CLEVELAND (AP) — Those disillusioned Browns fans wearing paper bags over their heads have a reason to take them off this Sunday. At least for the opening kickoff.
Johnny Football’s out of the doghouse.
Johnny Manziel, the contentious quarterback whose two seasons in Cleveland have included more off-field headlines than highlights, will start Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers after being benched two games for bad-boy behavior.
Manziel’s return should fill some empty seats in FirstEnergy Stadium and add spice to an otherwise mundane matchup between two teams already looking toward next year.
It’s yet another fresh start for Manziel, who is running out of second chances. He has four games to prove to the Browns — and the rest of the NFL — that he can act like a starting quarterback on and away from the field. Manziel always talks a big game, promising to change his ways, mature and be responsible.
This is his biggest test to date.
“We are going to see how Johnny handles this last situation,” Browns offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said. “I will be honest, there is some pressure on him to do what he says he is going to do. There is no doubt about it. We are going to hold him accountable to his word.”
This will be Manziel’s first game since Nov. 15, when he passed for a career-high 372 yards at Pittsburgh. That promising performance prompted coach Mike Pettine to name him the starter for the remainder of the season, but Manziel defiantly went out partying during the team’s bye week and got demoted.
Manziel’s fans, and their numbers have steadily dropped with each of his transgressions, believe Pettine punished the QB because he holds a grudge against the 2012 Heisman winner.
Pettine, though, insists he and Manziel get along fine.
“We have a very good relationship,” Pettine said. “We talk about a lot of things, joke about a lot of things non-football related. I’ve heard that, that people paint that as he’s not ‘my guy’ and I wasn’t involved in picking him and just all of the things that come with that, and that’s just simply not the case.”
Unless the Browns, who have lost seven in a row and are 2-17 since Week 11 in 2014, finish strong down the stretch, Pettine may lose his job once the season ends.
In a strange twist, his fate could be in the hands of the quarterback he penalized.
Manziel may be the only who can save him now.
Here are some other things to look for as the 49ers make their first visit to Cleveland since 2007:
GABBERT’S PROGRESS: The 49ers are counting on continued progress from quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who is 2-2 since taking over for Colin Kaepernick last month.
Gabbert had a 44-yard touchdown run late in regulation and connected with Torrey Smith for a 71-yard TD in overtime as the Niners beat Chicago last week to end a five-game road losing streak.
“That was a special moment and hopefully we can have a lot more of those here,” Gabbert said.
A first-round pick by Jacksonville in 2011, Gabbert has found a fresh start out West, throwing for 963 yards and five touchdowns in four starts.
DAWSON’S RETURN: Phil Dawson’s coming back to his first NFL home, the one he never wanted to leave.
San Francisco’s steady kicker will be back in Cleveland for the first time since leaving as a free agent after 2012. Dawson spent 14 years in brown and orange and is arguably the best thing about the Browns during their expansion era.
“I use him as a standard with young kickers,” Browns special teams coach Chris Tabor said. “I say, ‘Someday, if you can be a Phil Dawson, you have made it.’”
GETTING HEALTHY: The Browns nearly ran out of wide receivers last week.
When Travis Benjamin and Marlon Moore went down with injuries against Cincinnati, Cleveland was left with just two healthy wideouts because Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel didn’t dress because of concussions.
The Browns appear to be in better shape with Gabriel returning and Terrelle Pryor up to speed after being signed last week.
OLD STOMPING GROUNDS: Shaun Draughn, cut by Cleveland in October, has emerged as San Francisco’s go-to running back with Carlos Hyde hurt. So is Draughn eager to show his former team what they’re missing?
“I’m not any more excited about a game than any other game,” said Draughn, who appeared in five games for Cleveland this season.
Draughn isn’t sure how he or Dawson will be received.
“The Browns, their fans are pretty hostile,” Draughn said. “You never know. We had a guy leave and go to the Titans when I was there, they ended up trading him. They didn’t welcome him very good. That’s nothing Phil has to worry about.