For two hours and 45 minutes, this was the NFL dishing out its comeuppance, punishing Johnny Manziel for all his issues, all his naughty photos and brash Tweets, all his parties and celebrity friends, all his money-grab gestures and defiant words, all his women and nightclubs and NCAA probes. This also was the NFL’s way of expressing concerns about his wild improvisational romps on the field, its doubts that a 5-11 kid can avoid the emergency room 16 weeks a season for a dozen years, but more than that, this was about no one wanting to gamble on the gambler for most of the first round.
One by one, as Manziel tried to calmly sip from a water bottle in the green room at Radio City Music Hall, franchises rejected him Thursday night. The Texans, ignoring billboards in Houston urging the drafting of the local legend and tuning out Manziel’s threat that they’d be sorry for not taking him, selected Jadeveon Clowney with the top pick. The Jaguars, who never wanted Tim Tebow either, eschewed Manziel for Blake Bortles, a QB project without the charisma and sizzle of Johnny Football. “He’s a down-to-earth guy, a self-made guy, a blue-collar guy and he wants to be the best he can be,’’ Jacksonville general manager Dave Caldwell said of Bortles, from just down the highway at Central Florida. “He just needs a little time.’’
The cameras panned to Manziel. He was wounded, but the night was young. The so-called obvious destination of Cleveland? The Browns, with veteran players urging the pick of receiver Sammy Watkins over Manziel, traded the fourth choice down to Buffalo, which selected Watkins. Might the Browns be playing possum, waiting to take Manziel later in the round? Who knew at that point? Oakland, always an ideal destination for a renegade, rejected Manziel for linebacking phenom Khalil Mack. Tampa Bay, rumored to have interest, passed on Manziel for his favorite receiver at Texas A&M, Mike Evans. When Cleveland traded up for the No. 8 pick, a hush fell over the big theater in midtown Manhattan, and ESPN’s Jon Gruden, playing cheerleader for Manziel from the top pick on, said this had to be where his guy was headed.
Nope. The Browns selected cornerback Justin Gilbert. The Vikings, who desperately need a quarterback, opted for linebacker Anthony Barr. Didn’t the Rams, at No. 13, have a stated liking of Manziel? They preferred Aaron Donald, a defensive tackle. Suddenly, the Manziel death spiral was in progress, and suddenly, he was the biggest story again, as always, with America wondering how the kid who attracts all the attention was dealing with the rare sensation of being ignored.
“A lot of people must know something I don’t,’’ Gruden moped on the set.
What was Manziel saying the other day about Jerry Jones? “For me it would be really, really cool to go there,” he said of the homestate Dallas Cowboys. “Jerry Jones has been extremely nice to me. He’s treated me very, very well and we’ve developed a little bit of a friendship over the past year and a half, just going to games or whatever it be.” So did Jones take Manziel? Nah, he took offensive tackle Zack Martin.
Manziel was naked to the world. Might he fall completely out of the first round? Would it come down to Kansas City taking him at No. 23 to back up Alex Smith, who is on the last year of his contract? The only thing making sense, with midnight not too far off in a cold and lonely place, was the Nike ad campaign designed around Manziel. The theme: Being dissed.
“There are no sure things in the NFL draft,’’ the ad read. “But this is what we know for sure: Height is everything and sometimes nothing. Hand size is a key indicator of success, but not always. 40-times are critical, though overrated. Scouts should see it on film, unless it can’t be seen on film. Every team is looking for that special something, unless you have that something else. Just do it.’’
It’s a tantalizing story line, you must admit, Manziel trying to embarrass those who rejected him. Nine years ago, I seem to recall a California quarterback sitting in the green room seemingly forever until Green Bay, with the 24th pick, took Aaron Rodgers.
Finally, there was a break, a development. The Browns, in a deal with Philadelphia, traded up to No. 22. It would be an act of cruelty at this point if they took, oh, a lineman. Again, the crowd paused and listened to Goodell. From the card, he read the name Johnny Manziel.
Johnny Cleveland. Johnny Cuyahoga. Johnny (We Haven’t Been The Same Since LeBron Left Town) Football comes to the rust belt.
He had stolen the show. With a predictable money-grab gesture — his F You to the teams that didn’t take him — Manziel walked to the podium and greeted Goodell.
“I told myself from the beginning, God had a plan for me,’’ he said, Browns cap on head. “I knew it all would work out. I really thought Cleveland was where I should end up. It feels right. It’s where I was meant to be. Dog Pound, here we come.’’
And what can they expect of him in a town known for its sports futility? “A lot of heart, a lot of passion,’’ he said. “I bring a winning attitude. I’ll pour my heart out for this team and this city.’’
Last time we saw wheeling and dealing like this, it was in a movie last week called “Draft Day.’’ In it, Kevin Costner plays a general manager — of the Cleveland Browns — who rejects a hotshot quarterback with character issues. Jimmy Haslem, Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine flipped the script in real life.
Football executives, by nature, are blithering cowards. While I’d rather draft Manziel and miss badly than reject him and watch him become Brett Favre 2.0, too many talent judges protect their jobs first, business egos second and kids’ college funds third. This explains why the TEXANS, handed the tantalizing script of a ready-made legend who grew up in TEXAS and became a national phenomenon at TEXAS A&M, made the football-safe play and selected Clowney. Which is odd, because last I looked, football executives were concerned that Clowney lacks the heart and passion to reach his enormous potential as a pass-rusher, while even Manziel’s harshest critics — too numerous to list by name — acknowledge the size of his heart on any game day. Football people overthink these matters into pretzel knots. If Manziel is such a traumatic gamble, isn’t Clowney a traumatic gamble, too?
