JOHNNY FOOTBALL'S days as a backup are over this season. He's getting his chance to start.

Rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel will make his first NFL start Sunday at home aginst Cincinnati, replacing Brian Hoyer as Cleveland tries to pump life into its sagging playoff hopes.

After moving up in May's draft to get him and waiting 7 months as he learned and watched from the sideline, the Browns are finally setting loose one of football's most captivating players with three games left in the season.

Browns coach Mike Pettine made the expected switch yesterday after meeting with his staff and general manager Ray Farmer, then informing both QBs.

"We are trying to get the offense to perform at a higher level," Pettine said. "Johnny has worked very hard to earn this opportunity and it will be very important for every member of the offense to elevate their play for us to obtain our desired result."

Hoyer has been awful in his last four games, throwing just one touchdown pass and eight interceptions. Pettine considered the switch a week ago but stuck with Hoyer, who had two interceptions Sunday as Indianapolis rallied from a 14-point deficit in the third quarter to win. The Browns' offense picked up only three first downs in the second half.

Even before Manziel was told he'll start, the possibility sparked some controversy with Bengals coach Marvin Lewis calling the 6-footer "a midget" during a radio interview Monday night. Lewis apologized later that night and yesterday released a statement saying he realizes that his comment "was offensive to people of short stature and to their families and friends. It was thoughtless on my part to use the word I did, and not excusable, and I greatly regret it."

Noteworthy

* Atlanta coach Mike Smith said the "intention" is for wide receiver Julio Jones to play this week against Pittsburgh after hurting his hip in Monday night's 43-37 loss at Green Bay. Jones had 11 catches for a team-record 259 yards with one touchdown. Smith said Jones and safety William Moore (foot) were sore and might miss practice time this week.

* The players' union says it has not had input into a revamped personal conduct policy the NFL is preparing. NFL owners are meeting today in Irving, Texas, and are expected to see a framework for changes to the policy. The union has sought to have any alterations negotiated.

* Cincinnati put middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict (concussions, knee surgery) on the injured reserve list.

* Green Bay great Bart Starr is making slow but steady progress after recently suffering two strokes, a heart attack and seizures, his son says. Starr turns 81 next month.

* New Orleans has told receiver Joe Morgan that he has been released, NFL.com reported, citing a source. Morgan had four catches for 92 yards this season.

* Arizona running back Andre Ellington underwent hernia surgery. He is out for the season.