It’s time for quarterback Johnny Manziel to channel himself some Don Meredith.
The party’s over; turn out the lights.
The offseason of Vegas-Austin-Mexico-Los Angeles clubs and beverages/bottles has concluded. The social media photos with rolled bills are complete. Wednesday, Manziel reported for duty for his first NFL training camp in Cleveland to try to become the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback. It’s not exactly a brave new world for the Browns’ first-round draft pick — he did manage himself quite well in college during the season while having a good time in the offseason, thank you very much — but it is a more challenging situation than anything he has dealt with in his life. The young wunderkind who was simply always better than those around him finds himself at a whole new level, having to earn his place in the world of professionals.But while attention will be homed on his every move, his coach has made no secret he’d prefer Manziel not be the team’s immediate starter. Coach Mike Pettine told SI.com that in his “ideal world,” Manziel would not start on opening day.
The Browns, a team in need of a new image, excite the area and the football world by drafting the most exciting player eligible, and they want him to wait.
But there’s sound logic and strong precedent behind Pettine’s thinking.
He talks about success stories for people who wait to start — Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Carson Palmer — and compares them to guys he has seen rushed into the starting lineup too soon — Kyle Boller — for a team not good enough to support them.
That’s a scenario Cleveland fans know all too well, as they have seen quarterback after quarterback forced into the lineup, only to struggle with a bad team and fail: Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Charlie Frye and Brandon Weeden among them.
The other cycle that has been repeated in Cleveland is that a quarterback ballyhooed as a savior watches as the team drafts another. The public and media — and eventually the team — grow weary of the first “savior” struggling because the team is not equipped to help him. This starts the clamor for the next guy. He then is rushed in and struggles for the same reasons the first guy did.
Savior after savior has flamed out, quickly. Heck, a year ago in Cleveland, Jason Campbell was briefly considered a savior. He finished 1-7 as a starter.
“It’s a bad cycle,” Pettine said, “until you get the team around him.”
Pettine has to balance a lot, starting with hype and expectation (multiplied exponentially because it’s Manziel) that comes with any quarterback drafted in the first round. But he also has to balance what he has seen — that a quarterback will struggle if the team around him struggles.
“There’s no doubt [the quarterback is] the most important guy on the field,” Pettine said. “But he’s so much the product of his supporting cast.”
In many past years, the Browns built the team from the inside out. Start with the quarterback and hope to add pieces. It can work, but the danger in that process showed constantly as a lack of a supporting cast left each young quarterback battered, shell-shocked and fragile.
Pettine wants to build from the outside in while still working with the best quarterback he can find.
That’s why in the offseason the Browns rebuilt the running game with personnel and system. It is why they bolstered the offensive line, and why they’ve implemented a defensive scheme that has been successful everywhere it has been used. It’s also why they brought in prominent defensive veterans Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby, guys used to winning who might change the vibe in a locker room accustomed to losing.
The final piece was a quarterback to compete with Brian Hoyer. In Manziel, the Browns got a guy who threw for 7,800 yards and 63 touchdowns at Texas A&M, a guy who for whatever reason has become a social media phenomenon.
“I don’t think even he can get a handle on the why,” Pettine said
At this point in his NFL career, Manziel has done nothing but be successful in college. As any Browns fan can attest, college success and/or a college resume does not automatically translate to wins in the NFL.
Pettine said Manziel was a great teammate in the previous time he was in Cleveland, calling him “very humble.” The typical litany of positives followed: good in the weight room, attentive in meetings, smart.
Pettine then added this tidbit: “I think he’s ahead of the learning curve.”
In the world of hype, parsing and interpreting what has formed around Manziel, that comment would translate on the conversion chart to: “Holy smokes this guy is good.”
But there are many factors at play, not the least of which are the beliefs and principles of the head coach. In organized team activities and minicamps, Manziel had his moments but never consistently looked like a no-brainer to be the starter. He never played like a guy who immediately had to be put in the lineup. Manziel himself admitted the Browns’ offense is a lot more complex than the one he ran in college, where he didn’t even have a playbook. There’s the reality that the Browns open in Pittsburgh and then play at home against the New Orleans Saints and the Baltimore Ravens. Those are three very tough, physical and aggressive defenses that might make a team hesitate to start a rookie.
Two things are steadfastly true, though. First is that if Manziel doesn’t turn out the lights, his on-field party will be over. Because he won’t be able to succeed on the field if he’s living the extreme high life off it. Pettine said he expects the off-field to be a “non-story” soon.
The second is that Pettine is determined to not give Manziel the job simply because of who he is.
“It’s very simple for us,” Pettine said. “Who gives us the best chance to win?”