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Cleveland’s Quarterback Despair

The Browns are trapped in a vicious cycle — and the new regime may not be able to stop it

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​ The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

When tested, our ideas about probability don’t always hold up. In practice, a coin toss isn’t actually a 50–50 proposition. Upon execution, the famous “infinite monkey theorem” produces disasters, not Shakespeare. And year after year, the Cleveland Browns fail to find even a decent quarterback despite testing out more passers than any other team. The Browns’ vicious cycle of quarterback despair is perhaps the biggest statistical anomaly in sports, and is certainly the case study for what happens when a team never finds an answer to the most important question in football.

Since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have been caught in a bad-quarterback spiral that’s become bigger than themselves. “The history was cycles of mistaken [draft] picks, then trying to find somebody to do the job in free agency,” said Joe Banner, who served as the team’s CEO from 2012 to 2014. The next step? Firing, as Banner learned. He called his tenure “telling”: Banner attempted to exercise patience, installing cheap free agent Brian Hoyer as a stopgap until a franchise quarterback came along, but was fired before he could see that vision through. Two months after Banner’s 2014 exit, the next regime selected Johnny Manziel in the first round. Manziel is already out of the league, and the brass that drafted him is out of Cleveland as well.

This isn’t a new problem for the Browns. Since ’99, NFL teams have drafted a total of 93 quarterbacks in the first three rounds. Cleveland has selected seven of them, and none has wound up being any good. Twenty-four of the 93 wound up making the Pro Bowl, including all three of the Falcons’ picks, but none of Cleveland’s. None of those Browns selections even has a winning career record in the NFL. The most statistically productive, according to Pro-Football-Reference’s weighted career approximate value, is Tim Couch, who’s widely considered one of the biggest busts in league history.

Even Oakland, for years the Browns’ bad-quarterback brethren, pulled itself out of the despair pit in 2014 by selecting Derek Carr, who looks like a future star. The Browns took Manziel 14 picks before the Raiders grabbed Carr and 10 picks before the Vikings snagged the promising Teddy Bridgewater. Cleveland isn’t the only team that failed to draft a good quarterback in that span, but others like Kansas City, Arizona, Chicago, and New Orleans managed to find a signal-caller through free agency or a trade.

Everyone knows that Cleveland’s QB struggles have been bad, but they’ve actually been worse than most realize. Thrice since ’99 the team has used the 22nd overall pick to grab a quarterback, and thrice those draftees have busted. Neither Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden, nor Manziel has topped 25 NFL starts; even consensus-bust quarterbacks like J.P. Losman, Vince Young, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, and Kyle Boller all managed significantly more than that in their undistinguished careers.

Two facts that seem contradictory but are nevertheless true: The rate at which the Browns have picked bad quarterbacks seems impossible, yet picking a bad quarterback triggers so many different negative outcomes that the team’s run of losing seasons is largely explicable. The bad picks, bad signings, and bad play collide to create the perfect storm of suck, including firings.

The storm clouds begin forming, of course, with the first bad quarterback. It doesn’t matter how he’s acquired, though in the Browns’ case it was by drafting Kentucky’s Couch first overall in 1999, one slot before Donovan McNabb and 10 before Daunte Culpepper, who both wound up being significantly better pros. Couch flopped, so coach Chris Palmer got fired. When Butch Davis took over as coach and general manager in 2001, he opted to use veteran free agent Kelly Holcomb and Couch in a platoon. Davis declined to use the draft as an avenue to replace Couch, signing Jeff Garcia to a four-year deal in 2004. Even this uncharacteristic restraint backfired: If Davis had looked to the draft, he might have snagged a local player named Ben Roethlisberger, whom the team worked out, but who went to the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers five picks after the Browns’ slot. Garcia flopped in ’04, and Davis was fired.

Phil Savage, the next general manager, immediately drafted Charlie Frye in the third round in 2005. Frye flopped, so in 2007 the Browns traded up to get the local player they missed when they passed on Roethlisberger. Except this time the local kid was Quinn, who was awful. When Quinn flopped, Savage got fired. The new regime looked to free agency, inking Jake Delhomme in 2010. But he flopped too, and so did that year’s draft pick, Colt McCoy, which led to panic and Mike Holmgren’s Weeden selection in 2012.

Any one of those quarterbacks could have stopped this drafting-signing-firing cycle by being even a passable starter, but in a statistically marvelous turn, none has been. Now, in an effort to stop the bleeding, new chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta — who became famous for his MLB work under Billy Beane in Oakland (the front office chronicled in Moneyball) and his part in rebuilding the New York Mets — is redirecting. He’s playing the long game, hoarding picks in an effort to right past wrongs. The Philadelphia Eagles traded with Cleveland to acquire this year’s no. 2 pick — which they used to select a quarterback, Carson Wentz — freeing the Browns to sit back and execute their new strategy. The team drafted 14 players and has extra first- and second-round picks in 2017 plus an additional second-round selection in 2018. But for all the talk of “Moneyball” in Cleveland, that’s not such a revolutionary idea for the Browns. They’ve forged well-intentioned plans in the past, but the cycle has foiled them all.

Holmgren has said that he attempted to employ the long-term, pick-piling strategy in 2010, but got desperate in 2012, offering Indianapolis the Browns’ entire draft haul for the no. 1 pick, Andrew Luck. (The Colts smartly declined.) Whether Holmgren’s trade proposal made sense for the Browns is up for debate, but his actions following the rejected offer are not. After drafting now historic bust Trent Richardson third overall, Holmgren reached for Weeden, negating years of planning and perpetuating the cycle. The Weeden pick was such a mistake that Holmgren quickly admitted he was really after the player who had been picked two spots earlier.

Banner said that he, too, was trying to play the long game, but obviously didn’t get enough time to see his plans through. No matter the specifics, all roads seem to lead to a bad quarterback in Cleveland.

The absence of a successful quarterback has made fans pessimistic, with Banner noting that his regime got heat for stockpiling for the future by turning mid-round picks in 2013 into higher picks in 2014. Browns fans have grown accustomed to being disappointed, but they’re still desperate for something good to happen. Banner said the team was ripped for failing to take a quarterback early in the 2013 draft, when the choices were EJ Manuel or Geno Smith, neither of whom the front office considered worthy of a high selection.

“We were doing everything to position ourselves for a difference-making quarterback and received a lot of criticism for it,” said Banner, who admitted that part of the problem was the team’s failure to verbalize its plan to a restless fan base because it didn’t want to “tip off the league to what we’re doing.”

Unfortunately for the Browns, of course, it hasn’t been hard for the rest of the league or anyone else to figure out the team’s master plan: The Browns didn’t waste another first-round pick on a QB this year, but they did select another passer, taking USC’s Cody Kessler, the third QB they’ve taken in the third round since 2005. The team is depending on free-agent acquisition Robert Griffin III to rediscover his prior form, and new coach Hue Jackson, who’s been credited with helping Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton among others, hopes to be able to work his quarterback magic. But with the squad relying on a washed-up, injury-prone newcomer and a midround pick lacking elite size, accuracy, or athleticism, the cycle will likely continue.

The cruel reality is that there’s only one way to stop this: getting a good quarterback. And that means drafting and signing even more.