I met Manziel in the back of the restaurant at the Holiday Inn where the players are housed at the combine. He didn’t want to come to his agent’s place, the Omni, because he’d have been hounded by autograph seekers. It’s late at night, but he’s still on. As with what he says to the teams, he knows the words he says will be parsed and read by those who might pick him … and he’ll be damned if he’s going to have a repeat of last week, when he told the Houston Chronicle that if the Texans passed on him with the No. 1 pick, “It would be the worst decision they’ve ever made.” (Even though—funny—it’s become part of Peyton Manning folklore that Manning did precisely the same thing with the Colts in 1998 when they were choosing between him and Ryan Leaf to be the top pick in the draft. Manning said to GM Bill Polian’s face, “If you pass on me, I will come back and kick your a– for years.” So let’s go easy with the idea of Manziel’s brashness ruining his chances in Houston.)
“I’m starved,” he says. He orders dinner, alternately drinks water and Gatorade, and sits upright, his back to all the curious eyes that he’s gotten used to.
Now, about the Manning Passing Academy incident last summer, when he was sent home for not showing up on time one morning …
“I got back from the function that we had the prior night, went to my room, and plugged my phone in to wake up at 8 o’clock the next day,” Manziel says. “When I woke up the next day I realized it was a little lighter outside than it had been the morning before. I shuffled around and looked for my phone in the bed and pressed the top button, pressed the home button. No juice. And I really woke up freaking out. I got to camp about 30 minutes late. I met with the head people, met with the counselors, and they asked me to go home. I poured my heart out to them and told them I was having a great time getting to know these kids, getting to know the people in my group. I didn’t want to go. I tried to talk to them to let them know the situation. For some reason, there was kind of a rift in communication with people saying I wasn’t in my room. And I absolutely was. I woke up in my bed in my dorm room like I had the two mornings previous.”
“And the rumors that you’d been in New Orleans that night?” I ask.
“Absolutely not,” Manziel says. “We were in Thibodaux, [La.], whatever the name of the place was, until 12 or 1, got a shuttle back to the dorm, got to sleep and really just accidentally the phone died. And then I remember really being upset when my mom came and got me. And Peyton and Eli both gave me a call and said they wished things would’ve went differently, wished they had a chance to talk to me before things went the way they did. And what I wanted to let them know was I was extremely sorry. Those are guys that I’ve looked up to, guys that I want to be like one day.
“I told him if I come back next year, the first thing I’m going to set on my schedule is to come back to this camp and be the first one up every morning and really make up for what happened this year. And both him and Eli have all said they wish things had gone differently, and so do I. At the same time, I do realize I have the responsibility to be up, regardless of the situation but just really wish things would’ve gone differently.”
This is what Manziel was asked, to be sure, in his meetings here. Some of them, at least. And he was prepared to answer the questions about his partying. “I’ve tried to be completely honest with the teams,” he said. “I was in college. I did some college things with my friends. I had fun, and the thing that I told some team tonight is, my Mom always told me, ‘There’s a time and a place for everything.’ There were points throughout the last year maybe I was a little bit out of that saying. I did things too much and maybe overly aggressive. At the same time, things progressed fast for me. A lot of things were thrown on my plate and pushed into my life, and I really ran with those. To get back to that saying, there’s a time and a place for everything. There’s a time to have fun, there’s a time to work.
“As rapidly as everything came along, having to learn from my mistakes, through all the trials and errors, learning from that, and at the same time, I had different obligations than really most anybody has had. I am the only person I know of that had a schedule directly tied with our director of football operations to do whatever it was the school was asking of me. And really I’m incredibly loyal to Texas A&M. It was the school that gave me an opportunity when not a lot of other places did. But I feel like with the media attention I had, the scrutiny, and everything that I went through last year, it directly prepares me for this.”
He says he doesn’t feel he’s in direct competition with Blake Bortles or Teddy Bridgewater, though certainly he is. “I’m going to go be extremely honest with these teams, let them see a side of me that some people don’t get to see,” Manziel says. “Talk football, which is something we all love to do. And from there, it’s their decision. I’m going to put myself in the best situation possible, but at the end of the day, I can only control what I can control.”
Then he begins talking about Russell Wilson. Though they’re different as people, their size and competitiveness are very close. “Just watching him in the Super Bowl,” Manziel says “they really got their momentum with him, extending drives. That’s what you have to do. Convert on third down, and not turn the ball over. That’s something that Russell is incredibly good at. And he’s extremely accurate. Russell Wilson is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. I’m not going to sit myself in this seat today and compare me to him. I have a lot to do to earn my stripes and earn my position in this league. I realize nothing is going to be handed to me. I have to go work for it. That’s good. That’s right. Some people said he couldn’t do a lot of things, but he found his way.
