Column: Johnny Manziel gets to show his stuff for Cleveland Browns

Johnny Manziel
Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel warms up before a game against the Indianapolis Colts last week. Manziel will make his first start for the Browns on Sunday.
(Tony Dejak / Associated Press)

A rookie should be seen and not heard.

Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel has got the first part of that covered. He has been seen out on the town, seen courtside at Cavaliers games, and, until now, seen each Sunday on the sideline.

Finally, it’s time for him to put his “money sign” where his mouth is.

The improvisational, Heisman Trophy-winning sensation, who has accounted for 10% of all jersey sales since the draft and famously celebrates touchdowns by rubbing his thumbs and forefingers together as if holding cash, will get his first NFL start Sunday when the Browns play host to the Cincinnati Bengals in a pivotal AFC North matchup.


The football world will be transfixed, watching to see how the playground-style, something-out-of-nothing athleticism of the relatively diminutive Manziel — the stuff that dominated his highlight tape from Texas A&M — translates to the pros.

“I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t excited to see him play,” said Browns Coach Mike Pettine, who benched the struggling Brian Hoyer in favor of Manziel. “We’ve seen it in practice. We got a taste of it in Buffalo.”

That taste came two weeks ago when Hoyer couldn’t move the offense against the Bills. Manziel entered in the fourth quarter and directed the Browns’ only touchdown drive of the 26-10 defeat, marching his team 80 yards in eight plays. He punctuated that drive with a Johnny Football flourish, dropping back to pass, then pulling the ball down, darting up the middle and plunging headfirst across the goal line for a 10-yard touchdown.

Hoyer, an out-of-nowhere hometown hero, got one more chance last Sunday to save his starting job, but couldn’t jump-start the offense in a 25-24 loss to Indianapolis, a wasted gem by a Cleveland defense that forced four turnovers and scored two touchdowns.


So now the focus shifts to Manziel, with the 7-6 Browns hoping that he can save a season that started with such promise. With three games to go, Cleveland is in the cellar of the NFL’s tightest division, with the Bengals at 8-4-1, and Pittsburgh and Baltimore both at 8-5.

“He’s one of the more exciting football players in college football history,” Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said of Manziel. “That’s why he got a Heisman and was close to getting two. Some of the plays he makes you don’t see many people do.”

Question is, will those plays work in the NFL, where players are bigger, stronger and faster than college competition? The opportunities won’t come as frequently, said private quarterback coach Kevin O’Connell, who worked alongside quarterback guru George Whitfield last spring to prepare Manziel for his transition to the pros.

“Everybody remembers the Heisman-moment-type plays where [Manziel] established himself and his reputation as a playmaker,” said O’Connell, once a backup to Tom Brady in New England. “But he’s going to have to figure out that whereas he did it 14 or 16 times a game in college and they were all exciting and highlight-reel type plays, those plays will still come, they just come two or three times in the NFL. The other 25 times you drop back, it’s progression and it’s rhythm and it’s timing, checking the football down when you have to, taking what the defense gives you, and not trying to do too much.

“That’s really going to be the deciding factor.”

Two years ago, when Washington’s Robert Griffin III and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick were tearing up the NFL as the quintessential run-pass threats, it looked as if traditional quarterbacks were dropback dinosaurs heading for extinction. Defenses caught up, though, the read-option trend waned just the way the wildcat did, and running quarterbacks (when healthy) became decreasingly effective.

Manziel is not a read-option quarterback, nor do the Browns run that offense. He’s closer to a Doug Flutie or a Fran Tarkenton, a player who thrives in chaos and uses his legs to extend plays, a contemporary style best exemplified by Seattle’s Russell Wilson. Manziel is listed at 6 feet but looks shorter, and Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis had to issue multiple apologies last week after referring to him as “a midget” in a radio interview.

Manziel shrugged off that slight, telling reporters, “It’s absolutely funny. My height, I’m not going to sprout five inches over the course of the week so it is what it is. My height is my height, and I need to overcome it through other pieces of my game.”


Former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon said he expects the Browns to try to roll Manziel outside the pocket and cut the field in half down the middle, so he doesn’t have to read the whole field and he has simpler decisions to make.

“If I were Cincinnati, I’d eat him up,” said Gannon, a color analyst for CBS. “I’d pressure him. I’d get after him. I’d set the edge on him, and I want to make him throw the football in the pocket. Because if I do that, my sense is he’ll throw it to me three or four times.”

