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Johnny Manziel

September 15, 2013

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I’ve dreaded writing this article for awhile now. The reason is that Johnny “Football” Manziel is an incredibly complex person and to this point I’ve yet to read an article that gave a balanced and nuanced perspective of him. The ESPN article “The trouble with Johnny” http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/9521439/heisman-winner-johnny-manziel-celebrity-derail-texas-aggies-season-espn-magazine is the best attempt at getting into his head and discussing his off the field issues with perspective but even that didn’t do the man justice as it almost completely was devoid of analysis of his on the field play.

The Man

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Most articles have either painted Johnny as the villain or as the naïve teenager living in the moment. I don’t think he’s either of these caricatures as he’s too well liked by his teammates and his actions haven’t been severe enough to be the villain yet there’s a consistent and slightly dark pattern to his actions that make me unwilling to consider him naïve or to just blame it on his youth. Johnny to me appears to be a young man in search of a good time. That in and of itself isn’t wrong, and there appears to be a little too much religious or etiquette grandstanding when some analysts comment on his behavior, yet there also seems to be a stupidity to how he goes about his quest for entertainment. Whether it’s his twitter rants, his brazen attempts at getting money for his autographs, or his wild offseason full of storylines and google images to back up those storylines, it all just adds up to a kid that doesn’t have control of his own actions. Doesn’t he understand that by selling his autographs last January he put his collegiate football career in jeopardy and added another strike against him for NFL talent evaluators? He can tell himself he was successful and that he and “Uncle Nate” were smarter than the NCAA yet if that scandal causes him to drop 1 round on draft day it will cost him more than he realizes. EJ Manuel was the 16th Overall Pick (mid 1st round) in the 2013 NFL Draft and signed a 5 year $8.885 million deal. Le’Veon Bell was the 48th Overall Pick (mid 2nd round) and signed a 4 year $4.12 million deal. When the allegations came out about Manziel’s January signing spree the numbers floated were in the $10,000-$30,000 range in regards to the money he received from memorabilia sellers. If that incident causes him to drop from the 1st to the 2nd round he would lose 100-300 times that amount of money. Considering his parents are rich, he’s expected to declare for the 2014 NFL Draft this January, and his room and board is all paid for by A&M I just don’t see why he would take such a risk. Also when you add in the fact that 2nd and 3rd round draft picks at quarterback are usually drafted to be backups initially while 1st rounders are drafted as starters it can be argued that this scandal could cost him a chance to play as a rookie next year. It all adds up to Manziel being irresponsible yet being dumb and being malicious are too different things. In the season opener against Rice Manziel was penalized for taunting when a defensive player was talking trash to him after A&M scored a touchdown. The game was in hand as the TD put the Aggies up 52-28 and it was worth noting that the Rice defender instigated the conversation AND wasn’t showing much class himself by taunting a player in the middle of being blown out yet it was the reaction to the penalty that surprised me. “God damn, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Coach Sumlin reportedly yelled at Manziel as he came off the field. Really? Pointing to the scoreboard when defenders are talking trash to you is the stupidest thing ever? I’ve always considered it going above the fray and pointing out to idiots what really matters. The Rice defenders started the smack talking, despite being in the middle of a blowout, and he can’t point out why they are so wrong? It was a surprising reaction by his coach, yet Sumlin was hardly the only one who overreacted. “How would I have handled it? I would have grabbed him by the throat. That’s not the right thing to do,” said Lou Holtz about the Manziel taunting penalty. Three weeks later TJ Yeldon did a far more vicious taunt in the A&M game when he did the A&M “finger rub” followed by a throat slash yet the reaction to Yeldon’s gesture will be miniscule compared to what faced Manziel despite Yeldon’s gesture being more blatant, being during an actually close game (with the resulting penalty almost costing his team dearly), and being instigated solely by Yeldon. Manziel has a double standard working against him that goes beyond anything I’ve ever seen at the collegiate level. LSU star running back Jeremy Hill was arrested and suspended for battery in relation to a fight outside a bar. Johnny Football possibly was paid for signing autographs last January. Guess which one was the topic of conversation for the past month? Casey Pachall, the quarterback for TCU, tested positive for marijuana in 2012, had his roommate Tanner Brock arrested due to selling drugs out of their apartment (I’m sure he had no idea what was going on), was arrested for a DWI last fall, and left TCU to enter rehab. He returned to TCU 9 months later and immediately regained his starting job yet it’s A&M’s handling of Manziel and that infamous ½ game suspension that drew all the headlines. The objectiveness has gone out the window when discussing Manziel and the media has jumped on the Johnny Football train wreck story without even stopping to determine if it’s a valid storyline. Unfortunately for them they likely will be disappointed, for now at least, as Johnny’s back on the field and seems to be improving mentally each and every week as the off the field news stories give way to his on the field exploits.

