Oh, how they love the money they make off Johnny Manziel — the No. 1 sales rank for his No. 2 jersey, the huge crowds that chant his name at training camp, the way he occupies and tickles the mindset of a forlorn Rust Belt town suddenly deriving hope from hosting the two raging megacelebrities of American sports. What they don’t like, these shallow-thinkers who run the Cleveland Browns, is the very reason Manziel is known as Johnny Football and claims a larger place in the national sporting consciousness than Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman or anyone else in the NFL.
You can’t have one without the other, gentlemen, the jersey buys without the Jager bombs and the ticket sales without the tweets.
When the Browns decided to buck rampant, league-wide Johnnyphobia and trade up for his services on draft night, they knew exactly what they were getting. As a quarterback, they were acquiring an improvisational magician, the most exciting college football player of his time and maybe any time. As a personality, the Browns were getting a social media madman. What, they thought he’d suddenly grow up with a fat, regular paycheck in his pocket? Since arriving in northeast Ohio, Manziel has taken his nightlife persona to new levels — clubbing with Drake, a party at Bieber’s, mugging with Gronk, floating on an inflated swan with a champagne bottle, getting a buzz on in Vegas and Hollywood and Austin and New York and, oh yes, photographed as he rolled a bill of dollar currency in a bathroom. This is Johnny Pro Football at play, and the Browns are said to be “alarmed.’’
Keep in mind he hasn’t been arrested. Keep in mind that several of his teammates, dozens of NFL colleagues and legions of 21-year-olds everywhere have been engaged in similar behavior this summer, especially if they didn’t have to work the next day like Manziel. Keep in mind that we saw no evidence of anything Manziel might have been putting inside the rolled-up bill, that he could have been using it to pick his nose. The Browns are “alarmed’’ because Johnny Pro Football continues to be Instagrammed, Tweeted and Facebooked, and if they’re actually surprised this is happening, then they need a crash course on life in 2014. As it was, team owner Jimmy Haslam already was a suspicious character upon news that his truck-stop company, Pilot Flying J, was being investigated in a federal fraud case that forced Haslam to accept a $92 million fine and repay $56 million to cheated customers. Now, only days after that settlement in a probe that still might result in his indictment, Haslam is urging Manziel to behave.
“I think Johnny said it well — he made some rookie mistakes. The really great athletes make their news on the field and not off the field,’’ said Haslam, quite the hypocrite as he reeled off the names of LeBron James, Derek Jeter, Manning and Brady.
As his rookie season officially begins, Manziel has admitted — with media prodding and urgings from team management — that he spent the last two months in post-frat mode. But he doesn’t seem terribly remorseful about it and, really now, should he be? Is it entirely his fault that he can’t go anywhere in this country without someone taking his photo or tweeting his whereabouts? You can say he has invited the attention with his eagerness to use social media, but again, his popularity across all media platforms is why the NFL and the Browns are cashing in on his merchandising success and why Manziel is the league’s biggest story when he has yet to take a snap in a league game. The Browns want it both ways, and while it would be nice if Manziel simply went home after practice each day and locked himself in a suburban apartment like a hermit, that isn’t fair.
I am not condoning his drinking. I’m certainly not condoning the use of anything he might stuff into a rolled-up bill. Eventually, too much of either would catch up to him, and he’d fade out of the league as a burnout and overhyped bum. That will be his decision, as it was in the early ‘90s for the player to whom Manziel is most compared. As a rookie in Atlanta, Brett Favre was a partying lunatic, the boozer of Buckhead, and while he later would have a Vicodin addiction related the football-induced pain, Favre became smart enough to generally settle down in Green Bay and become one of the all-time greats. What the Browns fear about Manziel is his stubbornness, along with a comment last year from Manziel’s father in an ESPN.com piece by Wright Thompson. Knowing that his son has had therapy for alcohol and anger issues, Paul Manziel said, “It could come unraveled. And when it does, it’s gonna be bad. Real bad.”
Could it come unraveled in Cleveland, where his popularity has soared to unseen levels? Sure, it can. But are the Browns handling it properly, with an owner who has his own issues stepping forward and telling Manziel to undergo an immediate Manning/Brady personality transplant? If they hadn’t discussed these issues internally, if they didn’t have a better game plan for his maturation, why the hell did they draft him?
