Let us talk for a moment about Johnny Manziel, the football player. There really isn’t anything else about the Cleveland Browns that is all that interesting to talk about. Cincinnati’s 31-10 destruction of Cleveland on Thursday reconfirmed what had already been confirmed: The Browns can’t match up defensively or offensively, they do incredibly stupid things with regularity — like defensive end Randy Starks following a rare (for the Browns) excellent play with a blindingly dumb taunting penalty — and the orange in their uniform still looks wrong. At least there’s Manziel to talk about.
Well, maybe since this is a weekly diary we should first relive this week’s back-to-back defensive nightmares that more or less describe just how adrift this team is.
Play 1: In the fourth quarter, with the Bengals only leading 17-10, Cincinnati receiver Marvin Jones went out for a pass, was wide open, fell down, got back up, was still wide open, caught the pass and went 25 yards. So many things went wrong here for the Cleveland defense, it’s hard to pinpoint one … but let’s focus on forgetting to cover a receiver, having him fall down, and then just continuing to let him run uncovered.
Play 2: On the very next play, the Bengals ran a reverse. It was the sort of play that we all used to call a double-reverse, but technically it’s only one reverse. Andy Dalton handed off the ball to Giovani Bernard, and he ran right. He then flipped the ball to Mohamed Sanu, who ran left. One reverse.
To be clear: No reverse had worked in the NFL since 1923, when Papa Halas himself unveiled it on an unsuspecting Toledo Maroons franchise. Ever since then, teams have run reverses not to gain yards but to pay homage to a simpler time, when defenders consistently ran the wrong way because they were not entirely sure of the rules.
That’s how the Browns defenders looked — like they were not entirely sure of the rules. All of them just kept running after Bernard, perhaps even after he went to the bench. To say Sanu scored untouched would still undersell the sheer incompetence of this defensive collapse. Put it this way: Dalton ran out front as a lead-blocker, and watching quarterbacks try to block on the reverse is one of the fun little moments in football. It is like in baseball when a team puts in a position player to pitch. Thing is: Dalton didn’t block anybody because he COULDN’T block anybody. No Browns defenders ever showed up to be blocked.
There were other baffling moments for this defense, but those two more or less sum up the ineptitude and, anyway, Manziel is more fun. Understand, we are talking here about Manziel the football player, not Manziel the citizen. The latter is not fun to talk about at all.
On Thursday, May 8 of the year 2014, the Cleveland Browns drafted Jonathan Paul Manziel, nee Football, with the 22nd overall pick. There are two staggering legends that go along with his drafting. One is that owner Jimmy Haslam was walking into a restaurant in Cleveland not long before the draft when, as he described it, a homeless man looked up and said, “Draft Manziel.” I like to think of this as Haslam playing George Bailey in the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Haslam: “Where are your wings?”
Homeless man: “I have to earn them. And you’ll help me, won’t you?”
Haslam: “Sure, sure. How?”
Homeless man: “Draft Manziel.”
The second story is, if possible, more illuminating. The Browns had passed on Manziel with their earlier pick — they twice traded that earlier pick away — but then, as the first round began to creep toward its conclusion, Manziel was still stirring nervously; he was not drafted. He reportedly sent a text to then Browns quarterback coach Dowell Loggains. It read like so:
“I wish you guys would come get me. Hurry up and draft me because I want to be there. I want to wreck this league together.”
Loggains would say he forwarded that text to coach Mike Pettine and Haslam and, voila, the Browns decided to trade up to get Manziel. We won’t know if the text was the REASON the Browns traded up to get Manziel … Loggains has already been fired and is now in Chicago. But we know that was the the order of events.
As a Browns fan, I was not happy the Browns drafted Manziel. I don’t think he’s an NFL quarterback. He was a super-fun quarterback at Texas A&M, a sort of freewheeling, Tarkentonian miracle worker who kept spinning out of grasps and unleashing magnificent bombs that bewildered great college teams like Alabama. But even a great college team is not a professional one, and these sort of college wonders almost always wilt in the heat of the NFL, where defenders don’t let you get away and safeties jump in front of those seemingly clever improvised passes. Also, Manziel has those off-the-field demons. It seemed to me an almost certain disaster.
