The Sunday Drive with Johnny Manziel

1Johnny Manziel, the stage is yours.

The much-hyped quarterback is making his first start in the NFL after the Cleveland Browns’ offense has struggled the past few weeks with Brian Hoyer under center.

For some, it’s been a long time coming.

Browns coach Mike Pettine has been patient with his first round pick, giving him months to learn both what it’s like to be in the NFL, and to learn Kyle Shanahan’s system.

While clearly frustrated, Manziel has mostly played the back-up role with poise than many didn’t expect after the social media sensation made the rounds after the draft. What happens from here on the field is anyone’s guess. What’s happened since the announcement has been quick and clear.

As EHC’s Steve Orbanek noted yesterday, FOX Sports “has decided to flex its first game and carry the Browns vs. Bengals.” The buzz that Manziel carries with him is at a fever pitch locally, but has also transferred nationally as well. LeBron James is even planning on attending to watch his friend play, putting him on a level only a few professional athletes can lay claim.

Have I mentioned that he hasn’t started a game yet?

Manziel sells tickets, but can he win football games?

There are questions about his size, and about his arm strength. There are questions about his desire, and about his off-the-field behavior. There are even still questions regarding his overall talent compared to now-backup Brian Hoyer. The biggest question may be how he handles the pressure that’s been on him since his breakout red-shirt freshman season at Texas A&M, and his signature game against #1 Alabama that same season.

All have merit, because he hasn’t started a game yet.

Against Buffalo in week 13, Manziel went 5-for-8 for 63 yards, and also had a nice rushing touchdown against a defense that didn’t gameplan for him.

Cincinnati will be, and he’ll likely be a target.

Manziel has a reputation, and as a rookie, that makes him a marked man. While the Bengals defense is mostly toothless, they’ll have extra motivation to be the first defender to stand over Manziel giving his trademark money sign. They’ll be putting pressure on him for sure.

But Manziel won’t just be a passenger in his first NFL game as a starter. While we’ve been targeting the reasons “why-he-shouldn’t-start” over the past several weeks, it’s time to look forward.

There really are reasons why Manziel was a first round pick that don’t involve social media.

Let’s get driving.

He’s Mobile.

One of the true joys of watching Manziel play football are his playmaking abilities along with his improvisational skills. When the pocket shifts, he’s under pressure, or when he’s rolling out, you truly never know what’s going to happen next. It’s this car-crash mentality that made him special in the NCAA during his two seasons at Texas A&M.

In the land of the NFL, when you hear the term “mobility,” a lot of things run through your mind and they aren’t always positive. You can see both with Manziel, but mostly the positive. He truly has a remarkable “sense” while in the pocket, knowing when and where the pass rush is coming from, and he has an innate ability to find the creases around him to break away. Where he stands out though, is that he is always looking down the field, hunting for an open receiver.

He runs, but only when there’s space, and there isn’t a receiver in his sight line.

What could make the rookie quarterback special in this league is how he can extend plays and throw accurately from unorthodox positions.

Likewise, if Josh Gordon and the receivers can break routes at the appropriate times, big things could happen.

On top of that, Manziel can run the football, and while you never really want a 6’0″, 210 pound quarterback trying to weave his way between 250 pound mercenaries on defense, you have to love how his instincts can keep that same defense on its heels.

This can go both ways in the NFL, but initially, defending him will be tough because there really isn’t a lot of film on how he’ll act when he’s under pressure, and who knows what Kyle Shanahan will put into place for the rookie. Remember, Shanahan had a similar job, working with Robert Griffin III in Washington.

I’ll get to Shanahan at the end of all this, but the point here is that Manziel’s mobility should be a plus, and not a detriment, as long as the coaching staff is prepared. If Manziel can continue to complete passes on the move, and refrain from too much running beyond the line of scrimmage, he should have a long and successful NFL career.

That’s always an if though.

He’s Clutch:

We all know that Manziel was a cocky football player. What’s sometimes lost behind all of the bravado is the fact that he has shown plus poise, discipline and patience during his college career, as both a passer and a scrambler. He’s also done that on the sidelines in the NFL, where he could become a big distraction if he wanted.

But he hasn’t.

