BEREA, Ohio – Johnny Manziel is just 21 years old — he’s reminded us of that often — and played just two seasons of college football.
In those two seasons he did some things no one has ever done before and did many things as well and as uniquely as they’ve ever been done. He did those things in an up-tempo offense that rarely huddled, running a system that coaches swore was more concepts and evolving ideas than anything that went in an actual playbook. When a play sheet from the Alabama win that made Johnny Football a national sensation showed up on the Internet last week, it showed plays called "Lion King" and "AC Pop 382."
That said, it’s perfectly understandble that some extra learning and adjusting time — or maybe even a full redshirt-type season — in the NFL might serve Manziel well. He’s been force fed 17-word play calls, asked to command a huddle and is making a big step on and off the field to being a professional athlete who doesn’t have to dance around such status. He’s playing with and against the game’s very best every day and every week now.
He’s said throughout the last four weeks he’s not ready to start. His play, for the most part, has backed up those words.
The Browns having patience with Manziel is fine; so, too, is Manziel being patient and having both the self awareness and ability to swallow his pride in seeing the bigger picture.
This whole thing still kind of stinks.
The Browns offense as a whole has stunk through almost four weeks of practice and two preseason games that mean nothing and would be very easily forgotten if they hadn’t looked so much like so many of the practices. Brian Hoyer won the quarterback competition and the starting job by default. Had new Browns coach Mike Pettine not come off so much like a new coach in manufacturing a deadline and forcing himself to stick with it, Manziel still might be in position to polish his game quickly and win the job.
Manziel, of course, has himself to blame.
"I feel if I would have (come) out and played better it would have been a different outcome," Manziel said. "I don’t think that I played terrible but I didn’t really do anything to jump off of the page."
Such jumping is what Manziel knows. He brings flash to everything he does, and camera flashes follow. Maybe starting the season with Hoyer was Pettine’s plan all along, and maybe Manziel will learn from all this the way he’s said he will. But the Browns drafted Manziel knowing they were getting the whole package — Johnny Football, Johnny Celebrity, Johnny Life Of The Party — and knowing that selecting him means turning over the keys to him sooner or later.
Preferably sooner, right?
Hoyer is not under contract for 2015. If there’s a long-term plan that’s come out of this latest Berea shakeup, it’s hard to imagine Hoyer is in it. It’s hard to imagine this offense being good enough for the Browns to really contend this season, so 2015 and beyond become the targets for wins to match progress, for a window to truly open.
The Browns signed up for Manziel. It’s not time to press the panic button — Pettine was right about that — but it is safe to say things are off to a less than ideal start.
"I just know that you don’t go from playing two years in college to playing two preseason games and then saying that you can come out and play the Pittsburgh Steelers and their defense," Manziel said. "It just doesn’t happen that way. I don’t think that should’ve have been much of a shock that I wasn’t necessarily ready."
Even if what he’s saying is right, it still comes off sounding like an excuse.
So, too, does Pettine saying Hoyer will play better with the competition over and that the receivers haven’t helped the quarterbacks. Both make sense, sure, but still sound like excuses.
Unless something changes, Manziel will become the sixth first-round quarterback in the last seven years leaguewide to not start on Opening Day. Three of those came in the lockout year, when spring practices were wiped out.
Of the 12 quarterbacks who led their teams to the playoffs last season, seven started for at least a chunk of their rookie seasons. The year before, it was eight of 12.
Unless this talented Browns defense becomes a game-changing monster, unless Hoyer completely sparks the offense and starts building wins or unless something else crazy happens, the Manziel Watch will continue and Manziel’s personal success — whenever it comes — will be tied to that of Pettine, Ray Farmer and all others involved with this new Browns regime.
They know that. Manziel knows that.
"I’m the backup quarterback," Manziel said. "I shouldn’t be in the spotlight. Who knows if that will actually be the case, but it would be nice. I don’t think it’s going to happen though."
When the picture of Manziel with the tightly-rolled $20 bill showed up earlier this summer, all benefit of the doubt disappeared.
Neither these Browns nor Manziel have won or lost anything yet. The Browns are still in the stage of sorting through many things, not just this quarterback situation, and need to maximize every moment between now and the Sept. 7 opener. They’re still building and installing and trying to move past a messy start that, if things start going better, can be just a start.
Across the league, more than a few teams stink at this time of year. At this time of every year, really. And most of those teams are going through quarterback changes, and coaching changes, and scheme changes, and bad football is a byproduct of constant change.
All that change, as you may know, has been the story of the Cleveland Browns.
It’s a story that will change only if and when Manziel stops adding to the excuse column and starts delivering in the win column. Sooner or later, his time is coming.