But, as is the point of these weekly missives, a fan doesn’t get to choose what his or her team does. We can only hope for the best. And we saw a little bit of Manziel’s best in the first half against Cincinnati on Thursday. Twice, he led the Browns on long scoring drives, and in both cases he did it the Johnny Football way. He escaped Bengals defenders. He rolled out of the pocket. He flipped and side-armed and flung passes down the field to receivers that had somehow broken free. It was an absolute blast, and I was definitely chanting Johnny Football, and at halftime the Browns were somehow within four points of a Bengals team that is WAY better than they are.
And then … well let’s just say that everything became clear.
The excellent sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson asked Browns coach Mike Pettine what he thought of Manziel’s performance. He said that he was happy to see Manziel make plays out of the pocket, but he really wants Manziel to make plays inside the pocket.
A few minutes later, Wolfson recapped her conversation with Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. He apparently had said that the Bengals had to find a way to keep that doggone Manziel in the pocket.
Do you see it? Of course you do: In the rarest confluence in sports, you had two opposing coaches wanting EXACTLY THE SAME THING. Pettine wanted Manziel to stay in the pocket. Lewis wanted Manziel to stay in the pocket. It was a perfect meeting of the minds.
What does it mean when opposing coaches, both desperately wanting to win, come out of halftime wanting the same thing to happen? I’ll tell you what it means: It means one of those coaches is staggeringly wrong.
OK, the spoiler, you probably didn’t see this coming: Pettine was the wrong one. Manziel did stay in the pocket in the second half and he was historically awful. Admittedly, he got no help from the Browns’ receivers — particularly the somewhat inexplicable Taylor Gabriel who dropped two perfectly thrown passes, one because it hit him in the knee — but Manziel was 4-for-14 for 60 yards (half of those coming on the meaningless final drive), and he was sacked four times. He looked utterly lost.
And there’s a reason for that, a reason that is so obvious that it should never have to be said: Johnny Manziel is not a pocket passer. He’s 6-foot-nothing, has a so-so arm and won the Heisman Trophy playing by the seat of his pants. If he had a business card, it would say:
Not a pocket passer
If you don’t like what Johnny Manziel does — run around, create chaos, come up with unexpected plays — DO NOT DRAFT HIM. That, in fact, is exactly why so many teams did not. This was the blindingly obvious reason why Marvin Lewis wanted Manziel in the pocket: He can’t hurt you from there. It’s like putting him in one of those cool spinning holding cells from the Superman movies.
The reason why Mike Pettine wants him in the pocket is much harder to figure.
Only, it isn’t: The Browns have commitment issues. They start down one path and, at the first sign of trouble, abandon it and try another path. You can see it in all the coaches they’ve canned, all the quarterbacks they’ve played, all the reset buttons they’ve pressed. The Browns drafted Manziel in the first round just last year. That entire season and this entire season should have been dedicated to developing Manziel into a star NFL quarterback. A Manziel-centric offense should have been put in. A failure-is-not-an-option Johnny Football plan should have been put into place.
True, I do not believe in Manziel, but I DID NOT DRAFT HIM. The Browns did draft him, and they quickly soured on him but said they believed in him, and they fired his quarterback coach, and brought in a new one who said all the right things, and this year they brought in a 36-year-old journeyman to start over him. And now, Pettine talks about how he needs to stay in the pocket.
People who say that the 36-year-old journeyman Josh McCown has played way better than Manziel miss the point. Yes, he has played way better. But there’s no future with Josh McCown. This team is destined for a very high draft pick, not a playoff appearance. This team has so many questions, you wish at some point they would try to start answering some of them. And the biggest question remains: “Can Johnny Manziel be a successful starting quarterback for the Browns?”
If the answer is, “Yes,” then build a team around him.
If the answer is, “No,” then cut him because he’s not helping, on or off the field.
If the answer is, “I don’t know” — and I think the answer is still “I don’t know” — that is indefensible a year and a half after he was drafted.
The Browns seem to be free-falling toward another black day when everybody gets fired. It’s not a day I’m looking forward to. The biggest problem with this team as I see it is a lack of continuity, an unwillingness to stick with a direction. Then again, these guys are still waiting for Johnny Manziel to magically become some Tom Brady pocket passer so maybe this is the wrong direction.