The hometown kid rejuvinated a bitter and beaten fan base (Diamond Images/Getty Images)
Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year is an annual must-read. Given that the national recognition rarely has anything to do with the teams or individuals whom we cover. In turn, WFNY will soon announce its choice for 2013′s Cleveland Sportsman of the Year. Here’s one of the nominations for that honor by a WFNY writer.
Everyone knows the 2013 Brian Hoyer story by now. Local kid, a career backup, signs a ho-hum free agent deal to be the Cleveland Browns No. 3 quarterback. Through part-fate and part-strategy, he ends up as the starter by mid-September. He dazzles and wows, as the hometown team wins all three of his starts. But as soon as a life’s dream was at his fingertips … poof, it was gone. Through and through, it’s a very Cleveland story.
“I ALWAYS DESCRIBE MY BRIAN HOYER AS THE CUTE, SMART ONE” – Debbie Hoyer, mother of 2004 St. Ignatius H.S. alumnus Brian T. Hoyer.
WFNY’s Sportsman of the Year _________________________
The 28-year-old Brian E. Hoyer, a proud ’04 St. Ignatius grad, was one of those typical mediocre Michigan State quarterbacks. Well, perhaps not as collegiately accomplished as Drew Stanton … or Kirk Cousins … or Connor Cook might be. So I guess perhaps a bit closer to Jeff Smoker. Hoyer was a game manager, sure. Inconsistent, absolutely.
The junior year honorable mention All-Big Ten performance was followed up by a terrible final season in 2008. He completed just 51% of his passes with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. That’s likely what led the 6-foot-3-inch signal-caller to be surprisingly undrafted in the 2009 NFL Draft. Some draft boards had him as a top-five quarterback and a potential third-round pick. But it just didn’t work out. That’s where Bill Belichick came into play.
The Patriots immediately swooped in and signed Hoyer right after the draft. He competed immediately in the preseason, including a finale victory over the New York Giants where he played the entire game. Shockingly, he beat out presumed backup Matt Gutierrez and everyone else. He was left as the only insurance to Tom Brady on the 53-man roster.
This was the year after Matt Cassel led the Patriots to an 11-5 record sans Brady. And the Patriots were sticking with an undrafted free agent as their only backup? It seemed like crazy talk. But in the end, it never mattered much. Hoyer’s total stats through his three seasons in New England: 13 games played, 27-for-43 passing, 286 yards, one touchdown and one interception (against Cleveland in that startling upset of Nov. 7, 2010).
Then, in the final cuts before the 2012 season, Hoyer was released. He had been somewhat surprisingly unseated by his mentee Ryan Mallett as the Pats desired (read: cheapest) backup. He had been floated around as trade bait – just as Cassel before him – but there were no takers.
There he was, Brian Hoyer, unemployed quarterback.
Three months passed, working out in Cleveland with the Ignatius team. Finally, he latched on with the desperate Pittsburgh Steelers as Charlie Batch’s backup for a moment. After a few weeks, he then hopped over to sunny Arizona.
He earned sub work in Week 16 against Chicago. Then, with just a few weeks practice time, he was named the fourth different Cardinals starting quarterback of the season by then-head coach Ken Whisenhunt (that name sound familiar, Joe Banner?). Hoyer wasn’t dreadful in his lone opportunity – 19-for-34, 225 yards, one TD and one pick – but it proved meaningless in a 13-27 snoozer in San Francisco.
“I GREW UP WANTING TO BE BERNIE KOSAR” – Brian Hoyer in May 2013.
Before the Cardinals even released Hoyer, there was speculation of his symbolic return home. Credit belongs to Sirius XM Radio’s Adam Caplan, who predicted the signing shortly after the season ended. In a February radio appearance on ESPN Cleveland, he said the following about Hoyer’s possible connection with the Browns, as transcribed by Dawgs by Nature:
He’s got decent size, 6’2, 220 lbs, is a smart kid, and turns 28 in October. I think he’s the guy Lombardi would like because he comes from that Belichick tree. Remember, Lombardi has been consulting for the Patriots for a couple of years. I think this makes all the sense and it would not surprise me if they made a run for Hoyer.
In late March 2013, Arizona made Hoyer a restricted free agent with a second-round tender. It was the same deal he had received from New England a season before. Although the deal called for a non-fully guaranteed $2.32 million, he was likely going to remain in the desert pending major changes … which promptly occurred. The team traded for Carson Palmer shortly thereafter. Hoyer was let go in mid-May.
