The great unknown of Johnny Manziel - NBC Sports

The great unknown of Johnny Manziel
Downtrodden Browns take a chance on free-falling franchise quarterback.
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May 9, 2014, 1:30 am

NEW YORK -- The most famous line ever uttered about Hollywood probably comes from William Goldman, the writer of “Butch Cassidy” and “The Princess Bride.” He summed up all of the Tinseltown deals and schemes and plans and squabbles and moves and career decisions with three choice words:

“Nobody knows anything.”

In the end, nobody knows how Johnny Manziel will play in the National Football League. He just happens to be one of those thrilling, edgy, free-wheeling, outlandish and curious players who sparks strong opinions. There are people who KNOW that Manziel is so creative and instinctive and wonderful a player that he will be a sure NFL star. And there are people who know that Manziel is too small and weak-armed and unconventional to be a successful NFL quarterback.

And nobody knows anything.

Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall, we didn’t so much watch the NFL draft as we watched a morality play starring Johnny Manziel. He did not play the flashy quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy. He did not play the wild college kid who had a knack for making headlines. Instead, he played a confused kid in the green room who sipped water compulsively while NFL teams just kept on passing him by.

This sort of pass-over play happens pretty regularly in the NFL draft. Through the years we have watched Geno Smith and Brady Quinn and Aaron Rodgers and Boomer Esiason and others as the cameras registered their disappointment at getting passed again and again. The green room is a cruel place for the sliders, and I can only imagine that the only reason people like Manziel keep coming is that people like Manziel never believe the sliding will happen to them.

Most mock drafts had Manziel going to Cleveland with the fourth pick in the draft or to Oakland with the fifth pick. Cleveland seemed a particularly apt partner for Johnny Football; they were like two scruffy and unlucky dreamers finding each other. The Browns have never been to a Super Bowl. They have made the playoffs exactly once in the last 15 years -- this after leaving town and then coming back. They have been marred by astonishing displays of incompetence and anarchy in recent months. Cleveland, as always, badly needs a sports hero.

And Manziel is not 6-feet-tall, he does not have a Joe Flacco-type bazooka for an arm (or anything close), his game is a sort of free-form jazz featuring twists and escapes and blind flings downfield -- a brand of football many people think just will not play at the NFL level. Manziel, as always, needs a cause.

So, this seemed a match -- Cleveland needs Manziel and Manziel needs Cleveland -- only just when it started to feel real, Cleveland traded out of the fourth pick in the draft. A few minutes later, the Browns did trade up to get into the No. 8 spot on the board and Manziel was still there, and it seemed like the deal was done.

“The Cleveland Browns, with the eighth pick in the 2014 NFL Draft,” commissioner Roger Goodell said, “select Justin Gilbert, cornerback, Oklahoma State.”

Justin Gilbert. Strong pick. Sensible pick. Johnny Manziel sipped some more water. Obviously, the Browns did not want him. And that was a bummer. Manziel’s night, already longer than he expected, was about to get a lot longer. He clung to a water bottle for support.

Can Manziel be a star in the NFL? On the one hand, he’s one of the most exciting college football players I’ve ever seen. He turned nothing plays into touchdowns, made magic out of plays that looked dead. And he wasn’t doing it against junior high school teams -- this was against Alabama and Auburn and the like. It’s hard to imagine a player with such a genius for the game flailing in the NFL.

On the other hand -- who can you compare him with? Our minds have difficulty thinking of something new. Some compare him to Brett Favre, but he’s inches shorter than Favre and doesn’t have half the arm. He doesn’t throw with the uncanny accuracy of Drew Brees, and he’s not nearly as disciplined as Russell Wilson. His game reminds most of, say, Fran Tarkenton, but could Tarkenton play in 2014?

I say: Sure. In the right system, yes. But teams are skeptical. There are the various physical questions. And there are questions about Manziel’s maturity level. The NFL’s skepticism about Manziel became more and more obvious as the night went on. Jacksonville shocked everyone by taking a quarterback with the third pick in the draft ... but it was Blake Bortles. Many thought the Vikings would take a quarterback; they took linebacker Anthony Barr instead. There seemed to be some thought that the Cowboys would take Manziel because the Cowboys under Jerry Jones often do utterly illogical things. But they did not.

The crowd was fully in Manziel’s corrner and began chanting his name. But teams kept passing and passing and passing.

When he fell all the way to the 22nd pick, a team finally decided to take control of the moment. That team: The Cleveland Browns. They traded up into the spot and this time everyone knew it HAD to be Manziel. When Goodell announced Manziel’s name, Radio City was louder than it had been all night, even for the hometown Jets and Giants picks. You may like Manziel, you may dislike him. In the end, though, who doesn’t want to believe in the little guy with the so-so arm who desperately wants to prove everybody wrong?

In Cleveland, among my friends, there’s a strong divide about Manziel. Well, it’s like that everywhere. Many Clevelanders think this pick is doomed. The Browns have twice before taken a quarterback with the 22nd overall pick -- Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden. Neither has worked out (to say the least). Well, nothing has worked out for the Cleveland Browns for a long time. There are Clevelanders who, to beat the Christmas rush, are already giving up on Manziel. They see this as just the next mistake.

Then there are others who believe that this is where the turnaround begins. That’s a beautiful thing about sports, a beautiful thing about my hometown. People find ways to hope. There were three Clevelanders wearing orange T-shirts. One shirt said, “Johnny Football.” One shirt said, “Johnny Cleveland.” And the third shirt said, “Johnny Super Bowl.”

“It feels right,” Johnny Football said of going to Cleveland. “It feels like where I should be.”

When Johnny Manziel becomes a star and leads Cleveland to its first Super Bowl, there will be people who will say, “I knew it.” When Johnny Manziel becomes a bust and is looking for a third-string job for whoever will take him, there will be people who will say, “I knew it.”’

But no. Nobody knows nothing. That’s what made Thursday night so fascinating. It’s kind of like one of those orange-shirted guys said: “I’ll always remember where I was when the Browns drafted Johnny Manziel.”

And another guy, not wearing orange, said: “Yeah. One way or another.”

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski



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