Yes, there were bumps in the road during his time at Texas A&M, but he never seemed weighed down by his struggles. That short memory will take him far in the NFL, provided he learns from his mistakes.

He loves the big stage, and while his ability to put himself on the big stage off-the-field is talked about on a daily basis, it doesn’t shroud his ability to grab a hold of these situations on the field.

Perhaps the best example of this was two years ago in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when the red-shirt freshman led the Aggies over #1 Alabama, breaking up their 13-game win streak. Manziel went 24-31 for 253 yards, and also rushed 18 times for 93 yards, and accounted for 345 of A&M’s 418 yards of total offense that day (he was sacked four times). Alabama’s defense was #1 in the nation across the board.

The following year, Alabama was again #1, and once again, Manziel was at his best even though A&M lost. He went 28-39 for 464 yards, and threw a then-school-record of five touchdowns. Alabama’s defense would finish in the top ten in Division 1 in most major categories that year.

How will this translate to the NFL?

It’s hard to say.

Cincinnati is coming off of a tough loss to Pittsburgh, has already lost to Cleveland once, and may be looking to make a statement out of the brash, young rookie. That said, Manziel likely could care less. These are the types of games that he has excelled in before, and as long as he can elevate his game to the NFL-level, he should be fine.

Manziel plays well when his back is against the wall, and with many naysayers not believing he’s NFL-capable, this is exactly one of those football games.

He’s Athletic:

Johnny Manziel is an extraordinary athlete.

I know, it’s not what you’re used to hearing first, is it. Instead, the national pundits point out Manziel’s lack of size (true), and how his off-the-field focus may lend himself to not performing at a high level on-the-field.

What’s shrouded by all of that is the simple fact that Cleveland’s #1 draft pick is one of the fastest NFL quarterbacks in the league, has those quick feet that I mentioned before, and can maneuver around the pocket as well as anyone.

Manziel runs a 4.5 40, and while he doesn’t have a cannon of an arm, he does understand the mechanics of where to throw the football. There are a couple of things to consider here.

He’s fast, but he’s also quick, which is perhaps the most important piece to all of this. His initial burst often gets him away from incoming defenders. He then has two options: can he find a receiver downfield and get him the ball, or can he find a seam and run. Like the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, Manziel is able to get the football where it needs to go, regardless of his position on the field. Now, Roethilsberger has the superior arm strength of the two, so it remains to be seen if Manziel can get the ball to his receivers at this level. The traits are there though.

If he runs, and it’s calculated, he’s going to make some noise. He’s faster than most defenders, and if the play breaks up enough and allows gaps for him to run, he could be dangerous.

He’s elusive, has that incredible ability to change direction in mid-move and while in traffic, and he’s been really hard to take down. While I’m not suggesting Manziel should be a running quarterback, if his improvisational skills and athletic ability lead him on a few running plays a game, that’s a good thing.

It puts a defense on its heels, and will allow the Browns’ quarterback to find receivers open later in the game, as well as open up the running game for Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell.

What will really set him apart is his ability to roll away to his left, or his non-throwing side. It’s hard for most quarterbacks to square up and throw a good pass. This is one of Manziel’s strengths. If you watch his roll outs, either by design or by improvisation, Manziel always has his head up and his body under control, which then forces defenders to maintain playing the pass. If they bite, he can throw. If they don’t, he can run.

I think he can do both at an elite level.

This will be the key to his NFL success. If corners can make up for his lack of arm strength, or if linebackers or ends can catch him, he’ll be in trouble. If not, the NFL has their next sensation.

He has “Arm Ability:”

Johnny Manziel doesn’t have a strong arm. Don’t misunderstand that though. He can throw the football, but deep balls will never be his forte. Where’s he’s dangerous is in the short and intermediate throws, where his quick release and accuracy is deadly.

He can throw from all angles and while under pressure, and what’s perhaps his best trait is how he hits his receivers on the run. If you watch him last season, his #1 receiver Mike Evans was the benefactor of several passes that hit him while he was at full speed.

Let’s not kid ourselves.

If Manziel becomes an effective NFL quarterback, he will be the exception to the rule based on his arm strength, but hasn’t that been his M.O. his entire career?

Manziel is an exception.