Four days later, Caplan’s prophecy was fulfilled: Hoyer was headed to Cleveland. According to reports, the Browns beat out the New York Jets and Steelers for his services. The contract details: a two-year deal worth $1.965 million. There were additional escalators in his contract, similar to those of also-signed Jason Campbell. But it was perhaps a curious decision for the uninitiated: Why give more than the almost absolute minimum to a 28-year-old doomed to be a third-stringer?
The Browns universe seemed less than ecstatic. It was a nothing kind of acquisition. Here’s what Craig wrote immediately after the signing:
If he is a factor, barring something truly miraculous or a coaching job of Jim Harbaugh proportions, you have to think the Browns aren’t going to be doing very well if Brian Hoyer’s atop the depth chart. There’s always a percentage chance that I’m wrong about Brian Hoyer and he’s just been laying in wait for the right opportunity with the right coaching staff and surrounding team, but we all know that those chances are quite slim.
Early on, it certainly seemed that Craig’s prediction was holding true. As the third-stringer, Hoyer had the most preseason pass attempts. But he was lackluster, tossing away three interceptions in 56 passes for a 79.2 QB Rating. He was inactive, as expected, in Week 1 as the Browns began with a disappointing loss to Miami.
Then, suddenly, there was that fateful week in September that would change the intertwined futures of the Browns and Brian Hoyer. Let’s review that week day-by-day, starting with Sunday, Sept. 15.
Sunday – Browns fell to 0-2 with ugly 14-6 home loss to Baltimore. The loss was a “crime against entertainment.” Starter Brandon Weeden injured his thumb late in the game and was replaced by Campbell, the only other active quarterback.
Monday – The team confirmed that Weeden’s thumb was sprained. It didn’t look hopeful for him in Week 3. Rumors began to surface that the Browns might actually skip Campbell and give Hoyer the starting role in the event Weeden couldn’t play.
Tuesday – No significant news or reports circulated from Berea.
Wednesday morning – Head coach Rob Chudzinski told Hoyer that he was named the Week 3 starter. Humorously, at 9:47 a.m., the Browns Twitter account prefaced the boring news with the word: “BREAKING.” It was just the latest in a long line of Cleveland quarterback controversies.
Wednesday afternoon – Actual BREAKING news occurred: The Browns traded Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a 2014 first-round draft pick. The news broke at about 6:20 p.m. The deal was a momentous move in the NFL landscape. Instantly, we tried to make sense of what it all meant. The 2013 season seemed like it was already over.
There he was, Brian Hoyer, sacrificial lamb.
Off to head to Minnesota to quarterback a downtrodden 0-2 team that had just traded away its signature young player. He was set to be the 19th starting QB for the Browns since 1999. Before the start, his Wikipedia page was vandalized to say he would throw three interceptions in a 34-3 Browns loss. Deadspin poked fun at him too. He even was the focus of a Breaking Madden, Jon Bois’ weekly video game destruction over at SB Nation.
“I THINK HE’S GOT ALL THE TRAITS YOU NEED, IN TERMS OF LEADERSHIP, TOUGHNESS, THE ARM STRENGTH, THE ABILITY TO MOVE THE TEAM.” — Michael Lombardi, current Cleveland Browns general manager, in 2010.
The first two series were just like any other Browns affair in the last 15 years: a way-too-easy touchdown for the opposing team and a Cleveland three-and-out. 7-0 Vikings and the ball. Quickly. It was all too familiar. Until it wasn’t. A 47-yard six-point bomb to returning Josh Gordon. Another 30-yarder to Gordon. And a second touchdown pass of 19 yards, this time to Jordan Cameron. 14-7 Browns. Within a blink of an eye, Hoyer Mania had begun.
Despite a late Minnesota rally, another Hoyer-Cameron touchdown pass in the final minute of the game secured a 31-27 Cleveland Browns win. Hoyer’s final stats: 30-for-54 for 321 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. It wasn’t pretty. But he got the victory. As many lamented on Twitter: “Of course the Browns don’t know how to tank correctly.” But a glimmer of hope finally shined on a season that many were ready to call to rest.
Even Adrian Peterson’s daughter couldn’t believe the final outcome. Hoyer became only the franchise’s second quarterback since 1999 to earn a win in his first start, following in the glorious footsteps of 2004 Jeff Garcia. It was a shocking result. The Browns upset a reigning playoff team on the road. More shocking: What happened in Week 4.
The next game: A 17-6 slugfest at FES where Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton played about as poor a game as he did in the playoffs. Hoyer practically made no mistakes against the vaunted defensive line of the Bengals. He finished 25-for-38 for 269 yards and two touchdowns. The 103.9 QB rating was his best in three career NFL starts. The Browns were suddenly .500. They had a chance in the weakened AFC North after beating another playoff team. Anything was possible. Heck, The New York Times even got into the picture.
