through our signature metric here at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows McCown’s production via NEP metrics and his ranks among quarterbacks with more than 100 drop backs over the past five years. Has this longtime league backup proven his NFL chops, or should he be tossed back in the drop-off slot?

YearPassPassing NEPPer Drop Back
20100 (DNQ)0.00 (DNQ)0.00 (DNQ)
201162 (DNQ)-4.99 (DNQ)-0.08 (DNQ)
20120 (DNQ)0.00 (DNQ)0.00 (DNQ)
2013235 (37th)82.21 (6th)0.35 (2nd)
2014363 (26th)-31.02 (39th)-0.09 (39th)

In three years prior to taking over for an injured Jay Cutler in Chicago, McCown dropped back a total of 62 times and qualified for the purposes of this study not once in that span of time. When he did get a chance to spot-start in Chicago he thrived, solely as a result of the Marc Trestman offense. This effect was proven when he went to Tampa Bay for the 2014 season and tanked so badly that the Bucs actually benched this big-money free agent for five games.

It’s not just the last five years, either. In his previous eight years in the league from 2002 to 2009, McCown assembled a terrible -108.02 Passing NEP and shoddy-at-best per-play Passing NEP of -0.09. When you cost an average of nearly 14 points a season (two touchdowns) for your team in the prime of your career, you are not starting-caliber.

It’s clear that McCown is not the answer for the Browns, unless they really want to waste the next season of their lives slack-jawed and wondering why –- why, God, why? –- they bothered to pay money to watch this. Who else could they turn to?

Two-Day Rentals Only

There are three other options on the fairly-barren shelves for the Browns: Manziel, Lewis, and Shaw. None of these players have the extensive track record that McCown does, but we can still try to assess them and their potential for Cleveland in 2015.

The table below shows these Browns backup by NEP metrics. How do they look?

PlayerYearPassPassing NEPPer Drop BackRushing NEP
Thaddeus Lewis201235-8.98-0.26-0.27
Thaddeus Lewis20131750.110.00-6.97
Connor Shaw201432-1.89-0.06-4.63
Johnny Manziel201438-14.51-0.38-0.89

Lewis is likely the safest option on the Browns’ depth chart, possibly with McCown included. Despite less of a track record than McCown, it’s somewhat telling that no player among these four quarterbacks has had a season above 0.00 Passing NEP except McCown’s inflated Chicago season and Thad Lewis’ 2013 campaign with the Buffalo Bills. Lewis’ 2012 bullpen role with the Browns saw him total disastrous numbers, but he did fine as a spot-starter for EJ Manuel in 2013 before he himself was injured.

Shaw is still a highly unknown quantity in the NFL, having been an undrafted free agent just last year. Still, his draft profile on touts him as having “Fine touch and accuracy. Very good mobility and movement in the pocket. Tough and gritty competitor.” I would be more interested to see Shaw earn a chance to start than to see the same old, same old out of the veteran washup McCown.

Then we arrive at the wildcard: 2014 first-round draft pick Johnny Manziel, who I still believe has loads of talent, despite an atrocious first 38 drop backs in his career. His passing numbers were awful last season, but we do forget that Manziel didn’t know the playbook at all in 2014. That’s a scary notion, but I don’t think last year’s version of Manziel is the only one we’ll ever know. He has outrageous athletic upside and physical prowess if he gets his mind right. He has by far the highest upside on the team, and certainly the lowest floor.

Late Fee

With all of this said, the Browns do need to have an open competition for quarterbacks when training camp rolls around. They have three unknown quantities on their roster with varying degrees of talent that could –- and really should -– be better than their veteran “starter” ever has been and ever will be. I still believe Manziel is this team’s long-term starter, but even Shaw or Lewis offer more short-term upside than McCown. Some may say this is an example of "we just don't know they're terrible yet", and I would agree. We don't know if any of the three backups are certifiably awful; we do know for certain that McCown is.

Will the Browns have the courage to put in an indie art film and see where it takes them, or will they balk and rent a nature documentary yet again? Only time will tell.