Jonathan Paul Manziel — BFF Drake should know it’s pronounced “Man-zell,’’ not “Man-zeel’’ as he said while hosting the ESPYs — is a young man who squeezes the most from life whether it’s a weekend afternoon in a stadium or the wee hours of a Saturday morning by a banquette and a DJ. The Browns will have to live with it or get rid of him, because you sense he isn’t going to change much until he wants to change. He believes the reason he has succeeded, as a performer and a personality, is his passion for all things in life. Be truthful: If you owned a slice of Planet Earth at 21, would you change because a boss said so, particularly when that boss hired you BECAUSE you had such a passion?
“The reason that I’m popular or the reason that people follow me and there’s been such a buzz around me is when I went out on Saturdays at Texas A&M, I played with an extreme amount of passion and I played with my heart on my sleeve, but more than anything, I had fun,” Manziel said over the weekend. “I have fun playing this game, and it’s what I live for. It’s what I do, (and it’s the) same way off the field. Whether I’m playing golf, going out, having a night life, whatever it is, I have a lot of fun. That’s what my life is, and luckily for me I’m living out my dream of playing in the NFL having a ton of fun.
“My dream has come true, and (I) finally got some time to get some downtime and celebrate that with my family, with my friends. This is the greatest life that I could have ever imagined for me, and I’m loving that. Will I continue to get better being a professional and learn lessons about life? Of course. I’m 21 years old. And age is not an excuse, but I need to mature, and I have done some immature things. But moving forward I’m going to try and mature and get better at handling myself as a professional. That’s really all I can say about that.”
As he spoke at a podium, thousands of people who didn’t care about the Browns last year — and haven’t cared much since the league handed Cleveland a franchise as payback for the exodus of the original Browns to Baltimore — were clamoring for a peek at the rock star. “I’ve had an incredible fan base that’s followed me, but it’s really come out of the woodwork here in Cleveland for me,’’ he said. “It’s truly incredible.’’ Haslam loves the attention for his team, but now, he’s hellbent on demanding humility from the sensation who is bringing the attention. Do you blame Manziel for seeing through the charade?
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me going out and having a night life, having a social life,” he said. “I mean, I am 21 years old and I do like going out, and it was the offseason. It’s free time for us, and if I want to go out and hang out with my friends or go to nightclubs or do things like that then I think that’s within my rights to be doing that. I think there’s other guys throughout the league that are doing that and I’m not trying to compare myself to anybody else, but I think that’s within my rights to be doing that.”
Part of the “grounding’’ of Johnny Football is making it clear he won’t be the starting QB in the regular-season opener. In describing veteran Brian Hoyer as “a class act,’’ Haslam seems to be sending a message to Manziel to focus entirely on football. Is it possible, now that the preseason games are nearly upon us, that Manziel will try to appease his bosses and at least acknowledge pro football is not college football? “I think there are definitely things moving forward to help better act as a professional,’’ he said. “At the same time, I’m still learning how to do that. I’m still getting used to this role, still getting used to this league, still getting used to being a pro football player. I’m not in college anymore. There’s things I need to do better, and that’s just part of being a professional. Hopefully with time and going through this season and as time goes on, I’ll get better at doing that.”
He probably doesn’t realize it, but the Browns are doing him a major favor by having him watch the first few games in his ballcap, surely turned backwards. Spoiled as we’ve been by immediate quarterback sensations such as Wilson, Andrew Luck and, in his rookie season, Robert Griffin III, no QBs in this draft class are ready to start from the outset. Assuming Hoyer — a Cleveland-area native who backed up Brady in New England and won his three starts last season before blowing out his knee — stumbles at some point in his knee brace, expect Manziel to see the most action of any rookie passer. He’s better off watching Hoyer face a hostile crowd Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh instead of, um, throwing three interceptions and fumbling twice.
Or, ending up in the hospital from a hit by a defender who can’t stand Johnny Football.
“It’s not two short little plays anymore,” Manziel said. “You have a lot to a play call. You have a lot to read. You have a lot of different things that weren’t asked of me at (Texas) A&M. You have to deal with protections. You have to deal with certain things.”
The trick is how to keep him interested when he’s not playing. He says he doesn’t do much in Cleveland but practice, head to Chipotle and go home. He also has been dating someone, a Texas Christian University student Colleen Crowley, but unless she transfers to Baldwin Wallace, he will have time on his hands in a town where all 400,000 people in Cleveland and 3.5 million people in the metropolis will know it when he visits a bar.
The best solution is for Johnny Football to learn the pro game as quickly as possible, perform well, win on Sundays and celebrate as he pleases until the work week resumes Wednesday. That may or may not happen. But it’s up to Haslam and the Browns to manage a unique, complex situation and turn it into one of the biggest coups in NFL history.