There he was, Brian Hoyer, Cleveland legend.
Optimism reigned as the Browns hosted the Bills on Thursday Night Football, the usual primetime home of sloppy pigskin. Hoyer Mania was in full effect. He could do no wrong. Twitter GMs were already shaping the roster around him as the full-time starter in 2014, with the team as a sleeper Super Bowl contender. It was perfect. Until again, just like that, it wasn’t.
Shortly after 8:40 p.m., on a broken first-quarter play and a slide gone wrong, Brian Hoyer was down. He was not getting up. Anyone could tell from the TV at home that the hometown kid was likely out for the season. It was a freak moment. A terrible accident. Just like that, a player’s season on the brink. Only 371 hours after being named the starter, Hoyer was out for the count. The team obviously announced he would not return that night.
Serendipitously, because of a couple of long Weeden pass plays, Travis Benjamin’s magnificent performance and the help of Buffalo’s backup quarterback Jeff Tuel, the Browns won another sloppy 37-24 affair to move into first place in the division. But Hoyer’s season was clearly, clearly over. Torn ACL was the eventual diagnosis. He would be out for the rest of 2013.
After starting 3-2 – with all three wins in Hoyer’s starts – the Browns finished the year on a 1-10 run where they were outscored by more than 10 points per game. Chudzinski was fired hours after the Week 17 loss to Pittsburgh. The wheels are currently turning yet again in the search of a leader to bring this team to the playoffs again. But we’ll always have those Hoyer Mania T-shirts: “The Hoyer Era” and “Still Undefeated.”
“HE DEMONSTRATED IN THOSE SEVERAL WEEKS HE COULD BE A CHAMPIONSHIP-LEVEL QUARTERBACK.” – Ray Farmer, Cleveland Browns assistant general manager, in October 2013.
The ACL surgery took place on Oct. 18. As of the last media reports, he expects to return around the time of the draft in mid-April. His rehab appears to be going well. Concern remains on a broader scale whether he should be the starter for Week 1, but he’s expected to certainly compete with the Campbell-Weeden remains and whoever else is added to the quarterback puzzle.
There have been grumblings that Chudzinski’s handling of Hoyer was a reason for his firing. Per reports, the front office favored Hoyer and was bothered by him being below the other two from the get-go. But had it not been for that ACL injury — that pesky freak injury also later inflicted Benjamin — Chudzinski might actually still be around.
Regardless, whichever coach is in charge at the start of the next season, they’ll have plenty of questions to answer about Brian Hoyer. He proved during his brief stint this year that he can play at an NFL level. The front office seems rather optimistic on his best-case scenario future. He’s 28, which means the long-term upside isn’t that high. But he’s a known quantity on his hometown team. What more could he ask for?
Going back to his contract, it was likely the single-best Cleveland free agency move of 2013. Move over Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Get out of the way, Earl Clark, Jarrett Jack and Andrew Bynum. And nice try, Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant and Davone Bess. As it turns out, Banner and Michael Lombardi were nearly geniuses for the exact seemingly peculiar details of Hoyer’s deal.
By signing Hoyer to a nearly $1 million annual contract, the Browns hedged their free agency gamble. Over in Chicago, the Bears signed backup Josh McCown to a minimum $840K deal with no escalators in his contract. He ended up having a miraculous season. But the Bears didn’t control his future status: Players signed to minimum deals can only be retained by the same team on equal one-year such deals. Chicago ended up giving a massive contract to Jay Cutler. They didn’t have much of a choice; McCown will certainly nab much more than the minimum this offseason.
Now he is here, Brian Hoyer, Cleveland Brown.
In 2013, local kid Brian Hoyer went from unemployed quarterback to meaningless backup to sacrificial lamb to Cleveland legend. Now, he strives for a middle ground of the highs and lows, seeking peace in the chaotic NFL world. Isn’t there a little Brian Hoyer in all of us? Aren’t we all just hoping, longingly, for whatever type of peace and comfort possible in chasing our dreams? That’s why he’s my nomination for Cleveland Sportsman of 2013.
Jacob Rosen is a long-time contributor to WaitingForNextYear. He's also a writer online at SportsAnalyticsBlog and Nylon Calculus . An Akron native, Jacob is a current MBA student at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. You can follow him on Twitter @WFNYJacob or e-mail him at udjrosen(at)gmail(dot)com.