QB In Focus: Johnny Manziel
Entering his second season in the NFL, Johnny Manziel is sitting behind journeyman Josh McCown, vying to win back the trust of coaches and a beleaguered Cleveland Browns fanbase. Gridiron’s Richard Gatenby scratches beneath the surface to get the real lowdown on football’s embattled star.
It is a warm, humid Friday night in Kerrville, Texas and the Tivy High Antlers are handing out another thrashing en route to the state playoffs. With victory in the bag and the clock winding down, a young high-school quarterback turns to his offensive coordinator and explains how they must get one of their most committed team members on the field and into a scoring position. Despite not seeing the gridiron all year, the traditional bench-sitter has not missed a beat during the season, training hard while spending every day, hour, minute and second of gameday cheering on his teammates from the sideline. The offensive coordinator, Julius Scott, agrees to the request and promises he will give the loyal wide receiver a chance when they are next in scoring position. “No,” comes the reply. “He cannot catch; if I throw him the ball, he will drop it. Put him in the backfield, I will hand it off and tell him what to do.”
On the next offensive drive the quarterback breaks a long run. Well clear of his pursuers and about to score another touchdown, he surrenders himself and slides down at the five-yard line. Never once thinking about running up the score, boosting his own stats and ever-growing fame, he is just concerned with giving somebody who deserves a chance their moment to shine.
The ball is snapped and handed to the wide-receiver-cum-running back but, in the reality of the moment, he is frozen to the spot. The quarterback is undaunted, turning in an instant before hauling his team-mate into the end zone for a touchdown. The points are irrelevant. What really matters is that a young man has created a unique moment for not just a dedicated brother-in-arms, but his entire family. This is not a television drama like Friday Night Lights; this is a real person making a difference.
The quarterback? Johnny Manziel.
Scott tells Gridiron: “After he had broken off that run, he looked at me so I sent the kid in. You can see Johnny just telling him what to do but, as soon as he was handed the ball, the kid just froze. He was terrified. It was funny; he just stood there. But Johnny grabbed him by the shirt and just dragged him into the end zone. The kid’s mother came out of the stands just after the game and was so appreciative; it’s the highlight of her life, seeing her kid score a touchdown. To this day, that kid remembers it.”
For a player whose notoriety has led to as many flashpoints off the field as on it during his remarkable, and short, career to date, it’s a refreshing tale – but not an unusual one. Scott adds: “It is those kinds of things that I remember about Johnny’s time with us. I also remember the day he turned up five minutes late for a meeting. I had a rule that if anybody was late, they would have to do 25 laps up and down the field and wouldn’t start the next game.
“So Johnny takes his medicine and does the up-downs and then spends the whole week with the second-string offense. This is a kid who is being courted by virtually every major college and he is running with the reserves. So the next game comes and we are not doing well; our quarterback is struggling. They’re beating us pretty good. You would expect Johnny to be sulking but he isn’t; he is talking to and encouraging our offense. He is being the best teammate you could possibly have. He is missing the game for just being five minutes late but he is just getting on with it, which is why I laugh when people say he is selfish and not a team player. I just tell them that. Some people would have felt it was beneath them to run with the seconds; Johnny didn’t. Those things mean a lot to me because they are out of the ordinary.”
If you glance over the headlines everyday you know Manziel as a Vegas-partying, fame-hunting football player who is a terrible role model for millions of young, aspiring next-generation stars across the United States. He spent much of the off-season in rehab following a disastrous first campaign as a pro amid suggestions of a poor attitude and enters this term sitting behind journeyman quarterback Josh McCown.
But does he have a problem walking the tight rope between work and pleasure? Scott says: “I think human nature sometimes means we all want to push that envelope. When Johnny came to Kerrville I was hard on him, and I have told countless people that have asked me, because, they look at Johnny and think he is above the rules and he does not have to follow the rules so can he discipline himself as an athlete? I say absolutely. The only thing I have to judge him on is when he played for me.
“If he was late, he did not start and did not play. If he did not do the plays I called he would not be in the game. I did not care what the results where and he knew that, and consequently went by the standards we drew up – he was just like anybody else on the team.”
Manziel’s problems during a disastrous rookie campaign in Cleveland appeared to go far beyond immaturity, with his entry into rehab coming amid rumours of an alcohol problem. Whatever he actually entered for, though, it appears to have done him the world of good, with all reports suggesting he’s refreshed and refocused.
