When the Cleveland Browns selected Brandon Weeden with the 22nd pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, those who supported the move claimed that Weeden was an immediate upgrade from Colt McCoy. Conveniently forgetting that McCoy had defeated the playoff-bound New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots in his second and third games as a starting quarterback during the 2010 season and had labored for two seasons without a wide receiver that would start on any other team in the NFL, these supporters often took pains to praise McCoy’s toughness and character before launching into public lovefests about Weeden’s throwing ability, height, and strength. Concerns about Weeden’s age were quickly dismissed with platitudes about his maturity and claims that his advanced age meant that he would not suffer through many of the growing pains often experienced by rookie quarterbacks.
Although head coach Pat Shurmur claimed that an “open competition” for the starting quarterback position would take place during training camp, this competition turned out to be as rigged as a Soviet election, as Weeden was named the starter before either quarterback had thrown one pass in one preseason game.
While the Browns’ selection of Weeden may ultimately turn out to be a solid decision once he matures and develops, the Browns’ decision to anoint Weeden as starting quarterback before he had thrown a single pass in a preseason game was an enormous mistake that will make an already daunting season even more difficult. The Browns should have taken the route that they had intended to take with McCoy—allow him to sit for an entire season and then take over as the starter during his second season. The arrival of new owner Jimmy Haslam has put all of the Browns’ coaches and front office staff on the hot seat, and as the effects of the Browns’ mishandling of the quarterback position become more apparent throughout the regular season, the temperature on the seats of the Browns’ braintrust will become nothing short of scalding.
Let’s compare the stats from the first regular season games started by McCoy and Weeden. McCoy’s first regular season start was a road matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, while Weeden’s professional debut occurred this past Sunday at home against the Philadelphia Eagles.
McCoy: 23 of 33, 69.7%, 281 yards, 8.5 YPA, 1 TD, 2 INT, 80.5 rating
Weeden: 12 of 35, 34.3%, 118 yards, 3.4 YPA, 0 TD, 4 INT, 5.1 rating
In case you haven’t read one of the 20,000 articles about Weeden’s struggles last Sunday, you read that right. Weeden’s quarterback rating was 5.1. That’s not a misprint. Clearly, McCoy outperformed Weeden.
Three additional facts serve to underscore the truly abysmal nature of Weeden’s performance. Both quarterbacks faced above-average defenses in their debuts. Weeden had the luxury of making his first start before a supportive home crowd at Cleveland Browns Stadium, while McCoy had the challenge of making his debut in a hostile environment. Lastly, two of Weeden’s four interceptions came on deep passes. One of the most frequently discussed advantages that Weeden possessed in comparison to McCoy was Weeden’s ability to throw a strong and accurate deep pass. Anyone who watched Weeden’s attempts at resembling an NFL quarterback on Sunday can attest to the fact that Weeden only threw strong and accurate deep passes to the Eagles’ defensive backs.
The above statistical comparison deals with two different seasons. However, comparing Weeden’s preseason statistics to McCoy’s preseason statistics from the past preseason also gives McCoy a clear statistical advantage:
McCoy: 20 of 29, 69.0%, 250 yards, 8.6 YPA, 1 TD, 1 INT, 92.6 rating
Weeden: 24 of 49, 49.0%, 297 yards, 6.1 YPA, 0 TD, 1 INT, 59.7 rating
While Weeden threw for 47 more yards than McCoy, McCoy wound up with a much better overall quarterback rating. Additionally, McCoy outperformed Weeden in the yards per pass attempt category, further undercutting the legitimacy of Weeden’s alleged ability to throw deep passes.
The statistical evidence states that the much-maligned McCoy performed better than Weeden. It gets worse, though. When the circumstances surrounding the decision to start Weeden are considered, no clear case can be made for starting Weeden
Sure, Weeden is the oldest first-round draft pick in NFL history. He needs to play soon, and the Browns need to figure out if he is their future franchise quarterback or if he will wind up alongside of Brady Quinn, Charlie Frye, Spurgeon Wynn, and countless others on the list of quarterbacks who have failed in the starting role for the Browns since their return to the NFL in 1999. However, by rushing Weeden into the starting role, the Browns made this discernment process far more difficult than necessary. For many years, rookie quarterbacks often had the luxury of sitting and learning from a more established quarterback. Generally, this produced positive on-field results. Few would argue that it was a mistake for Aaron Rodgers to sit and learn from Brett Favre or for Philip Rivers to sit and learn from Drew Brees.
However, after Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Cam Newton experienced great success during their rookie seasons at quarterback, every team in the NFL who acquires a young quarterback has scrambled to play them as soon as possible. Acting no more sensibly than a teenage girl who buys the same brand of clothing as her girlfriends in order to fit in, the Browns mindlessly followed suit, throwing an inexperienced Weeden into the starting lineup along with a similarly inexperienced running back and two several inexperienced wide receivers. Regardless of whether Weeden or McCoy was behind center, the Browns were not going to contend this year. Why not allow the rookie to learn from the veteran and then take over in 2013?
Holmgren knows better, and his unexplainable lapse of judgment with Weeden demonstrates that his time in Cleveland should be at an end. In fact, Holmgren’s past handling of quarterbacks shows that he believes in the value of allowing rookie quarterbacks to watch and learn.
When he was head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, he acquired a promising young quarterback named Matt Hasselbeck who had only thrown 29 career regular-season passes before arriving in Seattle. Did Holmgren throw Hasselbeck to the wolves immediately? No. Holmgren allowed Hasselbeck to have time to sit and learn from Trent Dilfer, an established veteran quarterback. When Hasselbeck finally took over as the starter, he led the Seahawks to a playoff appearance and sustained success for several seasons.
In 2010, the Browns drafted McCoy in the third round of the NFL draft. Turning a deaf eye to the cries of a fan base who wanted McCoy to start immediately, Holmgren announced that McCoy would not play at all during 2010 and that his job was to learn from the starter, veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme. However, injuries to Delhomme and Seneca Wallace thrust McCoy into the starting lineup. McCoy proceeded to have a solid debut against the Steelers before defeating the Patriots and Saints in subsequent weeks.
Weeden may eventually have a solid professional career. However, his path towards doing so has been made much harder by the inept handling of the Browns’ quarterback position by the Browns’ coaches and front office staff, all of whom made a completely indefensible decision in starting Weeden immediately.