INDIANAPOLIS: Former Browns coach Rob Chudzinski was chatting in the lobby bar at the J.W. Marriott hotel Saturday night, when a man he had never met approached.
The man shook Chudzinski’s hand, told him how unfairly he thought he had been treated, wished him well and offered his business card.
“That was another one,” Chudzinski said, flashing the card before he tucked it in his pocket.
Since Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine, the supporter’s reaction has been a common theme. Many who know Chudzinski, worked with him, played for him or played for the Browns believe he got a raw deal when he was fired Dec. 29 after less than 12 months on the job.
Former Browns secondary coach Chuck Pagano, the Indianapolis Colts coach who recently hired Chudzinski as his special assistant, couldn’t get the words out fast enough when encountered crossing the street after having dinner with Chudzinski on Thursday. Pagano, who has known Chudzinski since 1986 at the University of Miami, had just coerced a local cab driver to give Chudzinski a free ride to his car on the other side of Lucas Oil Stadium.
Former Browns tight end Steve Heiden, who played for Chudzinski in Cleveland in 2004 and in 2007-08, was another who immediately brought it up. Heiden is beginning his second season as the Arizona Cardinals assistant special teams/assistant tight ends coach.
Chudzinski was sitting at a table with former Browns offensive coordinator and receivers coach Terry Robiskie, who worked with Chudzinski in Cleveland in 2004 and has been a friend and mentor since.
Members of the national media, many still marveling over Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s quick trigger finger, wondered whether Chudzinski would have been given a second season if Haslam had first fired CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi, ousted Feb. 11.
The taming of Johnny Manziel might have gone too far.
The efforts of Manziel’s advisers to clean up the Texas A&M quarterback’s image robbed the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner of the “it” factor that has prompted many to tout him as the No. 1 pick in the May 8 draftt.
Perhaps it was only temporary. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that George Whitfield Jr., the quarterback guru from Massillon who has been working with Manziel in San Diego since the summer of 2012, was sitting in the middle of the second row. But during his Friday news conference, Johnny Football tried to become Johnny Perfect.
Manziel’s personality barely surfaced. His best line came 30 seconds in, when asked about his official measurement of 5-foot-11¾.
“I feel like I play like I’m 10 feet tall,” Manziel said. “A measurement to me is just a number.”
For the other 14 minutes and 30 seconds he talked, Manziel said all the right things. But it felt like he was hiding behind a mask. There was no passion in his voice, even when he talked about his passion for football.
“I feel like I play the game with a lot of heart and a lot of passion that really is unrivaled,” Manziel said. “My coach Julius Scott at Kerrville Tivy High, it didn’t matter who you were, what kind of player you were, he treated everybody the same and taught me no matter what the situation was, fight until the very end and don’t show any weakness.”
Perhaps Manziel had been so programmed before he arrived in Indianapolis about how to handle questions about his autograph scandal, his no-show at the Manning Passing Academy and penchant for clubs and casinos that he dialed it down too much.
Maybe he revealed more in his one-on-one interviews with individual teams. But there was none of the aura I expected, especially after reading recent interviews with the Houston Chronicle and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In the combine leadership and charisma department, Manziel didn’t compare to EJ Manuel, drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2013.
I’m coming around to the idea that the Browns should use the fourth overall pick on Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins and wait until No. 26 or 35 to draft their quarterback of the future.
Part of my thinking comes from being unimpressed by the top three quarterbacks — Manziel, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Central Florida’s Blake Bortles. There is no Andrew Luck in this class. At 6-foot-5 and 232 pounds, Bortles might be built like Ben Roethlisberger, but he’s a project. I have serious concerns about Manziel’s size (5-11¾, 207), proclivity for injury if he continues to run at the first sign of trouble and whether he’ll ever become a pocket passer.
Bridgewater (6-2, 214) is much leaner than I expected and has small hands (9¼ inches) with long, thin fingers more befitting a piano player. I loved Bridgewater’s personality; I had never heard a prospect talk so animatedly about his favorite play, even though he closely guarded its name. Bridgewater practically sparkled, and I could see how he could make the players around him better.
But for years, the Browns have had no offensive weapons opponents feared. Pairing Watkins with Josh Gordon would change that. They would present big match-up problems, especially if new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is as adept at finding ways to get Gordon open, as was his predecessor Norv Turner. Watkins would also help tight end Jordan Cameron.
When he faced Ohio State in the Orange Bowl, catching 16 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns, Watkins made the biggest positive impression on me by a draft prospect in a postseason game since Miami University’s Roethlisberger completed a pin-point pass in the back of the end zone in the 2003 GMAC Bowl against Louisville.
That day I said to myself, “The Browns have no one on the roster who can make that throw.”
New Browns GM Ray Farmer said Thursday there were opportunities for “curveballs” with their 10 draft picks. Selecting Watkins wouldn’t be a curveball, it would be a 100 mph fastball.