Football executives, by nature, are blithering cowards. While I’d rather draft Johnny 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 Houston TEXANS, handed the tantalizing script of a ready-made legend who grew up in TEXAS and became a national phenomenon at TEXAS A&M, likely will make the football-safe play and select Jadeveon Clowney with the first pick of the 2014 NFL draft.
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 needs a QB and sees Manziel as the top-rated QB really should draft him. Then it should 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, that franchise 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. But I see too much Favre and Steve Young 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.”
While you need a b.s. meter to figure out which teams are lying, the most probable landing spot for Manziel is Cleveland with the fourth pick. Still, there were reports Wednesday that the Browns would pass on him. “He’ll be in the discussion at four,” coach Mike Pettine said late in the day. “I think it is very fluid.” 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 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.
They also are the subject of a movie, on pay-TV soon enough, in which the Browns seriously consider drafting a talented quarterback but pass because of character issues
That is fiction. What happens Thursday night is real.
Said Browns general manager Ray Farmer, per USA Today: “I would tell you that, for me, Johnny, for as much of a good college football player he is, I don’t know if I would ever tell anyone the answer to that question (is he worthy of the No. 4 pick?) until it’s all said and done. I mean, people like him. People think there is talent there. The question is, is Four too rich?’’
“I think it would be great,’’ Manziel said of Cleveland. “Whether it’s 1 or 200, I’m just ready to get back on the football field and start playing football.
“My family is here — my mom, dad and my sister will be here. I just feel like we’ve been through a lot the last couple of years whether it’s scrutiny or a lot of people coming into our lives or whatever it is. At the same time, it will be great to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine and be an NFL player, find out where I’m going to spend the next five years of my life. People from Kerrville, Texas, don’t make it to this stage. It’s just really crazy for me to think that I’m here.”
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.