Manziel fighting off critics as opener nears

September 5, 2014

BEREA, Ohio (AP) Maybe only a coincidence, but the Browns put rookie Johnny Manziel's locker in a corner near the equipment room, next to an NFL-issued poster that says: ''Your Off-Field Conduct Matters.''

Lately, that message seems more intended for Manziel's critics than any reminder for the super-hyped young quarterback to behave.

Manziel, who will open the season as Cleveland's backup behind Brian Hoyer, has been the target of some harsh criticism from football analysts like Boomer Esiason and Merril Hoge.

Earlier this week, Hoge, a former Pittsburgh running back who works for ESPN, lambasted Manziel, saying the former Heisman Trophy winner wasn't worthy of a first-round pick, looked lost during the preseason and doesn't belong on the field in Sunday's opener against the Steelers.

Hoge took his condemnation even further, calling Manziel, ''a juvenile punk.''

It's not the first time Manziel has been subjected to negativity, and he brought some of it on himself with his offseason partying. However, Hoge's remarks seemed more of a personal attack.

''Everybody's entitled to their opinion,'' Manziel said following practice on Friday. ''So Merril Hoge is entitled to that. I'm sorry he feels that way. He's never met me. I've never met him, so I guess he thinks I'm not a very good football player.''

Manziel has legions of supporters, who revere the college sensation known as Johnny Football and waiting for his chance to shine as a pro.

And while Manziel feels loved by the Browns and in Cleveland, there's a sizeable group who want to see him fail. He knows he's a target, but Manziel doesn't feel compelled to prove his doubters wrong.

''I don't think I need any more motivation than what is already out there,'' he said. ''I'm sure that adds a little bit of fuel to the fire, but I'm already an extremely motivated person.''

For the first time in several years, Manziel enters the season as an understudy. He's ready in case Hoyer gets hurt or the Browns need him, and it's possible Manziel could get on the field against the Steelers with a set of plays designed to suit his skill set.

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan wouldn't disclose if the Browns will use Manziel in any ''Johnny Package,'' but said there could be a benefit to him getting a few snaps.

''Yeah, I think it can work,'' said Shanahan. ''Other people have done it. It's had success, so everything has a chance.''

Browns coach Mike Pettine said any decision to use a second quarterback ''would be a feel thing. I don't think there would be a strict set of parameters for when to do it.''

Manziel's ready if the Browns need him.

He's spent the week with Hoyer breaking down film of the Steelers, renowned for their ability to blitz quarterbacks, seasoned or not.

Manziel doesn't have any nervousness and if he gets to play, he'll treat the game like anyone he's ever played in.

''It's football, so you throw a pigskin with laces on it, you go against defenses that are running coverages,'' he said. ''But at the same time, Pittsburgh, they're doing what they've been doing. Their defense has been doing this for a lot of years with a lot of the same guys. They're extremely talented.''

Although he won't be starting for the first time since his freshman year at Texas A&M, Manziel intends to help the Browns anyway he can. As Hoyer takes the real snaps, Manziel will be taking mental ones and interacting with Cleveland's coaches as another set of eyes on the sideline.

''That's what it has to be about,'' he said. ''This isn't about me getting in or anything like that, it's about helping this team and get a win on Sunday.''

The Browns have been pleased with Manziel's progress. There's no more talk about his off-field activities. Since training camp started and through the exhibition season, he's been a model citizen, good student and improving player.

''Johnny's right where he needs to be,'' general manager Ray Farmer said. ''We said this was going to be a process. We said he was going to get his opportunities, and we said that he was going to come in and compete. He did all of those things. He took the bull by the horns and he's where he needs to be.

''As long as he continues to work hard, he's coming along at the rate that he needs to.''

Farmer is aware of the hits Manziel has been taking off the field and said ''only time will tell'' if the young QB will pan out.

Farmer Is certain of one thing: the Browns will help Manziel succeed.

''Johnny knows how we feel about him and he knows what's going on in this building,'' he said. ''That's what we're focused on is keeping him focused on football. Right now, he's in the building, he's loving life, life is good. He's working hard and we're going to stay focused on that.''

NOTES: Pettine said he's ready for his coaching debut. ''Hopefully, it's the first of many,'' he said. Pettine remembers losing his first game as a high school coach and beginning the season 0-3. He laughed when asked if he made a quarterback switch before the fourth game. ''I did not,'' he said. ... The Browns will be thin on both lines Sunday as DL Desmond Bryant (wrist), DL John Hughes (hamstring) and OL Paul McQuistan (ankle) will not play.


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