Johnny Manziel eventually must prove he can pass Browns' maturity test
This was not the breaking point for the Cleveland Browns in their relationship with Johnny Manziel. It's not the end of their patience with the kid.
It's just their last warning and the biggest gut check of the 22-year-old's football-playing career.
Tucked inside Tuesday’s 173-word statement from Browns coach Mike Pettine announcing Manziel's demotion to third-string quarterback was a bit of faint praise regarding how much Manziel has improved as a player and teammate over the past year.
"I’m especially disappointed in his actions and behavior because he has been working very hard," Pettine's statement read. "The improvements from last year to this year have been tremendous, but he still has to consistently demonstrate that he has gained a good understanding of what it takes to be successful at the quarterback position on this level. It goes well beyond the field."
Here is where the Browns are taking the brunt of the criticism right now. The only thing Manziel did in the leaked video that could be construed as poor "behavior" was hold a bottle of champagne that he presumably drank.
The Browns were on a bye week, so it's not like Manziel's partying detracted from game preparation. There was also no sign of any illegal activity in the video or elsewhere, so that doesn't seem to be the issue. And Manziel didn't say or do anything inappropriate in the video, save for a swear word that was part of the lyrics of the song he was singing.
Manziel has been in plenty of other situations in his time with the Browns that could be viewed as worse behavior than he displayed in that video, so it might seem a bit odd to see the Browns taking a stand here.
But the reality is Manziel was told when he returned from rehab this offseason the team would be watching him closely. He was surely told again when he filled in for an injured Josh McCown twice this season. And again when he was named the starter. And again before the bye week.
And now again that he's been benched for the foreseeable future.
Manziel made promises to the media last week he wouldn't cause any distractions. The Browns have now deemed he did. Manziel might disagree and argue he's just living his life, but the team is holding the cards on this one and took swift action.
The question is how Manziel will respond.
In the past, he would surely pout and perhaps rebel via more behavior that would only further anger the Browns. That's not going to work here. The Browns are trying to punish him and change his behavior. They're also testing him. For all the progress Manziel has made, he's not that far off from the money-phone-talking, inflatable-swan-riding, water-bottle-throwing young man they deemed wasn't prepared to be an NFL starter. They kept him behind McCown this season and made him earn his way up. When he did, they were cautiously optimistic he'd be a better professional.
Again, there's nothing in that video that should lead the Browns to punish Manziel. But indications are there's a bit more to this story.
Pettine told reporters he would "be more prepared to speak fully on it (Wednesday)." Here's hoping he sheds more light on the team's thinking and what really went down because a fuller picture of the situation would help everyone understand why the move was made and what's truly expected of Manziel.
Remember, the police report from the roadside incident involving Manziel and his girlfriend last month stated Manziel told one of the responding officers he had consumed alcohol earlier in the day. So it's not like Manziel's consuming of an alcoholic drink in the video is new and different behavior. (Manziel was not arrested after that incident, he wasn't deactivated by the Browns and the NFL did not take any action after conducting its own investigation.)
"If you think we're just turning a cheek to this and ignoring it, you'd be dead wrong," Pettine told reporters at the time, adding: "There's accountability. Some accountability is public, some of it is private."
Well, this one is public. As the starter, Manziel is under tighter scrutiny. And now as the backup again, it'll still be tight.
Maybe even tighter because the Browns absolutely want to see how he'll respond. If he shows up for work Wednesday, quietly goes about his job and miraculously does everything the right way off the field from here on out, the Browns will gladly welcome him back as their starter and stick with him as long as he's productive. So anyone saying definitively the team is done with Manziel is talking out of turn. The Browns aren't done with him.
But really, that might be up to Johnny more than anyone.