HOUSTON – For a while it seemed the magic of Johnny Football could overcome the curse of Cleveland. The Browns drafted a quarterback 22nd in the 2014 NFL Draft, and he wasn’t the kind they usually take at that spot. This was no Brady Quinn or Brandon Weeden, who were 22nd in prior Browns drafts when they should have been 222nd.
Johnny Manziel sounded so much more confident, and Cleveland rushed to embrace him. In a city that’s had its teeth kicked in, again and again, bravado can be a welcome thing. So for a few hours, the team’s future looked promising for years. Manziel heaving the football at Josh Gordon, who in just his second season led all NFL receivers in yards.
But then, newsflash: We interrupt the Johnny Football Show to report that Josh Gordon failed his second test for marijuana and has been suspended for one year.
Gordon is in the wrong state. If he were playing for a team in Colorado or California or Washington, he could plausibly contend he had a “contact high.”
So stack this in a long line of disappointments for the City of Almost. The Elway Drive, Michael Jordan’s shot over Greg Ehlo in 1989, Game 7 of the ’97 World Series, Art Modell’s desertion, LeBron James. On and on goes the curse.
In the 15 years since the second-edition Browns stepped in for the ones Modell swept off to Baltimore, Cleveland has made just one playoff appearance. Last year’s 4-12 was a fairly typical Browns achievement.
Well now there’s a new coach, Mike Pettine, who says he likes Manziel’s chin-first personality, the way he leads his team and community in a unified effort. He brought an instant surge in ticket and jersey sales. Manziel basks in his public role, admits he’s set up “a target on my back.” He’s reading tweets welcoming him to the AFC North and promising to rearrange his skeleton.
Johnny shrugs. He’s ready for whatever the North throws at him, including the weather. He sounds almost giddy about an opportunity to show that a kid from Texas A&M can thrive in the freezing gales off the Great Lakes. If the Combine taught us one thing about him, it’s that he has large hands – the better to grip a frozen football, and spike it.
Houstonians, from the mayor on down, had urged the local team to draft the local hero, Manziel, with the No. 1 overall pick that was the fruit of a 2-14 season. But Texans general manager Rick Smith did not deem any of this year’s quarterback class worthy of No. 1 overall. With the first pick, he was looking for a potential Hall of Famer, which is what Jadeveon Clowney is said to be, with the size and skill set of Lawrence Taylor.
The question about Clowney is his passion. Is football important other than for the money it brings? The Texans hope that playing alongside the relentless J.J. Watt will bring a transformation. In Smith’s vision Watt and Clowney will form the most lethal inside-outside pass rush east of Seattle.
But how reliable is Clowney? Mike Mayock, NFL Network draft guru, said he “disappears. The left tackle for Clemson, Brandon Thomas, I thought got the best of him the entire game. . . . Sometimes he gets blocked and stays blocked.”
Once Clowney left the stage on Broadway, and Blake Bortles became the first quarterback called, by Jacksonville at No. 3, the Johnny Freefall was the television story line of Draft Day, which drew a record 32 million television viewers. Much unlike Geno Smith of last year’s Longest Wait, Manziel did not appear crestfallen waiting for two hours in the bright bulbs of the “green room.”
He was accompanied in QB freefall by Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, who back in December was considered the draft’s likely No. 1 pick.
Both were damaged by misinformation. Manziel was constantly described as “not a pocket passer,” even though he completed 73.5 percent last year from the pocket. Bridgewater plunged amid rumors of circulatory problems. The truth was he had a slightly abnormal heartbeat, but it was no threat to his career.
Bridgewater started sliding after his pro Day, when he tossed some knuckleballs, with his failure to wear gloves probably a factor. Also weighing him down were reports that he had business advisers, including an agent, who are not well respected in NFL circles.
There were fears of another Vince Young debacle, a rich young athlete bankrupted when he leaves his finances to those who are unqualified.
The Dallas Cowboys, choosing 16th, considered Manziel. But not for long. For once, Jerry Jones put something ahead of a marketing windfall. He couldn’t have his current franchise quarterback, Tony Romo, pressured by its future one, Manziel, especially with his local ties and army of fans. “It wouldn’t be fair to Tony,” Jones said.
Or as Manziel quipped: “I don’t know if the world could have handled it.”
Manziel slid on down to Cleveland, which had skipped him twice. Entering Round 2, the Browns knew about Gordon’s suspension, but they took no action to pull a receiver out of a draft that was deep in them.
Bridgewater finally found his level at No. 32, when Minnesota traded to acquire Seattle’s first-rounder. This left the Texans in a dilemma at the top of the second round. They had promised their fans a quarterback.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, turnover maker in the style of Matt Schaub and backup to Jake Locker in Tennessee, was not supposed to be the starting quarterback in Houston. He would be a smart (Harvard-educated) veteran guide for the rookie who could be picked at the top of the second round. Whoever slips through: Bortles or Manziel or Bridgewater.
But with Bridgewater snatched just ahead of them, the Texans saw only one NFL-ready quarterback available: Derek Carr of Fresno State, brother of another Fresno quarterback, David Carr, the first draft pick of the first-year Texans in 2002. Normally that should be a credit. Not here.
The last thing the Texans want to do is revisit the Carr era — so many sacks that the O-line stopped helping the quarterback to his feet. But inevitably there would be his dad, Rodger Carr, picking him up after practice, just like in high school.
Even though Derek has a stronger arm, higher release point and far more sense than his brother, there would be too much baggage for a Clowney-Carr draft. Better not to have a franchise quarterback. You’re welcome, Oakland.
So after being outmaneuvered by Rick Spielman, GM of the Vikings, Smith resigned his team to mediocrity at quarterback. Though he bolstered the defense and offensive lines, his failure to bring in a quarterback left perennial All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson expressing “frustration” and questioning if he wants to stay in Houston. Not until the fourth round did the Texans find a worthy backup to Fitzpatrick. If there could be such a thing.
They uncovered the ultimate journeyman: Tom Savage tried to play for three colleges and wasn’t very good at any. Now he will learn from Fitzpatrick, who’s with his third NFL team in a year. It makes such perfect sense, after all, such symmetry. The Texans will be all they can be: a defense nobody wants to face and an offense that’s the ideal training ground for journeyman quarterbacks.
Click here for ESPN.com article, “Teddy Bridgewater didn’t want to go to Browns.”