Johnny Manziel was fifth in the Heisman voting, tieing the lowest finish of any returning winner who was invited to the ceremony.
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There he stood: tailored, quaffed, smiling and seemingly as happy as anyone on the stage.
Johnny Manziel attended the Heisman Trophy ceremony as a finalist for the second year in a row, but this time he was able to joke with the other veterans and applaud when the winner was announced, a relaxed old pro with little to lose.
For the first time in 15 months, the pressure was off. Manziel could enjoy himself in New York last weekend without having his every step scrutinized and without every utterance going viral. He was no longer the golden boy with the cool nickname, or the problem child with maturity issues, or the natural athlete without enough discipline to make it to the next level. Now, he was another member of college football’s most elite fraternity, and a 21-year-old who seemed more than ready to pass the Heisman mantel and the spotlight that goes with it to the next man up.
Manziel remains a first among equals, being the first redshirt freshman Heisman Trophy winner and thus paving the way for Jameis Winston to walk away with the trophy in a vote that wasn’t close. In fact, Manziel voted for Winston over himself.
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From a purely football perspective, very few question that Winston was the right choice despite the fact that Manziel was better in 2013 than he was in 2012. He managed a better completion percentage in his sophomore season, going from 68 percent to 69.1 percent, and he completed longer passes, advancing from an average yards per reception of 8.5 to 9.5.
With one game left to play, he has already completed seven more touchdown passes and thrown for 26 more yards than he did in his Heisman year in addition to rushing for 653 yards and eight touchdowns.
What a difference a season makes. Manziel’s summer was plagued by reports of parties, fights, temper tantrums, rude behavior and stories about improperly signing autographs for dealers. He sat out the first half of the season opener against Rice and then made some unsportsmanlike taunts to the Owls that got him benched late in the game.
He left the Manning Quarterback Camp early (some reports said he was booted), and he got tossed from a fraternity party, all of which made headlines and became the buzz of the social media universe.
"There’s a lot of scrutiny if you don’t walk a fine line," Manziel said in his media appearance in New York during Heisman weekend. "I was a little bit out of the box, a little uncharacteristic, and I caught some flak for it. But I figured it out a little bit as the year went on and continued to live my life and learn as I went along. It was tough, but I had to do it."
Now, he has to decide what the next stage of his life will be. If he stays in College Station, he has a chance to become the first man to win the Heisman twice in non-consecutive years. With a little recruiting help, he could conceivably lead the Aggies to their first SEC West title.
He could also spend another year honing his passing skills, learning to read defenses, and putting to rest any lingering off-field issues that might plague him in the NFL draft.
These are things he could consider carefully over the next few weeks. To call him undersized for an NFL quarterback is being kind. Manziel is undersized for an NFL free safety. While his ability to scramble and improvise makes him look like a human video game at the college level, some say that NFL defenses are too big and fast for that sort of sandlot style.
Another year of maturity can’t hurt and might help. Plus, he can elevate his intangibles by being more of a leader in his junior season.
Unfortunately, he appears to be leaning in another direction. While he said that he will talk to his family, his coaches and his mentor — former Aggies offensive coordinator and current Texas Tech coach — Kliff Kingsbury, about his options and wait until after the Chick-fil-A Bowl to make any decisions, Manziel is saying all the things you would expect of a man who plans to announce his draft intentions the second his season is over.
"I’m getting better as a passer, which is where I need to be to get to the next level," he said in New York. "With my instincts and where I’ve progressed as a passer, hopefully I’ll be ready to make that jump." Then he gave the biggest hint of all, a glimpse into the mind of a 21-year-old with a history of impetuousness.
"I feel like I’ve been in college forever," he said with a smile and a shake of the head. "And I have two years of eligibility left."
Fans and friends of Johnny Manziel should hope that those remaining two years don’t end up going to waste.