The College Player

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What is so intriguing to me about the media coverage on Johnny Manziel is that his off the field controversy has garnered so much attention that no one even bothers to dissect his on the field play anymore. That should change going forward as yesterday he lost to Alabama in an incredible game that in my opinion resurrected his Heisman campaign for this season. No one has given him much of a chance at a repeat with ESPN not putting him in their Top 5 preseason candidates, Kirk Herbstreit leaving him off his Herbie Awards, and the SEC coaches voting him as an SEC preseason third string quarterback yet I think he can get it done. In the A&M game he had one terrible mistake, on the 1st half overthrown fade for an INT in the end zone, yet otherwise was incredible and actually had a better game against Alabama than he did last year. Consider some of the stats he put up yesterday: His 562 total yards were 2nd most all time in SEC history, only behind his own performance in 2012 vs. Louisiana Tech. The 628 yards were the most ever given up by Alabama. The 42 points scored were the most given up by Alabama in the 7 year Saban era. Manziel has a QBR of 78.7 vs. Alabama the past 2 seasons which dwarfs the 17.9 QBR registered by all other quarterbacks vs. the Tide over that time span. I’m sure some idiots will make the claim that McCarron outplayed Manziel and should be a Heisman candidate due to their win yet Alabama won due to their running game that A&M couldn’t stop and only were in the game because of Manziel and Mike Evans. For Manziel the Heisman will have to be won by a wide margin in the voters eyes otherwise he will not receive the votes. The tie in other words will go to the field, not Manziel, as he has alienated quite a few voters due to his off the field exploits. Yet if Johnny can put up nearly 600 total yards of offense against Alabama then what is in store for SMU, Vanderbilt, or UTEP later this year? Coach Sumlin knows Manziel is gone at the end of the year so there’s no reason for him to hold him out to avoid injury late in a blowout win and if Sumlin gives Manziel the playing time I expect the numbers will be epic. Of course stats are only part of any Heisman campaign and it will be difficult for Manziel to best his “Heisman moment” from 2012 which occurred late in the season against defending champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Yet late in the season Manziel will be going to Baton Rouge for a night game against LSU and amazing moments have occurred down there in Cajun country before so he will have one last stage in which to perform for voters. If Manziel can put up +500 yards of total offense and come out of there with a win his Heisman campaign could get a boost at the end and allow him to be only the second repeat Heisman winner (Archie Griffin in 1975). Some have already written off Texas A&M from the national championship hunt (I’m already reading how A&M looks destined for the Cotton Bowl again? Really? It’s week 3!) and Manziel from the Heisman race. Both predictions are too dire as there are 9 more games to go for the Aggies and the story of the 2013 Texas A&M football team has yet to be written.