The question now is whether his flamboyant playing style can actually succeed on the biggest stage. Being a playmaker is who he is and that will not change, but such free-styling belies the very good footballing brain on his shoulders.
Scott says: “I met Johnny when he moved to Kerrville in the seventh grade. He was an all-round athlete who played basketball, football, ran track and played baseball in the summers. He was a real good athlete and competitor growing up. But when he got to the ninth grade, it became clear he was going to be something special playing football because he seemed to take over the games; we were playing bigger and better opponents but he could control the situation.
“Johnny is extremely bright. I dealt with him on a high-school setting and he was far advanced to the others when it came to reading defenses, knowing where the blitz was coming from and throwing into the blitz. He came up to the school on the off-days more than anybody else. He would do that on his own.
“I visited with him when he was at (Texas) A&M because I asked him to go over their system with me so I could apply some of the things to the high school that they were doing and he sat down with me and gave a three-hour clinic explaining the ins and outs of what they did. I took another coach with me and on the way back he said that Manziel gave a more thorough clinic than any coach we have ever listened to.”
And his best attribute? “His competitiveness. He wants to win more than anything. It’s a misconception that he wants to be the star and throw or run the ball so many times. He does not care who scores; he just wants to win and seems to rally the guys around him in that effort.”
Coach Scott’s dedication towards nurturing Manziel on and off the field did not go unnoticed by the first-round draft pick, who subsequently invited his former mentor to the Heisman Trophy presentation ceremony in December 2012, when ‘Johnny Football’ became the first freshman to ever scoop the award.
“I think we are all ego-driven in some way,” added Scott. “And I think, for anybody, when a former student is on such a large stage, winning such a large award, and is talking about you and the influence you have had on him, that can’t help but swell my head and make me proud. It has certainly given me a good ice-breaker for any conversations.”
It was a surreal moment for Scott, who reveals he did not expect the kind of stardom that Manziel has enjoyed despite his high-school heroics. “I do not sit around pondering whether my players will eventually make it in the pros. I knew he was good enough for college but didn’t think he was good enough for the pros. I would never have fathomed him winning the Heisman and being a first-round draft pick.”
It was not always a straight road to the pros for Manziel.
Firstly, the big colleges in Texas did not view him as a quarterback due to his small stature and he was initially sought as an athlete to play several offensive roles. Indeed, it was not until a game against a San Antonio side loaded with talent that a Texas A&M scout realised the potential of the Tivy High signal-caller. A famous victory meant a revised offer from the Aggies; they wanted him to run their offense. “We were a class lower and we rallied to beat them,” remembers Scott. “I think those recruiters saw something special in him then.”
The then-Oregon Ducks coach Chip Kelly, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, also landed an offer to play quarterback at Manziel’s feet. But after much deliberation and discussion with his family and high-school coaches, Manziel decided to attend the University of Texas A&M.
Unsurprisingly, there was one college who saw the potential in the teenager from the beginning. Southern Methodist University head coach June Jones extended an offer to Manziel in his sophomore year with a similar belief to others that, if he could not take the next step as a quarterback, the fledgling star would certainly see the field somewhere with his athleticism. “He’s a magical player with the ball in his hands,” Jones told Gridiron. “He is one of those special guys that only comes along every so often.”
In the end, it was A&M coach Kevin Sumlin who was the lucky one as Manziel helped put his programme on the map. He told Gridiron: “When players do not fit the normal mode—the height, weight etc., there are always going to be questions at any level and it is up to the player to answer those questions in a positive manner. We expected Johnny to lead our team and he did just that. Johnny is the most exciting player I have ever seen.”
At all levels, from high school to college, those that know him best are saying the same. Manziel will succeed. His baptism of fire in the NFL means there are more doubts than ever but, following a string of eye-catching pre-season performances, the Hype Train is starting to role again. Will the legend grow, or will Johnny Football become the latest in a long line of quarterbacks who have faltered on the biggest stage (see Leaf, Ryan)?
We’re going to sit on the fence… but it sure as heck could be fun finding out.
This is an edited version of an article that appeared in Issue VII of Gridiron Magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, and enter the draw to win a trip to the AFC or NFC Championship Game, click here.