LLANO, Texas – From where I sit, sixty miles from where Johnny Manziel went to high school and became Johnny Football, it’s too easy to pillory the Cleveland Browns quarterback whose much trumpeted debut ended in a 30-0 drubbing by the Cincinnati Bengals.
America piled on the arrogant money-rubbing, bird-flipping, champagne-dousing brat who assumed it was going to be easy to transfer his zigzagging, make-it-up-on-the-fly game to the structured NFL, where improvisation is supposed to be the last resort, not the first one.
Many NFL/TV analysts saw it coming. The day before the game, ESPN’s Merril Hodge, retired running back, called Manziel “a sixth-round talent with first-round hype.” The day after the game he said whoever made the decision to draft Manziel “needs to be fired.”
Indeed, Manziel put up some ugly numbers: 55% completions, 4.4 yards per pass, 2 interceptions, 0 touchdowns.
Here are some even uglier numbers: 38%, 4.0 ypp, 2 INT, 0 TD. That’s what Aaron Rodgers did in the Green Bay Packers’ loss the same day at Buffalo.
Nobody is saying that performance defines anything, because Rodgers has a lengthy body of work that established MVP talent. But in his early pro appearances, media reports noted that his arm strength was much inferior to that of his predecessor Brett Favre. Nobody says that anymore.
The point is, all quarterbacks have bad games, and most – even high draft picks — play poorly as rookies. Recall Peyton Manning tossing 28 picks, Troy Aikman completing 53 percent, Donovan McNabb 49 percent.
At the same time Johnny Forgettable was being pummeled in Cleveland, another rookie quarterback, Tom Savage, was making a much less heralded but no less significant debut for the Houston Texans, who entered play last weekend with a better chance for a playoff berth than Cleveland did.
Savage did not start against the Indianapolis Colts. He was the backup to Ryan Fitzpatrick, who broke his ankle during a first-quarter scramble in which, as is his custom, he refused to slide to avoid a collision.
The Texans were leading 7-0 when they lost their veteran quarterback and had to call in Savage. He was better than Manziel: 10 of 19 for 127 yards, one pick. But he was equally disoriented, going one direction when the rest of the team went the other, fumbling a couple of handoffs, disconnecting with receivers. And ultimately losing the game, 17-10.
The problem Sunday was not just rookie quarterbacks but rookie coaches. That can be a disastrous combination. It’s the coach’s job to prepare these kids to play. Manziel, the ballyhooed first-round pick, and Savage, the vagabond fourth-rounder, clearly were not prepared.
Savage in practice sessions this year has not had even one snap with the first-team offense. It was as if Bill O’Brien never considered the possibility that the run-happy Fitz might get hurt.
O’Brien did a much better job prepping another quarterback, Ryan Mallett, for his first pro start earlier in the season. O’Brien chose a bye week to work Mallett into the starting lineup and give him time to mesh with his center and receivers.
Andre Ware, the former Heisman-winning QB, said on Houston’s 610-AM, “When the Texans got Ryan Mallett ready, they worked him as No. 1 for ten days. I didn’t think they could have Manziel ready without doing that.”
Mallett, who threw for 210 yards in beating Cleveland but then tore a pectoral muscle in a training-room mishap, had the advantage of two years of backup service for the New England Patriots.
Manziel was trying to change from a spread offense at Texas A&M in which he operated exclusively from the shotgun. He did not have to retreat into a pocket and then step up and drive the ball. His footwork in an NFL system is entirely different, and he’s not close to mastering the switch.
But that’s not to say he can’t.
You have to like the way he accepted responsibility. Wearing a well tailored suit, he faced the media after the game and said of one of his interceptions: “If you’re 6 years old playing in the driveway you can’t throw that ball.”
One who saw it coming was Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. He had so little concern over Manziel that he went on radio a few days before the game and called him “a midget.”
To which Manziel responded: “I don’t think they’d say that about Drew Brees.”
Brees and Manziel are precisely the same height – 5 foot, 11 ¾ inches. But Brees long ago proved that he can win and excel anyway.
Intelligence can overcome other quarterbacking deficiencies. Manziel reportedly scored 30 on the Wonderlic test of cognitive ability. Most NFL quarterbacks scored much lower.
Manziel’s problem is that he has too much faith in his talent and brains. He didn’t think he needed to put in 15 hours a day studying plays and game film.
But this also is where coaching comes in. Phil Simms, an NFL quarterback who started as a rookie, tells of his first day at Bill Parcells’ training camp with the New York Giants: “Parcells told me, ‘When I get here at 5, I expect you to have the coffee made. And I expect you to be the last person to leave here at night.”
When Manziel a few days after camp began asked Mike Pettine if it was OK to go to Las Vegas for a weekend, the coach said go ahead. He should have said, “That’s fine if you’re not interested in being our starting quarterback.” Parcells would have said: “You must be out of your bleeping mind.”
Instead of burying his head in his playbook, Manziel created a national sensation by sending instagrams from Vegas and touring night clubs, where photos emerged of him squirting patrons with champagne.
He has rarely been the last person leaving Browns camp at Berea, Ohio. He didn’t get serious about his studies until Pettine named him starter. “I know a lot of people were looking for him at the Cavs game,” Pettine said. “He was here.”
Teammates such as Joe Haden commented that Johnny was putting in late hours at the practice compound the week before his debut. But he was like a college kid cramming for finals after skipping homework for the previous three months. He couldn’t catch up.
So he had to learn his lesson the hard way. But isn’t that how it is for most of us?
Click here for Mark Roberson’s earlier look at Johnny Manziel