It is entirely possible that Johnny Pro Football, at 5-11 3/4ths and 207 pounds, will be ram-rodded around NFL fields like a pinball. It is entirely possible his next team will deal with wild nightclub stories, racy Instagram photos and indicting tweets. It is entirely possible he will be the next great quarterbacking bust and spend the rest of his life signing autographs at dusty Texas trade shows for $5 a pop.
Or, he could be the next Brett Favre.
“If I had to throw a comparison out there, Brett Favre — what a guy he was and a true gunslinger,” said Johnny Manziel, buying into it. “If I was throwing the ball in the backyard, with my Green Bay Packers’ No. 4 jersey on, when I was a kid, that’s who I was trying to be like.”
That very possibility is why the Houston Texans, who happen to have the No. 1 pick after Manziel became a country-western song just up the pike in College Station, can’t afford to bypass him on May 8. If they do reject him, and he proceeds to superstardom and continuing pop-culture phenomenon with Jacksonville or Cleveland or the franchise that does select him, the Texans may as well pack up the vans and relocate. A team in Houston cannot turn down a magician from Texas A&M and watch him be an American folk hero elsewhere. If he fails, he fails. If he’s squashed and concussed because he’s an improvisational fool, then make him the team mascot.
But the Texans must try, as Manziel dared them in a memorable blitz of comments the other day to the Houston Chronicle.
“It would be the worst decision (the Texans) ever made,” he said of the possibility of Jacksonvllle taking him at No. 3 after a Houston snub. “I’d be in the same division playing against them twice a year. Sorry, but you just turned that chip on my shoulder from a Frito into a Dorito.
“I want them to say absolutely, without a doubt, with 100 percent certainty, that I’m who they want. I want everybody from the janitor at Reliant Stadium to the front office executive assistant all the way up to (owner) Bob McNair to say, `This kid is 100 percent, can’t miss. This is who we want being the face of our program. We want the Texas kid staying in Texas and leading the Texans.’ ”
A Frito into a Dorito? Who wouldn’t want a franchise face this fun and quotable? So far, the Texans are non-committal, even with a pulsating city demanding that Manziel be the top choice. “He’s a colorful, confident guy,” general manager Rick Smith told USA Today at the combine. “You’ve got to appreciate that about him.”
This cannot be simply a football decision by McNair, Smith and new coach Bill O’Brien, who is more accustomed to working with dropback passers like Tom Brady. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to alter sports history and the dynamic of a city and state. Months ago, I wouldn’t have suggested any team take Manziel in the first round, given his rampant immaturity and non-stop party buzz. Yet he seems to have grown up at 21 and has no problem being scrutinized at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, where his every step, word and measurement — abnormally large hands, by the way, at 9 3/4 inches — is being absorbed and examined by executives, coaches and scouts.
So far, he’s striking the right tone.
“I have an opportunity now to move into a professional phase. I believe when I made this decision to turn professional, it was a time to really put my college years in the past,” Manziel said. “This is life. This is a job for me. I’m taking it very seriously. There’s guys’ families, coaches’ families and jobs, all kinds of things on the line. For me, it won’t be a hard thing to kick or a hard deal to not do. I’m extremely focused on whatever organization I’ll be at and really pouring my heart out into trying to be football 24/7 with that team. “I’m really excited about the future.”
And what of his father’s concerns last summer about his drinking? And reports that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin asked him to see a counselor for alcohol and anger management? “No sir, I don’t believe those are true,” Manziel said at his combine news conference. “After last spring, coach Sumlin kind of came to me and said, `Hey, we have an in-house guy we want you to sit down and meet with.’ I knew who I was meeting with, but I’m not sure of his official title — something along the lines of just a counselor. I was more than happy and willing to learn whatever I could from him and sit down and have meetings with him, and those continued throughout the next couple years. Had a great relationship with him. It was really nothing more than that.” Therapy, it was not, Manziel maintained.
OK, then what about the NCAA investigating him last year for allegedly accepting money for autographs? And the arrest in June 2012 for disorderly conduct and possession of a fictitious driver’s license after he and a friend were involved in an off-campus fight? And didn’t he become quite the party animal — not just at A&M, but with Drake and LeBron — after winning the Heisman Trophy and becoming a prime focus of social media? “I’m from a small town of Kerrville, Texas, 20,000 people. That gets lost when people make me out to be a big Hollywood guy. Really just a small-town kid,” he said. “Sometimes you get caught up in certain things, but at the same time, it’s about continuing to learn and continuing to adapt to everything that’s going on in my life. I’m not saying it’s always easy, but continuing to be who I’ve always been is a big thing for me.”
The question, of course, is whether he’s sincere and real or just a kid trying to con the adults. Wasn’t he just flashing those money-grab gestures a few months ago? The best way to minimize the circus is by flipping to YouTube and watching the relentless flurry of Johnny Football moments in his two college seasons. No, he doesn’t have the size and traditional quarterbacking foundation of Blake Bortles, who was coached at Central Florida by the Texans’ quarterback coach, George Godsey. No, he isn’t nearly as pro-ready as a dropback passer as Teddy Bridgewater. But he is a vintage playmaker who can ad-lib and paralyze a defense and — most importantly for a franchise trying to sell tickets and whip a town into a frenzy — excite the bejeezus out of fans. With the championship success of Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who is an inch shorter, Manziel’s dual-threat weaponry should be considered more breathtaking these days than risky.
“I play with a lot of heart, I play with a lot of passion, I feel like I play like I’m 10 feet tall,” Manziel said. “Those measurements to me are just a number.
“I just look forward to showing up all the people who said that I’m just an improviser. I worked extremely hard this year, all around in my game. I’ll continue to do that.”
The Texans may want to chat with his teammates. Have you heard one player say he didn’t love Johnny Football? Offensive tackle Jake Matthews, expected to be drafted among the top seven, was asked if Manziel is a prima donna. “No, I don’t consider him a me-first guy at all. My whole experience with him coming in as a quarterback was nothing but good things,” he said. “When he was on the field, he was just a tremendous competitor, great leader, someone that I loved playing for. I was glad to have him as my quarterback.”
Yeah, maybe he’ll be the next Ryan Leaf. But even Brett Favre has said that Johnny Pro Football could be the next Brett Favre.
Houston, you have a problem if you don’t take him.
An all-time public relations mess.