Yes, Manziel scored on a good Bills defense. But it’s common for a backup quarterback to step in and spark an offense. That happened twice with Washington this fall, when both Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy threw for touchdowns on their first passes of the season. The challenge is keeping that magic going.

“Teams have studied this kid coming out of college, and they have a pretty good thumbnail sketch of who he is and what he does well,” Gannon said. “If it were me and I were a defensive coordinator, I would not allow this guy to run all over the place and create havoc, wear my guys out trying to chase him. That’s where he’s at his best.

“You’ve got to discourage that behavior and force him to sit in there in the pocket and function as a pro quarterback, not all this High School Harry stuff where he runs all over the schoolyard.”

The next three weeks will be a big test of Manziel’s durability, especially if the 210-pounder takes off and runs with the abandon he showed against Buffalo.

Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, an ESPN analyst who spends many of his waking hours studying game film, and particularly looking at quarterbacks, said Manziel is “thick-jointed” and his stout body type should serve him well in terms of durability.

“I’ve got back and studied these guys since 1983, and there are a few exceptions, but for the most part Pro Bowlers, Super Bowlers, guys who stay healthy have thick joints — knees, ankles, wrists, shoulders, neck. Thick guys. Not tall, not heavy. Brady and Peyton [Manning] have some of the narrower frames, but most of these guys are big.


“With Johnny, he’s going to need to protect himself. If I was coaching him, I’d be like, ‘Bro, you play too recklessly. You’re going to need to protect yourself. I don’t mean you have to slide every single time. I just want to infuse discernment into your game.’ That’s what Johnny needs in life and in his game.”

Before the draft, Dilfer traveled to San Diego, where Manziel was working out with Whitfield and O’Connell, and spent a day assessing him. He came away with a clear checklist of pros and cons, the type of ambivalence that many NFL teams had as they watched Manziel slip to the 22nd pick in the draft.

“Everything you’ve heard about Johnny Manziel is true — all the negative and all the positive,” Dilfer said. “Yes, he misses wide-open receivers. Yes, he takes undisciplined drops. Yes, his arm is just OK. Yes, he can do some knuckleheaded things and plays recklessly. I get all that.

“But here’s the other yes: Yes, he has huge hands. Yes, he can rip it. Yes, he’s quicker and twitchier than anybody I’ve ever seen. Yes, he has Brett Favre instincts. Yes, he is a winner. Yes, he makes something out of nothing.”

Before the draft, Manziel spent a couple of days in Orlando, Fla., with former NFL coach Jon Gruden as part of ESPN’s annual Gruden’s QB Camp series, which goes in depth on the top quarterback prospects. The night before they shot the show, Gruden and his crew went out to dinner with Manziel, his agent, and his attorney at a local steakhouse.

“It dawned on me at dinner just how young and shy he was,” ESPN producer Jay Rothman said of Manziel, who spent much of the night texting at the table.

Manziel wound up staying over an extra day with Gruden and spent six straight hours studying NFL protections and what to look for in defensive fronts.

Specifically for that episode, Gruden had Wilson make two dozen footballs without laces to test Manziel’s ability to catch a shotgun snap and release it quickly, so quickly that he doesn’t have time to use the laces to orient it in his throwing hand.

“We wound up getting laceless balls to the Seahawks, to Washington and his brother [Redskins Coach Jay Gruden], Andy Reid in Kansas City, the Saints,” Rothman said. “That’s all out of Gruden wanting to make these balls for Manziel. I just remember what a quick release Johnny had, and on target. He took a couple of those balls with him when he left.”

Manziel’s maturity off the field is a lingering question. He just turned 22, and he has long had the reputation of being a partyer and paparazzi magnet. The NFL fined him $12,000 in August for flipping off Redskins players heckling him from their sideline in an exhibition game. A member of the quarterback’s entourage was arrested on suspicion of driving drunk last month while behind the wheel of Manziel’s car. So not all of the attention has been good.

Pettine expects teams to try to push Manziel’s buttons.

“I guarantee that anyone who sacks him will stand over him and give the money sign,” the coach said. “That’s the price he has to pay for who he is and the reputation that he brings with him to the NFL.”

Manziel’s reputation as a player precedes him. At last, he gets a chance to prove that, like that finger rub, he and the Browns are on the money.

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