Johnny Manziel seems to possess the chutzpah needed to overcome the inherent pressure he would face if the Browns drafted him fourth overall on May 8.
Cleveland mercilessly chews up quarterbacks, boos them when they hit rock bottom and then practically discards them to the depths of Lake Erie. It takes a special type of mental toughness and fortitude for a player to believe he could become the face of the Browns and halt their pathetic streak of 20 starting quarterbacks since 1999.
Of the 256 prospects on the verge of being drafted next month, perhaps none is more polarizing than Manziel, a projected top-10 pick whose “Johnny Football” nickname was ingrained into pop culture during the 2012 season, when he became a star at Texas A&M and the first freshman in NCAA history to win the Heisman Trophy.
Concerns about his size, playing style and character cause many analysts to question whether he’ll be able to succeed in the NFL. On the other hand, the playmaking ability he displayed during his two collegiate seasons is undeniable, and his attitude proved to drive his success.
Former Massillon quarterback George Whitfield Jr. has developed an intimate knowledge of Manziel’s determination while serving as his private coach the past two years. Whitfield has seen similar competitive streaks in notable students and former No. 1 overall draft picks Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.
“They have an over-my-dead-body mentality that, ‘This is going to go down today, I am not coming off the field today and losing, over my dead body,’ ” Whitfield said in late February at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. “Sometimes I hear people say, ‘Well, everybody’s competitive. Well, everybody plays hard.’ Yeah, but there’s a difference.”
Whitfield loves analogies almost as much as good footwork from his pupils, so he draws a distinction between competitive guys and their ultra-competitive counterparts in these terms: Competitive guys will play hard in a game of pickup basketball, but they’ll usually admit when they commit a foul and generally display good sportsmanship. Ultra-competitive guys will wipe the floor with their opponents and sincerely ask, “You want to get your [butt] kicked again?”
Manziel reminded everyone which category he falls into when he finished 30-of-38 passing for 382 yards and four touchdowns along with 73 rushing yards and another touchdown to help Texas A&M rally from a 21-point halftime deficit and stun Duke 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
“I play the game with a lot of heart and a lot of passion that really is unrivaled,” Manziel, who grew up in Kerrville, Texas, said at the combine. “It’s the way I was brought up.”
Perhaps Manziel’s cockiness intrigues the Browns. They were one of just two NFL teams that skipped his pro day last month in College Station, Texas, but they’re expected to conduct a private workout with him this week or the following week, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported.
One had to wonder whether coach Mike Pettine had Manziel in mind while he talked about which characteristics he seeks in quarterbacks last month at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla.
“I’m looking for a guy that’s got that ‘it factor,’ not necessarily starting with the physical talent first,” Pettine said. “We are going to work out to see how they are physically, but at the same time do a lot of homework from a background standpoint, talking to guys, people they’ve played with, coaches, just trying to see who has that ‘it factor.’ You see a lot of guys that have the physical talent to play, and there’s just something missing. I think you’ve seen a lot of guys that have overcome not having a huge arm, not being the fastest. They’ve overcome it with the intangibles.”
The challenge in evaluating Manziel lies in trying to gauge his chances of triumphing without fitting the mold of a prototypical NFL quarterback. He measured 5 feet, 11¾ inches and weighed 207 pounds at the combine.
Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is among those in the league who view Manziel with skepticism.
“Evaluation is a comparison business,” Arians, a former Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator, said at the owners meetings. “If you’re 6-5, 230, run a certain time, there’s like 35 guys I can compare you to that have been successful in this league. If you’re 5-11, there’s two, unless you go back to Fran Tarkenton: Doug Flutie and Russell Wilson. That’s not real good odds to me. You still might make it, but history says no.
“Just because you’re 5-11 doesn’t mean you can’t be successful. Johnny has magic. … Playing against Flutie in college, that wasn’t fun. He had that magic, too. But it took him a long time to be successful in the National Football League.”
Size seems to be even more valuable in the AFC North, where games are played in cold-weather cities and dominant defenses often lurk. What Manziel lacks in height in weight, he might actually be able to compensate for, at least to some degree, with 9 ⅞-inch hands.
“Hand size is more of a direct correlation to functionality than height,” Whitfield said. “There’s all kinds of big, tall guys, but you can’t really impose your height on the ball. Your hand can, though. So I don’t think he’s going to have a problem spinning the ball in the rain and the snow and the heavy wind drift that we get in Cleveland. He’s not a dome quarterback. He’s a scrappy guy that’s going to make plays, and he’s got mitts.”
Wilson helped the Seattle Seahawks win the Super Bowl in February, so Manziel’s size might be under less scrutiny than it would have in years past.
His tendency to evacuate the pocket early and scramble instead of dropping back and consistently picking defenses apart has actually been criticized more often. Even as NFL offenses evolve and implement the read-option, operating within the framework of the pocket remains a necessity for quarterbacks.
“The big question with him is can he play with structure?” Pettine said. “His plays are made when he gets out of structure. I don’t think there’s any reason to think he can’t. The questions that people have are if you try to force him to be that classic pocket quarterback, will that affect his ability to make those plays that he’s made? I think the kid understands that.”
Manziel has heard the knock countless times, and he made it clear at the combine that his primary goal during the pre-draft process is to defy “all the people that are saying that I’m just an improviser.” Pocket presence has been a main point of emphasis for Manziel and Whitfield as they’ve worked out this offseason in San Diego.
Whitfield has faith Manziel can be effective in the pocket and cites what he considers an overlooked statistic. Manziel completed 73 percent of his passes from inside the pocket last season, best among quarterbacks from BCS automatic-qualifier conferences, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
“I just think his highlight plays so dwarf and dominate everything else he’s doing,” Whitfield said. “The other 45 plays that he was on time or got to the third read or the check down, they’re just not as sexy. Highlights are always going to dominate, but, yeah, absolutely he can [play in the pocket]. He’s smart.”
Being smart enough to protect oneself from potential injury in the heat of the moment is vital. Many analysts point out that Manziel puts his body in harm’s way too often while running around, and the wear and tear of a 16-game NFL season is unforgiving.
“I don’t think Manziel’s ever going to give up on a play,” Arians said. “All these kids, they look like they’re going to take it to the wire. Now are they tough enough to get hit by these guys? None of them are fast enough to get away. They might think they are, but they ain’t getting away from these guys chasing them. It’s a different animal chasing them.”
Manziel is trying to distance himself from concerns about his off-field behavior as if they’re blitzing linebackers. Social-media miscues, underage drinking and quarrels with the NCAA over his autograph created distractions at Texas A&M.
He hopes to convince teams that he’ll abandon the party scene and TMZ lifestyle.
“I believe whenever I decided to make this decision to turn professional it was a time to really put my college years in the past,” Manziel said. “This is a job now. There’s guys’ families, coaches’ families and jobs and all kinds of things on the line. For me, it’s nothing. It won’t be a hard thing to kick.”
When Browns General Manager Ray Farmer meets with Manziel, he’ll delve into questions about character.
Said Farmer at the combine: “How would he define himself? What would he say is his core character makeup? What does he think of his opportunity to play in the National Football League? Is it a privilege? Is it an honor? Is it a right? And how does he see himself impacting, not only his individual performance in the game, but how does he impact his teammates?”
Whitfield has no doubt Manziel will provide the right answers and back them up.
“He works,” Whitfield said. “He has been evolving.”
Whether Manziel’s evolution serves him well at the next level remains to be seen. He projects the confidence of a bona fide franchise quarterback. The Browns just might be the team that’ll gamble on whether he’ll really become one.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.