What will Shanahan do?

It’s pretty simpe: Kyle Shanahan has to design his offense to take advantage of Manziel’s talent, the same way he designed the offense for RG3.

What will make this task a bit more difficult is trying to shift the offense after the team has already played 13 football games. Can the Browns incorporate enough of a Manziel-type offense this late in the season to allow him to be successful?

Expect a lot of play-action. Obviously, the Browns will have to be able to run the football today, which shouldn’t be a problem against the Bengals, whose rush defense has been horrible all season long. If Manziel can gain the advantage thanks to the play-action misdirections, you’ll see the types of big plays that made him a first round pick.

If defenders bite, Josh Gordon, Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and especially Jordan Cameron will reap the benefits. In Griffin’s rookie year, he threw for 3200 yards, without one receiver having more than 50 receptions. Manziel won’t have the problem with Gordan and Cameron.

Expect decisive, one-read plays. When Manziel was playing at Texas A&M, he completed 69% of his passes, and most were of the 5-10 yard variety. This doesn’t exclude Manziel throwing the ball deep, or even working through his progressions, but Shanahan is going to want to keep his quarterback safe, and more importantly, try and keep him from making mistakes.

Expect the Bengals to have to guess. Shanahan will want to keep the defense guessing with a spread offense that will keep the defense towards the outer boundaries, then countering with off-tackle runs that brings the defense back inside.

What can make this offense special, and maybe even better than in Washington, is that both West and Crowell have the ability to run off tackle, and alter their runs in mid-stream to break open a play. When you add Manziel to the mix, the rushing attack should be effective against a Bengals team that we’ve already mentioned as being pretty pathetic.

Combine that with a receiving corp that boasts both Gordon and Cameron, and in theory, the Browns offense should see a marked improvement.

We should see all the variations of the pistol offense that made RG3 so effective. Shanahan showcased this with Manziel in the preseason, before the rookie had a firm grasp on the playbook. He was able to move the ball around fairly effectively, if not erratically, but knowing the playbook shouldn’t be an issue at this point.

The pistol creates the type of space that a quarterback of Manziel’s stature needs to succeed.

What happens today?

Your guess is as good as mine. Marvin Lewis is a shrewd coach, who is coming off of a tough loss to Pittsburgh.

The Browns have struggled over the past several weeks offensively, but has seen their defense improve by leaps and bounds.

They’ve needed two different centers, and while Gordon and Cameron have re-entered the equation, that, combined with release of Ben Tate has created an offense in flux. Yes, better players are on the field, but they also add new dynamics.

It’s the nature of the beast.

Now, the Browns are bringing in a new quarterback.

Honestly, there’s no reason to pick the Browns here. When you look closer, you see a Bengals team that’s struggled. Yes, they are winning on the road, but Andy Dalton isn’t to be feared, and they’ve been dealing with the return of injured stars as well, in A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard.

Defensively, they have done nothing but struggled, giving up 500 yards or more in three games this season.

But, they are a playoff-expecting team, still in first place, and looking to make a statement?

Who wins this game, where the rubber meets the road?

Look, Manziel could be a bust, but I’m betting high here. Today, the Browns turn things around.

Cleveland Browns 24, Cincinnati Bengals 21

C’mon, we all know that’s money.

Jim Pete is a founder and Managing Editor at Everybody Hates Cleveland, a former Senior Editor and Columnist at Indians Baseball Insider. Today, he’s already said Heerree’s Jooohhhnnnnyyyy” 20 or so times. Follow Jim on twitter @JimPeteEHC for Christmas cookie recipes, and also follow our website twitter@evrybdyhatescle, won’t you? If you do, Steve Orbanek will read your fortune. He’s like that….

4 replies »

    • That was…um…not good. Really, analysis is futile at this point.

      Hey, I wouldn’t blame EHC for running a mock draft column on Monday and I hate draft talk. Anything not to revisit this day’s calamity. I thought the playoffs were a mirage after last week, but this was a resounding kick to the solar plexus of the entire organization.

  1. If we run a mock draft, I can safely say that I wouldn’t be talking about drafting a quarterback…ever…in the first round. Offensive linemen…and defensive lineman…and more offensive linemen.

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