FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick makes sure that every week, the Patriots are prepared to face all 53 players on the upcoming opponent’s roster.
But this week is different, even by NFL standards.
The 4-8 Cleveland Browns already have started three quarterbacks: Brandon Weeden, their 2012 first-round draft pick, former Patriot Brian Hoyer, and journeyman Jason Campbell.
On Sunday, they could add a fourth name to that list.
Weeden started Weeks 1 and 2, but was benched for Week 3 in favor of Hoyer, who has long had a fan in first-year Browns general manager Mike Lombardi.
Finally getting a legitimate chance to start, Hoyer won his first two games before tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament in the third, against Buffalo (though Cleveland won that game, as well).
So, the Browns turned back to Weeden, for a couple more weeks at least. He was benched again in Week 8, this time with Campbell taking over. But Campbell suffered a concussion in Week 12 against the Steelers, so back to Weeden the Browns went.
Only, Weeden was concussed during their loss to the Jaguars last Sunday. As of Wednesday morning, Campbell and Weeden had been cleared for activity, but not yet for practice.
Which means, in the words of coach Rob Chudzinski, that Cleveland’s quarterback situation is “fluid” — an understatement if there’s ever been one.
The Browns have two other quarterbacks on the roster: Caleb Hanie, who spent 2009-11 as Jay Cutler’s backup in Chicago, 2012 as a backup in Denver, but was signed only this week and has four career starts, all in 2010; and Alex Tanney, a second-year player signed off the Cowboys’ practice squad who is better known as “Trick Shot Tanney” for a YouTube video showing his amazing throwing accuracy from long distances.
Tanney has never made an NFL start.
With a new regime in place, there have been lots of changes in Cleveland, though a steady rotation of quarterbacks has made things difficult for the offense, which ranks 21st overall.
“It’s definitely not normal,” Josh Gordon, Cleveland’s rising star receiver, said during a conference call. “I don’t think there are too many wide receivers who have to deal with that in a single season. It’s kind of rough. We’re still dealing with it now. We’re not really sure as to what we’re going to do, where we’re going to go, but I know Coach will make the right decision and it seems as though they’ve tried to thus far. But it is pretty rough to get a good rhythm with one quarterback when there have been so many changes. It’s definitely something you can’t get used to.”
The quarterbacks used thus far do know to throw to Gordon. The second-year receiver has 64 catches for 1,249 yards and seven touchdowns in just 10 games.
Belichick said the Patriots have been in the position of having to prepare for multiple quarterbacks before — Chudzinski said the Browns may not name their starter until Sunday — but he knows that no matter who is under center, they’ll be running the Cleveland offense. Which is the Norv Turner offense. Belichick has had a great deal of success against Turner offenses over the last decade-plus, when Turner was head coach in San Diego, offensive coordinator in San Francisco, Raiders head coach, and coordinator for the Dolphins and Chargers.
In 11 games the Patriots have played against teams with Turner as head coach or offensive coordinator since 2001, they’re 9-2.
“Their offense is their offense,” Belichick said. “Whoever it is [at quarterback] — and I’ve looked at all of them — I think they all can do what the quarterback needs to do, which is make all throws. Throw short, hit the checkdowns, throw intermediate routes, the in-cuts, the crossing patterns, the comebacks and those kind of plays, and throw the ball down the field.
“I think all the quarterbacks are capable of doing that, including Hoyer, which actually makes it five. We’ve seen the guys do it. I’m sure the new guys that we haven’t seen do it in that system, but have seen them do it in other systems, are capable of doing that.
“What we’ll have to do is prepare to defend the Cleveland Browns offense, and whoever the quarterback is, it is. We can’t control that. But we’ll be ready for all four of them until somebody is taken out of the picture, whether that’s on the inactive list or ruled out on the injury [report], whatever it is, but we’ll work on all of them until something declares.”
Cornerback Aqib Talib, who almost certainly will shadow Gordon on Sunday, said there’s a little more studying involved when there are so many quarterback possibilities.
“You watch more tape. Usually you try to watch all the games they’ve played this season anyway, and you’ll see some of the quarterbacks,” Talib said. “If they’re not on tape then you can’t watch them, so you just have to look at what they did in the past.
“It’s a challenge when you really don’t know what quarterback you’re facing, so it makes you have to work that much harder.”