There isn’t much of a gray area when it comes to Johnny Manziel. You either love the guy or you hate him.
I won’t delve into Manziel’s highly publicized off-field behavior. TMZ has already done a pretty good job covering that. But speaking as a fan of the game, few players in college football history were as entertaining to watch as Manziel during his two years as the starter at Texas A&M. He was a walking highlight machine, dazzling us week after week with his daring scrambles, electric deep passes and heavy improvisation.
Manziel’s combination of athleticism, arm strength and pure guts was something we hadn’t seen before. He had the unique ability to turn an 80,000-seat football stadium into his own backyard, throwing out the playbook and playing by instinct.
The question was whether Manziel’s ad-libbing would translate to the NFL. His physical limitations also raised some concerns. At a hair under six feet, Manziel is one of the shortest quarterbacks in football. Height is important for pocket QBs because they need to be able to see over their offensive line. That’s why Manziel has always been quick to abandon the pocket.
Manziel has started the last two games for Cleveland including Sunday’s 30-9 loss to Pittsburgh. Coach Mike Pettine seemed less than enthusiastic about starting him, repeatedly telling the media the team would switch back to veteran Josh McCown as soon as he’s healthy.
After landing in rehab last winter, it’s understandable why Pettine would be hesitant to trust Manziel. His commitment to football has been questionable at best since entering the league in 2014. But being close-minded isn’t going to help the Browns turn things around. At 2-8, Cleveland would be foolish not to give Manziel a shot down the stretch. McCown, a 36-year-old journeyman who has never played a postseason snap, certainly isn’t a player the Browns should be staking their future to.
I watched Manziel’s Thursday night game against the Bengals in Week 9. It was a tough assignment against a first-place (edit: undefeated) team, but Manziel held his own, especially in the first half when he completed 11-of-18 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown. Sunday against the Steelers, he took the next step.
Of course, Manziel needed a few snaps to settle in. His first play from scrimmage resulted in a lost fumble. In the vine below, you can see Manziel never had a good grip on the ball. Dan Fouts, who was calling the game with Ian Eagle on Sunday, noticed Manziel wiping his hand off before the play. Since it was dry in Pittsburgh on Sunday, Manziel must have been dealing with some nerves. “Palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy …”
Manziel rebounded on the next drive with a brilliant deep throw to Travis Benjamin. The 61-yard completion stands as Cleveland’s longest offensive play of the season. Manziel has shown strong chemistry with Benjamin this year. In fact, three of his five touchdown passes have gone to No. 11.
This play was classic Manziel. He didn’t like his first read, so he improvised outside the pocket and delivered a strong deep pass to the speedy Benjamin down the left side.
The next play you’ll see is a little bit of a different look from Manziel. On third and 14, he stays in the pocket and finds Brian Hartline for the first down. Young quarterbacks (and old ones if you watched Peyton Manning on Sunday) are known to get antsy and force bad passes against pressure. That’s not what Manziel does here. He stays patient, waiting for Hartline to beat his man before connecting on a beautiful 17-yard completion.
Completion percentage can be a deceiving stat. For example, Manziel is credited with a completion on this next play, but Andrew Hawkins barely made it back to the line of scrimmage. Unlike the play before where Manziel was patient waiting for Hartline to break free, this throw felt a little rushed. It sets up as a screen pass to the right side but instead of hitting Hawkins in stride, Manziel throws it behind him. Hawkins has to come back for it and by then, the best he can hope for is getting back to the original line of scrimmage. It obviously could have gone a lot worse but Manziel needs to show more attention to detail to make this play work in the future.
Manziel was at his best Sunday when the Browns went to the play-action. It’s a little ironic because usually what makes play-action so effective is a good running game. The Browns pose no such threat. Cleveland ran the ball 14 times Sunday for a total of 15 yards. As a team, only the Lions have averaged fewer rushing yards per game this season. But none of that stopped Manziel from completing this 17-yard missile to Gary Barnidge.
The Browns liked this play so much they ran it again on the next snap. Barnidge hauled that one in for an 18-yard pickup. It was good to see Manziel feeding the ball to Barnidge. The two had shown very little chemistry in their first two games together with Barnidge catching just three of eight passes for 52 yards. Sunday, Manziel and Barnidge connected six times for 65 yards and a touchdown.
Part of the reason Manziel was able to throw for a career-high 372 yards on Sunday was because of the Browns’ strong play at offensive line. Look how much time Manziel has to deliver this throw. The pocket never closes and Manziel uncorks a dart to Hawkins for a gain of 16.
Here’s another example of Manziel being unfazed by pressure. This is just a simple dump-off to running back Duke Johnson. Manziel gets rid of it at exactly the right moment, hitting Johnson in stride for a 10-yard pickup. John Greco gave Johnson some room to run with a punishing block on the right side.
Though it wasn’t reflected on the scoreboard, the Browns did a solid job of mixing up their plays on Sunday. There were screens, play-action passes, seam routes, post patterns—it was a nice sampling of what the Browns can do on offense.
We’ve already established that Manziel is a pretty gutsy player. He won’t admit defeat easily. This Superman mentality can get him into trouble sometimes. This next play is a simple case of Cleveland’s receivers not getting open. The linemen hold their blocks as long as they can but at some point, the pocket breaks down. Manziel keeps the play alive for a few more seconds before getting stopped behind the line for a three-yard loss.
Manziel needs to realize he can’t do EVERYTHING. On a play like this where the receivers aren’t open and the other team is bringing good pressure, there’s no need to hold onto the ball forever and take a bad sack, especially on second and short. Manziel should have thrown this one away.
Manziel has a great arm, but so do plenty of other quarterbacks in the NFL. What makes Manziel stand out is his elusiveness. This is backyard football at its finest. Instead of getting sacked for a 10-yard loss, the shifty Manziel somehow finds a running lane and takes it all the way down to the goal line.
Obviously the Browns don’t want Manziel to tuck and run on every play but you have to give the guy credit for making something out of nothing. This was a broken play and Manziel turned it into an 11-yard gain.
Manziel’s only touchdown came on a back shoulder fade to Gary Barnidge. There’s nothing too complex going on here. It’s good timing and excellent recognition by Manziel to exploit an obvious mismatch. Barnidge is five inches taller and a lot heavier than safety Will Allen, which makes this pass kind of a no-brainer.
Who knows if Manziel gives Cleveland a better chance to win than McCown, but if the Browns care about their future at all, they’ll let Manziel finish out the season. If he plays well, the Browns have their quarterback of the future. If not, then it’s back to the drawing board. But at least they’ll know.