By Drew Willers
Much has been said of Johnny Manziel since he has re-emerged from an alcohol/drug rehabilitation stint at the Caron treatment center near Reading, Pennsylvania. After being drafted 22nd overall by the Cleveland Browns last year at the NFL’s 79th annual NFL draft, Manziel would embark on what can only be described as a very tumultuous first season. Manziel sat and watched Brian Hoyer struggle to carry the club to a 7-6 record, before head coach Mike Pettine would hand the keys to the Brownies’ offense to the former Texas A&M phenom. Results were less than spectacular. After showing some promise 2 weeks earlier in a relief appearance against the Buffalo Bills, Manziel looked lost as Cincinnati’s defense thrashed the Browns, ultimately crushing their playoff hopes. The week after, Manziel would only play a quarter and a half of football before being removed from the game due to a rib injury. The Browns shut down Manziel for the remainder of the season, just to watch the rookie miss a rehab assignment at the team facility after reportedly throwing a party at his Cleveland residence. Sources said that when team officials went to his house they found Manziel, “drunk off his ass.” Reports began to surface that this type of behavior was common throughout his rookie season, and teammates and team officials had grown tired of it. Weeks later, the Browns announced that Manziel had elected to check himself into rehab, acknowledging that he had a problem.
Since re-emerging after 10 weeks at the facility, it seems everyone has written the young man off completely. The Browns said they would approach the offseason this year as if they didn’t have their starting quarterback despite having both Hoyer and Manziel on the depth chart, and it seems every NFL analyst under the sun has taken that as a lack of faith in the young quarterback. Though I can’t deny that the kid’s word isn’t worth much (if anything at all), and he has much work to do to become even a competent NFL starter, I still believe it’s too early to completely write off Johnny Manziel.
First and foremost, he’s only 22 years old. We saw him play only 6 quarters of football last year. It’s impossible to deny that he struggled mightily against professional defenses, but let’s not forget that when this kid was a redshirt freshman at Texas A&M, he thrashed SEC defenses putting up 3,706 passing yards, 26 passing touchdowns, and a passer rating of 155.3. Combine that with 1,410 yards on the ground and 21 rushing touchdowns, and you get a season worthy of a Heisman trophy… as a FRESHMAN (the first one ever, in fact). It has been proven time and time again that success at the collegiate level does not always translate to success at the NFL game, but I don’t think 6 quarters of football in an already lost season with a team that has many MAJOR needs beyond finding a competent starting quarterback, is a fair assessment of whether the kid will be able to play ball.
Analysts such as ESPN’s Merrill Hoge have cited many flaws in Manziel’s game: his inconsistent footwork, his lack of poise and patience when operating in the pocket, and his reckless gunslinger mentality. These are all completely valid, but there comes to mind a certain Hall of Fame quarterback from Southern Miss. that had similar issues when entering the league as a rookie; Brett Favre. I am not saying that Manziel will be a Hall of Fame quarterback on par with one of the all-time greats like Favre, but there’s something to be said about the competitive fire both quarterbacks seem to possess. That’s what made Manziel such a hot commodity coming out of the draft. There were definitely red flags concerning his behavior off the field, but I don’t think anyone can deny that Manziel displayed great leadership and toughness during his tenure at College Station. His teammates rallied around him in crucial moments, and his coaches loved that Manziel always played with a chip on his shoulder. It’s that type of mentality that made me and other NFL execs salivate at the prospect of making Manziel a franchise quarterback. The elite athletes, in any sport, play like they have something to prove. Every. Single. Play. I believe that Manziel still possesses that mentality. It also doesn’t hurt that Manziel had the best Wunderlic score (32) of any quarterback at the combine, as well as a 4.68 40-yard dash. Again, combine numbers don’t always translate to W’s at the NFL level, but this type of talent doesn’t evaporate.
After becoming, arguably the most polarizing and popular athlete in American sports, making friends with other superstar professional athletes and celebs, Manziel became ultra-entitled. He felt that he had already arrived, and that he had earned the right to rage when he probably should have kept his nose in his playbook. Time and time again, he would be caught through the lens of camera phones and TMZ paparazzi at nightclubs across the country. A day after saying that he had to get it figured out; he was caught on camera at a nightclub in Miami. At some point, Johnny Football became bigger than Johnny Manziel and before the 22 year-old knew what was happening, the beast that had become Johnny Football had gotten out of control.
I credit Manziel for acknowledging this, and having the wherewithal to enter rehab; to stop denying the problems he’s created and to try and tame the beast he’s bred. This is not an easy decision for a 22 year old to make. Manziel knew that his credibility would take a beating, his critics would rejoice at his fall from grace, and that he would become a punch line amongst NFL fans on social media. Manziel hasn’t denied that all of this is of his own doing. He dug this hole, and must now dig himself out. However, I don’t think being back at square one means that everyone should ultimately write off Johnny Manziel as a quarterback at the professional level; especially because he now has a long road to climb. There is something about competitors that have something to prove which ignites the fire within and brings out their best. I believe that Johnny Manziel possesses that competitive fire.
He’s a young man that showed poor judgment and terrible decision making, but that does not mean the story ends here. It didn’t for many young athletes with the same issues. One of my all-time favorite athletes, Cris Carter, struggled with cocaine and alcohol addiction early in his career. Carter was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year. It’s certainly far cry to say that Manziel will be a Hall of Fame quarterback, but I believe that it’s just as ridiculous to write him off at this point in his career.
Like plenty of 22 year olds, he’s acted immature and dumb. That cannot be denied. But is there no room for empathy? He has acknowledged he has a serious problem, and taken it on himself to change it. That shows incredible fortitude. This is a competitive young man that has proven he is at his best when he has something to prove. For the first time since his incredible freshman season at Texas A&M, Manziel is facing incredible adversity. Adversity that he brought upon himself, no question, but it’s not too late for Manziel to change the narrative, and I believe he possesses the ability to do just that.
I could be wrong, but after taking the necessary first steps in rehabilitating himself, there is an opportunity now for Manziel to wash his hands of the Johnny Football mess, and start his career as Johnny Manziel. Now that he has taken the time to clear his head and refocus, let’s see what the kid can do with an entire offseason ahead; Let’s see if he can prepare for an NFL season the right way. Let’s see if he can make this year all about the game that he loves, before we write him off as another complete bust. He’s shown in the past that all he needs is an opportunity, and with the current state of the Cleveland Browns quarterback situation (barring a major move in this year’s draft) Manziel will get just that. Don’t be too surprised if he jumps all over it.