If I had a dollar for every time Johnny Manziel said he had “a lapse of judgment,’’ I’d be rich enough to rub my fingers together and do his money-grab gesture. Point is, the episodes keep happening, even when he knows the searing eyes of “Monday Night Football’’ are upon him, and for that reckless reason alone, he isn’t ready to be a starting quarterback in the unforgiving Big Boy Pants enterprise known as the National Football League.
On a night that exposed him as a clueless, skittish brat, Johnny Football couldn’t handle the razzing of the Washington Redskins, a natural outgrowth of a celebrity career he has self-promoted with famous friends, public partying and a desire to live his life on social media. Rather than ignore those taunts — which included one of those money-grab signs by Redskins star Brian Orakpo — he raised his middle finger toward the Redskins’ bench in the third quarter of another unimpressive performance. There is much temptation for a heretofore non-descript franchise, at least since Cleveland relaunched as a expansion franchise in 1999, to anoint Manziel as the starter for the Sept. 7 season opener in Pittsburgh and vault the Browns into the national sports consciouness.
That would be a disaster. If Manziel can’t handle a preseason assignment, what will happen in a hostile environment against the rival Steelers, their rabid fans and the confusing defensive schemes of mastermind Dick LeBeau? How many birds would he flip that day? Worse, how many turnovers would he commit and ribs would be broken by defenders who want to put him in the hospital?
“It does not sit well,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said of the gesture. “It’s disappointing, because what we talk about is being poised and being focused, that you have to be able to maintain your pose. … That’s a big part of all football players, especially the quarterback, that we have to keep our composure. So that’s something we’ll obviously address with him.’’
It was painful enough to watch more inaccurate throws, errant defensive reads and the general bewilderment of a rookie who doesn’t know the Browns’ playbook — “much, much, much thicker’’ than the one he had at Texas A&M, as he says — and looks capable of an interception on every passing play. But the middle finger confirmed that Manziel should be standing on the sideline in a ballcap, surely turned backward, and continuing to study a pro game he obviously doesn’t understand. He has been mocked twice by opponents, and now that the entire league had seen that he can be provoked into a loss of composure, can you imagine the torrent of verbal abuse that awaits him?
“I get words exchanged throughout the entirety of the game, every game, week after week, and I should’ve been smarter,” Manziel said. “It was a `Monday Night Football’ game, and cameras were probably solid on me, and I just need to be smarter about that. It’s there, and it’s present every game, and I just need to let it slide off my back and go to the next play.’’
Yeah, but here’s the problem: Untold numbers of young quarterbacks have entered this league with staggering expectations — including the recent likes of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, Manziel’s rival on this night — and they don’t extend middle fingers on prime-time TV. “I felt like I did a good job of holding my composure throughout the night, and you have a lapse of judgment and slip up,” he said.. “I mean, I didn’t think it was positive.’’
He laughed, and a room of reporters laughed with him in the Washington suburbs. Or were they laughing at him? A flipped bird might be more easily excused, I suppose, if Manziel was playing well. But he struggled again in a sport predicated more than ever on the play of the quarterback, completing just 7 of 16 passes for 65 yards and one touchdown. His biggest problems came against Washington’s first-team defense, with his scoring pass coming against backups. “I really tried to force everything and not let it fly like I should have,’’ he said. “I need to get better at that and throw the dang ball.
“I don’t think I did a very good job today.’’
Why he can’t he throw the dang ball? Because the next level is in his head. For the first time, we are seeing the cocky little S.O.B. unravel on the football field. And much as Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and the hyperventilating TV networks want him playing for attention and ratings — CBS reportedly has assigned its top broadcasting crew, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, to the Pittsburgh game — Manziel isn’t remotely ready for the assignment. The Browns dearly wanted him to grab hold of a job that veteran Brian Hoyer, whose performance was equally ragged, hasn’t been able to seize. Is there a third option? Is rookie Connor Shaw a better idea?
“All the options are still on the table. We’ll see,’’ said Pettine, a first-year head coach who might prefer to be back in Buffalo as a coordinator. “They both missed some throws. We’re a work in progress.
“Somebody has to be ready.’’
Bernie Kosar? Brian Sipe? LeBron?
They missed some throws, all right. Neither could hit Lake Erie from the beach. “It’s embarrassing,’’ Hoyer said. “We started off poorly, and it never changed after that.’’
But at least Hoyer handled his struggles with dignity. Manziel snapped. His teammates weren’t impressed.
“A lot of people just scream out things that are very, very disrespectful,” All-Pro cornerback Joe Haden said. “He’s just got to zone it out.”
“You’ve got to know the cameras are always on you,” Hoyer said.
The Redskins were more excited about rattling Johnny Football than winning the game. “It was hilarious,” Orakpo chirped. “We were messing with him a little bit, just saying this ain’t college and stuff like that. We were having a little fun. Manziel flipped us off. It was something funny. We were all laughing on the sidelines.”
Said linebacker Perry Riley, per ESPN.com: “I think we won that battle with Manziel. Him flipping us off, that’s just extra.”
Right about now, a franchise owner in Houston is looking smart. Bob McNair of the Texans decided that drafting Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 pick was a better idea than Manziel, the local kid from Texas Hill Country and College Station. “I knew with Manziel it would be a frenzy,” McNair told ESPN.com last week. “And probably even if he didn’t succeed at being an outstanding NFL quarterback for a couple years, the fans would have been frenzied.”
Cleveland gambled on the frenzy, with Browns owner Jimmy Haslam urged by a homeless man on the city’s streets to draft Johnny Football. Maybe that fellow should put on a uniform and try out.