The Pro Player

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As an amateur scout the discussion of how Manziel will translate to the NFL is an incredibly interesting one for me. He’s such a rare player that it’s hard to compare him to anyone but if I was to give the three players I’m reminded of the most it would be: Michael Vick, Doug Flutie, and Russell Wilson. He’s listed at 6’1 210 but to my eyes looks more like 5’11 which would put him in between Flutie (5’10) and Vick (6’0) and equally with Wilson (5’11). In terms of speed he appears to me to be in the 4.3-4.4 range which would put him behind Vick (4.2 but at the VA Tech pro day aka unofficial) but ahead of Flutie (he was before the Combine but looked like a 4.6 type) and Wilson (4.53). His accuracy, especially on the run, is uncanny and would put him ahead of Vick or Flutie for sure and even ahead of Wilson in my opinion. His arm strength is well below Vick’s (his ability to throw a ball +70 yds in the air with just a flick of the rest is legendary) and slightly below Wilson but well ahead of Flutie and to me is underrated as he gets good velocity on his throws and has a far stronger arm than Marcus Marriota from Oregon. His mechanics and footwork have improved tremendously after working with George Whitfield this offseason and is far superior to Flutie or Vick who both were lazy in that regard but slightly below Wilson whose over the top release point is elite and helps him overcome his smaller stature. And his character has to be considered well below Flutie or Wilson and on par with Vick as both have a victim like mentality when criticized that is a huge negative due to playing such a high profile position like quarterback. Johnny Manziel will be a major gamble for a GM to take next April as he will be a lot like Tyrann Mathieu was this past draft in that he’s a larger than life persona (Honey Badger with Mathieu, Johnny Football with Manziel) that has maturity issues and is undersized for his position. Yet I truly believe that in the right scheme Manziel could be a Pro Bowl caliber player as Russell Wilson broke NFL records as a rookie yet Manziel is faster and more accurate as a prospect and more productive in college as a player while having similar size issues to overcome. His potential as a zone read QB is immense and his improvement as a passer hasn’t been discussed enough by analysts. This season he’s running less than he did last year as he has only 51 yards rushing per game this year which is down from 108 yards per game in 2012. He’s doing that on purpose as he’s wanting to show the NFL that he’s a threat as a runner but that he can be successful as a pocket passer as well. His completion percentage, yards per attempt, passing TDs per game, and QB Rating all are improved year over year and the game film looks equally as impressive as his footwork, release point, and consistency all are noticeably better. His off the field antics likely have cost him a chance to be drafted in the 1st round but all it takes is 1 team to fall in love with him for that to occur and with the proliferation of both the spread offense and the zone read in the NFL it wouldn’t shock me if someone nabbed him on Day 1 of the draft. As a Cowboys fan I would dread this but don’t be shocked if Chip Kelly trades Nick Foles this season and makes a trade next April to move up into Round 1 late to get his future QB. He recruited Manziel heavily a few years ago and the fit couldn’t be more perfect both in terms of scheme and temperament as Kelly is about as easy going of a coach as you’ll find in the NFL and would probably get along better with Manziel than a disciplinarian like Jeff Fisher or Bill Belichick.

Conclusion

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The Johnny Football story has been a wild one to this point. It was part fairytale as he went from an unknown redshirt freshman battling for the starting job to a Heisman trophy winning celebrity in a matter of months. It was part childhood actor cautionary tale as the fame probably came too soon for him and he noticeably struggled under the increased scrutiny. He also resented how with fame didn’t come fortune and went about correcting that, no matter the possible long term consequences. Yet it’s also part football experiment as the Johnny Football story is intertwined with this new era of football of spreading the field, exploiting mismatches, and the rise of the dual threat quarterback. The Johnny Football story wouldn’t be nearly as fun without the advent of this new style of football and wouldn’t be nearly as controversial without the advent of twitter. Jameis Winston has crashed onto the scene in similar fashion this year yet Johnny came first and will forever have his place in history. Johnny broke the boundaries as the first freshman to ever win the Heisman, Johnny’s actions with memorabilia sellers publicized an already divisive issue about NCAA rules regarding amateur athlete status, and Johnny’s exciting style of play further broke down the barriers to the spread offense as now even the legendary SEC is being overrun by it. This is only Year 2 of the Johnny Football story, a rather shocking fact considering how many twists and turns have already occurred, and it’s far from over. Will Year 2 end with a second Heisman, a national championship, a suspension, further controversy, or an anticlimactic injury? No one knows at this point, not even Johnny, and I think that is what makes the story so fun.

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