The most important position in all team sports, including the one whose World Cup will be contested next month assuming Rio is ready for anything but riots, remains the quarterback of an NFL team. So if we can break this down into simple rationale and not strain our brains with valuations, 15-year projections and algorithms — I think every numbers geek should change his name to Al Gorithm — any team that needed a QB and saw Manziel as the top-rated QB really should have drafted him. Then it would do everything in its power, from the front office to the coaching staff to the players in the locker room, to make sure Manziel’s considerable talents are given the maximum chance to succeed. If that happens, the Browns will have a player capable of winning Super Bowls, changing the feel-good quotient of a city, defining the NFL for years and continuing to be one of the most captivating athletes in the land. I’d prefer to take a stab at all that happening on my watch than handing the Johnny Pro Football silver platter to a rival team.
And if Manziel turns out to be a bust whose passer rating is in the same neighborhood as his blood-alcohol level on a Saturday night? Or if he becomes an improvisional fool who bounces around like a pinball and ends up in the hospital every other week? Then fire me as GM. But I see too much Favre and Steve Young in him not to take the chance.
On draft eve, Manziel was asked by reporters in New York if teams will regret having not taken him. You know what his answer was.
“I believe they will personally,” he said. “Because I know in my heart how good I want to be and how committed I am to this game. I’ve tried to show them how committed I am to this game and how much this is really my life. This is what I’ve loved doing for a very long time now. I just wouldn’t be able to sleep or just live with myself if things didn’t go the way I wanted. And you never know, there’s some things you just can’t control in football. But I know I’m not going to go through this process and look back at it and say I wasn’t successful because I didn’t put in enough time or put in enough effort.”
He is small, quite small. He could be abused like a pinball battered by the side flippers. But Manziel wants everyone to know that he’s all ears, contrary to the haters’ profile of him. “I see there’s room for me to improve, but to say I’m just a backyard-football quarterback, I don’t think you do what I did in college and do some of those things (with that style),” Manziel said. “I don’t think that’s extremely fair. I hear it, but for me, I know it’s all about my work ethic and my will to get better. That’s very alive and inside me. I don’t want to be what I was in college. Obviously, I want to be better.
“I play with a lot of heart, play with a lot of passion. I feel like I play like I’m 10-feet tall. A measurement to me is just a number. You can ask my teammates, you can go back and ask anybody — when we needed to make a play, those guys would want the ball in my hands. The guys on my team know I’ll do anything and everything for them until there’s no time left on the clock, on or off the field, whatever it may be.’’
Off the field, he said. Tell me: When was the last time you heard of Manziel, just 21, doing something unfortunate in his personal life? Any arrests? Any naughty Instagrams? Any regrettable Tweets? Not that I’ve seen. Those things were last year, after he won the Heisman Trophy, when he was enjoying the perks and meeting Drake and LeBron and playing Pebble Beach and hanging courtside at NBA teams. Yes, he was immature at times. He also was 20, dealing with jealousy and social-media nitwits. I’m impressed at how he’s grown up, how far he has come since his father worried publicly about his drinking problems and whether he’s pick up Johnny from a gutter at some point. I don’t blame teams for asking. At the combine, one team spent its entire 15-minute interview drilling him about wine, women, weed and previous issues with the law and the NCAA.
“Any football questions?’’ Manziel asked.
“I think I’ve done a great job of alleviating concerns of these guys, them getting to know me on a more personal level,” Manziel said. “And I’ve answered every question, anything they wanted to hear from me. So there’s nothing for me to hide. I don’t think it’s wrong of me to enjoy my life and have fun. Throughout this whole process I’ve continued to work hard and do the things I need to do to try and become a better football player. That’s the main thing.
“I’m not getting to this level to be complacent.”
Another talented quarterback, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, produced a diluted urine sample at the scouting combine. Other prospects failed drug tests there. Yet here is Manziel as the draft arrives, clean and ready for the real world. “I think (the criticism) is what it is,” he said. “I’m able to handle it and able to really adapt to it. It’s not something that gets to me all that much. I’m just trying to be a professional and trying to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.”
If Houston would have been the perfect spot, geographically and spiritually, a depressed, desperate city in Ohio might be the place that needs him the most. Not only is Cleveland still in the throes of economic pain, its history of sports is a running tragicomedy. Between The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, losing Game 7 of a World Series and then, ultimately, losing LeBron James, the place truly needs a guiding light in sports. Sure, Manziel could wind up plastered four nights a week in the Warehouse District.
Or, he could be the seminal sports gift that the city deserves. The Browns have two Manziel protectors in left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack. They have a gamebreaking receiver in Josh Gordon. They signed a new running back, Ben Tate. They have a good defense. They have lots of money and draft picks. They have an owner, Jimmy Haslem, who is a running punchline and continues to be investigated by a grand jury for alleged wrongdoing in his truck-stop empire. They have a new general manager, a new coach, and they need a reason to keep the fans interested when the franchise has been such a killjoy.
Now, they have him. Haslem told ESPN he was convinced he should take Manziel because a homeless person on the Cleveland streets told him so. Sometimes, you wonder if that man might know more than some of these football executives.
Anyone who says no to Johnny Manziel is saying yes to another team’s prosperity. That’s coming straight from him, and at this point, seeing who he is and where he is after all the drama, you’d be a fool to doubt him.