LLANO, Tex. – Full disclosure: I’m a Johnny Man-zealot. A journalist who’s always prided himself on his objectivity is shamelessly biased when it comes to Johnny Manziel. I’ve believed in his swashbuckling genius ever since he was a high school junior 60 miles from my home. In Texas terms, we’re neighbors.
In the rural parts of my bulky state, high school football is as vital as Friday Night Lights portrayed it. You hear about quarterbacks a county over. Middle-aged men with tall hats would sit at the Hungry Hunter on a Saturday morning, slopping their way through biscuits and gravy and discussing this Kerrville kid they called Johnny Football.
By the way, he wasn’t Johnny Football because he threw it and ran it better than anybody else (though he did), but because of his passion. You heard almost as much about that as the surreal athleticism.
When Johnny enrolled at Texas A&M, it was a deep personal loss for me, alumnus of the University of Texas. Or as the Aggies call it, Texas University. He was going to the most obnoxious of rivals, but only because Mack Brown judged him inferior to Case McCoy and David Ash. Johnny’s dream was to quarterback the Longhorns, but Mack thought he was a defensive back. You don’t ever want to get me started on Mack Brown.
Point is, when you root for an athlete in high school and then through college, you’d like him to go to a pro team you’ll see on a weekly basis. How convenient if the Houston Texans, who hold the upcoming No. 1 pick, would draft this Mozart of the gridiron. Alas, I have a sinking feeling they’ll take Salieri over Mozart, that once again Johnny will not get to go where he wants.
From what I hear, Bill O’Brien, the Texans’ new head coach, is focused on Manziel’s annoying but correctable behavioral flaws and his not so correctable height deficiency. O’Brien is failing to appreciate talents that have not been seen before by anyone at any size. It’s not only that Manziel won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman, it’s the creativity under stress, how he rescues a hopeless play with an acrobatic twist and turn. He’s a smaller but quicker Ben Roethlisberger, or, if you prefer, a bigger, stronger Russell Wilson.
Manziel is also smart. Of the four quarterbacks generally projected for the first round of the May draft, he reportedly had the highest Wonderlic score, which measures intelligence under pressure. That would surprise no one who’s seen video of Manziel, but it might surprise O’Brien, who recently said the only quarterback film he’s reviewing is Blake Bortles, who last year beat his team, Penn State. This creates suspicion O’Brien wants the quarterback from Central Florida over the one from Central Texas.
Never mind that Manziel, playing in the Southeastern Conference, faced stronger defenses yet put up better stats both throwing and running than Bortles, who’s a year older, did in the American Athletic Conference.
But apparently this is not about performance on the field. It’s about inspiring teammates, sharpening their concentration and doing what makes the coach comfortable.
O’Brien posts locker-room signs he copied from Bill Belichick, who was his boss for five years: “Ignore the noise. . . . Put the team first.”
The knock on Johnny is he’s not averse to noise, he’s a distraction waiting to happen. He had some renowned off-the-field misadventures as a student-athlete in high school and college. These episodes were detailed by TSN’s Mark Roberson, whose fraternity Manziel disfigured by leaving an autograph of soaring graffiti. That article is posted below this one.
Manziel at 21 is trying to convince us he’s put adolescence behind, that he’s committed to behaving like an adult and a professional. Indeed, there have been no embarrassing escapades during the past seven months. But when he announced he wanted to play for Houston, he did so with more bombast than O’Brien would have preferred.
“I want everybody from the janitor at Reliant Stadium to the front office executive assistant all the way to Bob McNair to say, ‘This kid is 100 percent, can’t miss. This is who we want to be the face of our program. We want this Texas kid staying in Texas and leading the Texans.’”
Deion Sanders calls him “cocky” and “flamboyant,” qualities he says he loves – no doubt because those adjectives apply to the self-nicknamed Prime Time. But Sanders concedes that many people “won’t accept” such brashness. They don’t realize or care that vastly more athletes fail from too little, rather than too much, confidence.
Manziel is a stereotypical boisterous Texan who’s offensive to most non-Texans, Sanders excluded. Which makes him all the more lovable in his home state, no more so than in Houston, a hundred miles from Texas A&M. Or Texas M&A, as I call it.
O’Brien, 44, is a stereotypical reticent New Englander. He says he’s “uncomfortable talking about myself.”
He wants a quarterback more interested in being “the hardest-working guy on the team” than being face and voice of the franchise, a celebrity signing thousands of autographs. From New England Patriots coach Belichick, who calls him “Billy,” O’Brien learned the virtues of self-sacrifice and humility. Overlearned them, perhaps.
O’Brien likes the way Tom Brady rarely makes headlines except for winning game after game. Off the field he squires a glamorous wife but otherwise makes himself as uncelebrated as possible. He’s in the upright, stand-back mode of Unitas, Starr, Bradshaw, Staubach, Montana, Elway, Brees.
But it’s a mistake to rule out a free spirit. Super Bowls were won by Joe Namath cavorting till dawn and Ken Stabler reading playbooks “by the light of the jukebox.” Marathon boozer Bobby Layne won two rings. Jim McMahon, who drank about half as much, won only one.
Ben Roethlisberger, winner of two Super Bowls, knows his way around barrooms, especially those frequented by 20-year-old co-eds. But hey, Big Ben has been a model citizen after marrying three years ago. Surely it’s mere coincidence he hasn’t won any Super Bowls – or even played in one — since giving up the night life for family life.
It’s NFL tradition the head coach gets the call on a first-round draft pick. But I hold out a slim hope that McNair, the Texans’ owner, and Rick Smith, their seldom-heard-from general manager, will convince O’Brien of the unique virtuosity of Johnny Football and the marketing potential of such a magnificent distraction.
By the way, McNair might ask himself if he should put his faith entirely in a Belichick disciple. You don’t see many of that sort become notable head coaches. Remember Josh McDaniels? Eric Mangini? Romeo Crennel? Charlie Weis? What, you don’t? Exactly.
The problem may be that Belichick’s assistants think his success is due to a wallflower personality and players of the same ilk. They forget he signed the ever controversial Randy Moss when a game-busting receiver was needed to reach the Super Bowl.
O’Brien may be concerned that Manziel at 5-11 ¾ isn’t tall enough to see defenses the way Brady and Bortles can at 6-4. But Manziel is one eighth of an inch shorter than Drew Brees, a Super Bowl winner as is Wilson, who’s even shorter.
Jim Harbaugh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers who’s been watching Manziel on film even if O’Brien hasn’t, observed: “Johnny Manziel sees the field better than any quarterback I’ve ever seen.”
More than what Harbaugh says, O’Brien should consider the significance of Belichick recently inviting Manziel to visit him in New England. Old Stoneface thinks his protege may reject Manziel, and he can trade up and draft him. So that Johnny Autographs, as I call him, can be heir apparent to Brady, about to turn 37.
As the Johnny buzz and anti-buzz rage on, the wisest, most successful coach in the NFL does what he always does and what he always preaches: ignore the noise, put the team first.
This is more irony than I can stand.
Click here for Mark Roberson’s article on Johnny Football “Here’s Johnny: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”