“That’s how I am. You can tell me ‘no’ all you want, but at the end of the day I’m going to win. I’m going to be successful.”
Manziel is not the warmest guy, nor the fuzziest. Nor, obviously, the tallest. But he is the guy Nick Saban cannot solve. Manziel’s numbers in two games against Alabama: 71 points, 717 passing yards, one gigantic upset. If there’s no incident under a rock that will doom Manziel, this is all going to come down to football, and playmaking, and determination. Manziel will take his chances against anyone in those categories.
* * *
And now the rest of the NFL story this week.
I’m not convinced Cleveland got very far down the road. Did Jed York get an offer of a draft pick or picks from Cleveland for coach Jim Harbaugh, mull it over, talk to his inner circle and decide not to accept it? Did he ask Harbaugh if this was something he really wanted? Or did York simply decide, “We’re not trading our coach?” We might never know, though my guess is the only way York would have agreed to consider a deal is if Harbaugh told him flatly he wanted to take the Cleveland job. But what would trouble me about the story is how far down the road it got. Harbaugh clearly hasn’t gotten the money he thinks he deserves for leading the Niners to three straight playoff appearances, including a Super Bowl—for making the Niners a star franchise again. He’s entering year four of a five-year deal, which pays him $5 million a year. The Niners and Harbaugh have tried to do an extension but failed. And now you have to think his future beyond this year is murky at best. The Niners are unlikely to break the bank for a coach who hasn’t won a Super Bowl, and even if they win the Super Bowl next season and make Harbaugh an $8-million-a-year coach, is there any guarantee he’ll be happy with that contract for an extended period? The one thing the Pro Football Talk report leaves in its wake is the impression this story, and Harbaugh’s wanderlust, is not over.
The Ray Rice story will reverberate for a while. Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome said something telling about the alleged altercation between running back Ray Rice and his fiancée, Janay Palmer, at an Atlantic City casino last weekend. “Right now, I feel very good about his side of the story.” If so, then Rice must have given team officials a version that involves either self-defense or overt provocation by Palmer. Not that either one of those explanations would justify domestic abuse, if there was abuse. And regardless of the circumstances, if Rice did lay a hand on Palmer, he’ll be branded an abuser and likely face league or team discipline because of it. And rightfully so. What’s disappointing for the Ravens, and for Rice, is that he’d become to some the face of the franchise, a leading spokesman in the fight against bullying and an unselfish person in the community. Rice and Palmer were both charged with simple assault-domestic violence after the incident, and a court date has not been set. Rice already had one 2014 challenge on his hands—making sure his 660-yard season was a fluke. This problem will dwarf that one.
And the rest … The league’s Competition Committee meets in Florida beginning Friday, and one of the items on the agenda will be discussion on a rule to flag players for using the n-word on the field during games. I’m unequivocally in favor of it, and can see no reason why it wouldn’t be enacted … Lots of diverging views from coaches and GMs on whether the league should put in a behavior code to snuff out further Richie Incognito-type incidents. The prevailing question here: “How would it be enforced?” … Interesting to hear Mike Mayock lobby—correctly, by the way—for the Bengals to draft a quarterback in the later rounds to give Andy Dalton some competition. “If your quarterback can’t play at a certain level,” Mayock said on Sunday’s NFL Network telecast, “you can’t win a Super Bowl.” The Bengals need to run it more. That’ll help Dalton as much as a fourth-round passer … One of the coolest new additions to the media landscape: Pro Football Focus is doing team-by-team depth charts with color-coded rankings of players. Check out this Seattle one. I’d disagree with the rating of only one player here—Kam Chancellor, who should be labeled a blue, or elite, starter after having one of the best postseasons a safety has had in years … Greg Schiano is here, meeting with some of his friends in the coaching business, trying to figure out his next move … New Atlanta assistant GM Scott Pioli will have a special concentration on dissecting the offensive and defensive linemen in the draft for Thomas Dimitroff … Three players I found universal love for at the combine: Clemson wideout Sammy Watkins, Auburn tackle Greg Robinson and Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack. Watching Watkins run and catch, I’ll be surprised if he’s not a 1,000-yard player as a rookie, even if he goes to a team with an iffy quarterback situation. So fluid, so fast, so broad-shouldered.