Orbiting Cleveland: The colossal fall of Johnny Football



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Even when he’s not directly involved in the news, Johnny Manziel is still making headlines.

On Friday, released a story, titled “Inside Johnny Manziel’s rocky rookie season,” which was written by Pat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler. Interviews were conducted with nearly 20 Cleveland Browns sources for the story, both on the record and on condition of anonymity, and the overwhelming theme was this: Manziel, as a teammate, player and professional, was an absolute joke in 2014.

Now, why should any of this come to a surprise? Isn’t this something we already know?

That’s true, but it’s a compelling tale nonetheless. Now, teammates and coaches, have taken the time to publicly shred Manziel. How does that happen and has there ever been a quicker downfall than what we’ve seen from Manziel this past season?

What I’m most interested with is how we got to this point? How did “Johnny Football” suddenly become “Johnny Drop the Ball?”

Over the last weeks, pundits such as ESPN’s Merril Hoge and others have blasted the Browns organization for even selecting Manziel. They’ve said the team made a colossal mistake and suggested that Manziel should never have even been picked in the first round to begin with.

I don’t buy that. I remember the scouting reports on Manziel prior to the NFL Draft, and I remember all of the positive things that were said. So if the Browns did miss, they were not alone.

In fact, nearly one year ago to the date, ESPN’s NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper released his first mock draft, and Manziel was slated to go No. 1 overall to the Houston Texans. Kiper’s analysis was based on conversations with NFL evaluators who believe Manziel is a consensus Top 5 pick.

As late as April 17, 2014, the NFL’s Gil Brandt released his top 50 prospects for the 2014 NFL and had Manziel listed No. 1. Two respected analysts like Kiper and Brandt would not risk their reputations by falsely rating Manziel, simply because of his “Johnny Football” bravado.

Yet, the “Johnny Football” persona is perhaps the most interesting layer to the Manziel story. Has there ever been a more popular — and polarizing — athlete in the history of the college game? To say that Manziel arrived in the NFL with significant fanfare would be the understatement of the year.

Never before had there ever been hype of this magnitude for a player who had yet to play an NFL down. Not with Reggie Bush. Not with Robert Griffin III. Not even with Tim Tebow. Manziel was on another level in terms of college stardom.

Consider these points that help quantity Manziel’s stardom:

  • Just hours after Manziel was drafted, the Browns sold more than 2,300 season tickets.
  • From Thursday to Sunday of the NFL Draft weekend, the number of Manziel jerseys sold was higher than the number of Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Tim Tebow jerseys sold during their draft weekends combined.
  • As of July 2014, Manziel led all NFL players in jersey players.

All of these points are especially telling, considering that they happened before Manziel ever even threw an NFL pass. They also offer some evidence on just how popular this guy was the moment he joined the Browns.

Yet, then December 14 happened. This was the date of Manziel’s first NFL start, and it’s a date that he, and every other Browns fan, would soon like to forget.

In that start, Manziel completed 10-of-18 passes for 80 yards, two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 27.3. No one was expecting Manziel to immediately “wreck this league” as he himself suggested in a text message to former Browns quarterback coach Dowell Loggains on draft day, but anything would have been better than this.

Manziel looked unprepared, overwhelmed and totally out of sync. The story from ESPN reports that this was all too common of a theme for Manziel during the 2014 season:

“It’s uncertain how much coaches collected from Manziel, but one source said Manziel was late often enough that it was never a surprise when he was. One Browns staffer said he believed Manziel didn’t get tough love when attention to detail wasn’t there, that the team did not always hold him accountable when he was late…

…readiness became an issue once Manziel got the starting job the following week. Several sources said Manziel either didn’t know the plays in the huddle or didn’t call them correctly. The Browns tried to get him comfortable by using shotgun and pistol formations on about 80 percent of his downs and by simplifying the offense. But more than once, teammates corrected the play call in the huddle, or headed to the line hoping things would work because the call was wrong. Sometimes, the offense would get lined up wrong because Manziel forgot to read the whole play or got the verbiage wrong (saying ‘left’ instead of ‘right,’ for example).”

As the offseason begins for the Browns, this is the question we are now left with. Were the Browns, and so many other NFL talent evaluators, wrong in their assessment of Manziel? Does he even have what it takes to succeed in this league?

Or, is it a case of something else? Does Manziel have the skillset, yet still lacks the responsibility, maturity and preparation habits required of an NFL quarterback?

For me, the most telling memory of Manziel’s 2014 season came when he actually was not even on the field. In the Browns’ season finale against the Baltimore Ravens, undrafted rookie quarterback Connor Shaw made his first NFL start.

Overall, Shaw completed 14-of-28 passes for 177 yards with one interception for a quarterback rating of 55.2. I remember watching the game and thinking, “Well, he looks like an undrafted rookie quarterback.”

It was quite the juxtaposition from the six quarters in which I watched Manziel and thought, “He looks like he doesn’t belong.”

Granted, six quarters is just that — six quarters. There is just not enough evidence to make any solid conclusions after such a small sample size.

However, those six quarters were about as ugly as anything that we’ve ever seen. Remember, how much that the NFL game has changed since the institution of the illegal contact rule prior to the 2004 season. The rule, which is now a staple in the league, basically states that defensive backs must keep their hands off receivers five yards past the line of scrimmage. Its impact in the passing game has been immense.

For reference, consider this. During the 2003 season, before the rule was instituted, there were two 4,000-yard passers: Peyton Manning (4,267) and Trent Green (4,039). This past season, there were 11: Drew Brees (4,952), Ben Roethlisberger (4,952), Andrew Luck (4,761), Peyton Manning (4,727), Matt Ryan (4,694), Eli Manning (4,410), Aaron Rodgers (4,381), Philip Rivers (4,286), Matthew Stafford (4,257), Tom Brady (4,109) and Ryan Tannehill (4,045). Another three quarterbacks finished with 3,700 passing yards or more.

The roundabout point being made is this: Almost any professional quarterback is capable of putting up passing yards in this league and nearly half the league had a quarterback finish with 3,700 yards or greater. Just 10 years ago, a season like that was the exception, but now it’s the rule.

It’s the reason why a player like Brian Hoyer, whose skillset is limited, finished with 3,326 yards in 13 starts and one relief appearance. Hell, if Hoyer started the entire season, there’s a good chance he would have finished with 4,000 yards as well.

This helps provide context to just how poorly Manziel looked in his six quarters in which he could muster only 112 passing yards. Even if Manziel were to accumulate 200 passing yards in those six quarters, it would still be considered a futile effort in today’s NFL. That’s just the state of the game these days.

And that’s why I’m so concerned. If Manziel showed any signs, even one nice pass play, it would be much easier to have some level of confidence in his ability moving forward. Instead, his lone start was as bad as anything we’ve ever seen in this league.

In his introductory press conference this week, new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said the following, “We’re not sure if our starting quarterback is in the building right now or not. If he is, great. If he’s not, that’s great, too.”

Here’s the irony to DeFilippo’s words. Had Manziel spent more time in the building this past season and less time drinking, partying and fraternizing, this entire column might be a moot point.

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