The way the Cleveland Browns have handled Johnny Manziel has already raised some eyebrows. The Browns traded up for #26 to #22 in the first round of the NFL draft to grab the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, who was falling rapidly. The selection ignited excitement in a loyal fan base that desperately needs it. But what’s happened in Cleveland since then raises eyebrows.
It started mildly enough—Browns owner Jimmy Haslam started talking publicly about how Brian Hoyer was the Cleveland Browns starting quarterback and that Johnny Football would come to camp as the backup.
From a purely football standpoint, I think that’s rather silly, but I completely understand why an owner would say it—that sort of public posture keeps Manziel hungry to earn the job and keeps some media heat off of him.
Then came a since-reversed decision to bar the media from offseason practices raised more eyebrows. Here again, it didn’t bother me at all from a football standpoint—in fact, it’s probably the right thing to do, but it does deny Cleveland some badly needed positive attention in the press. In any case, if it were just Haslam’s comments and the media ban, this topic would have barely crossed my radar.
Now comes from a column from Skip Bayless on ESPN.com which reports that the Cleveland coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, was not “all-in” on the decision to get Manziel and that it was Haslam who in fact made the decision to trade up to get him. This is alarming and makes one wonder if Manziel is going to live through a year or two like Robert Griffin III has with the Washington Redskins.
Consider the similarities between Johnny Football and RG3…
*Each played for a Texas school that operates in the extremely long shadow of the University of Texas, and each won a Heisman Trophy, lifting that school to prominence that the talent elsewhere on the roster—notably on defense—could not have otherwise reached.
*Each was a polarizing figure in terms of football—as undersized, but highly mobile quarterbacks, there were (and continue to be) big debates about whether an NFL team could win playing that style and if they could stay healthy over the long haul.
*Each is a polarizing figure off the field for different reasons…
For RG3, he’s a lightning rod in racial terms. To Afro-racists like former ESPN commentator Rob Parker, RG3 is a “cornball brother” because he married a white woman and there are unconfirmed rumors he and his military family vote Republican. To traditional white racists, a young black man with the long braids who does a lot of TV commercials doesn’t really “know his place” and is thereby branded as arrogant.
For Johnny Football, the polarization isn’t quite as complicated. He’s a highly successful young man who likes to party, likes to be seen courtside at NBA playoff games and apparently doesn’t go home to drink milk and go to bed early on Friday night. No one knows if this is just a case of a college kid being a college kid—and if so, if he will grow up with the sufficient speed that his new career requires. Or if it’s a case of a serious alcohol problem, a topic addressed in the Bayless column and having been previously brought up publicly by no less than Manziel’s father.
*Each player was drafted by a team that moved up to get him at the behest of an owner who overruled the more skeptical coaching staff. In the case of Haslam, the overruling was direct. In the case of Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder, he had contractually ceded control of personnel to then-head coach Mike Shanahan, but the word is that the owner still used his considerable powers of persuasion to get Washington to move up. For further irony, each team moved up exactly four spots, albeit at different spots in the first round.
*In both cases, the skeptical coaching staff included Kyle Shanahan as the offensive coordinator.
RG3 was able to overcome the skepticism of the staff in a fantastic 2012 rookie season before he tore up his knee. As a partisan Redskins’ fan I don’t think he was nearly as bad in 2013 as the media—which reduces quarterback play to wins and losses—makes him out to be. But there’s no denying there was significant regression. Was it because of the injury and the lack of an offseason? Or the problems with playing for a coaching staff that didn’t believe in him?
If the problem was the latter, it doesn’t bode well for Johnny Football, at least early on in his career. One of things Bayless says in his column is absolutely correct—if you’re going to be in with a quarterback like Manziel or RG3 you need to be all in. Whatever system you run has to have everyone in the organization pulling in the same direction.
Taking this back to the Redskins, I’m happy to have RG3, but if I had a coaching staff that’s insistent on needing a proto-type dropback passer, then the team would be better off with Kirk Cousins. To further add to this drama, apparently the Browns inquired about Cousins, but only offered a fourth-round pick, while the Redskins wanted a second.
Finally, a word about Bayless. The First Take co-host has questionable credibility, and a lot of people will dismiss his points about Manziel and RG3 simply because it was Skip Bayless who said them. I understand why. Bayless far too often reduces his discussions to either ceaselessly defending every prediction he’s ever made, or making bombastic statements just for the sake of making them (i.e,, saying Aaron Rodgers is overrated). If you want to dismiss what he says on that basis, I can’t say he hasn’t earned it.
But I’m not going to, and it’s because I’ve read and watched enough of Bayless to know that he really puts his mind to it and just focuses on football, he really knows the sport. His book The Boys, about how Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson built the Dallas Cowboys was as good a nuts-and-bolts football book as I’ve read. There are segments of First Take when Bayless locks in, talks football and does it with as much depth of knowledge as anyone.
I wish he’d do this more often and not succumb to the bombast and ego to drive ratings, but that’s another subject entirely. For now it will suffice to say that I still take his opinion seriously when it’s apparent he’s just talking football.
And his opinion about Manziel and RG3 are correct. Take whatever side you want in the debate over whether their type of quarterback can make it in the NFL, but it’s not fair to judge either quarterback until they have a coaching staff that believes in them.
One would hope the Cleveland Browns would have learned from the mistakes of the Washington Redskins (when it comes to these two organizations over the last twenty years, this is really the blind leading the blind), but the saga of Johnny Football is looking a lot like the drama of RG3 in its early days.