Here’s (The Real) Johnny
He’s saying and doing all the right things, but can Johnny Manziel prove himself worthy of being the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft? Plus, the Niners-Browns mess, a way-too-early Top 10 mock draft and more from the combine in Indy
INDIANAPOLIS — The offseason. That’s a good one.
Browns chase Jim Harbaugh. Lose.
Michael Sam meets the press. Wins. Then he lifts weights. Loses.
Johnny Manziel undergoes radical image-ectomy. Early returns: good.
Ray Rice undergoes radical image destruction. Early returns: awful.
Players might get flagged in games for using the n-word. Tremendous.
The NFL scouting combine’s halfway over. Overrated (as always).
One point before we get to my Johnny Manziel Experience and everything else: Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reported Friday that the Browns “nearly pulled off a trade” for boffo 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. That put the combine on its ear, and set off a flurry of denials and non-denial denials. Cleveland officials wouldn’t deny the story, lending it added credence, and then, on Sunday, owner Jimmy Haslam told USA Today, “There was an opportunity there, and it didn’t materialize.” Harbaugh denied the story, and the Niners organization mostly kept quiet except for a tweet from CEO Jed York Friday night denying the story.
That was until Sunday night, when York told me he would not rehash the entire story but did say: “The Browns reached out to me, and we had no interest in pursuing it.”
That confirms this story was more than the Browns spitballing an impossible dream, as the Harbaugh quotes and early Niners denial would make it seem. But as I first heard Friday night, I don’t believe terms were discussed back and forth between the Browns and Niners. I believe that, as York said, the 49ers decided not to engage the Browns on any substantive negotiations for Harbaugh.
So many tentacles to this story, and we’ll pursue them later in this column. But first, my encounter at the combine with Jonathan Paul Manziel.
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Manziel, the polished version.
On Friday night at the combine, the Jacksonville Jaguars had a 15-minute session with Johnny Manziel, the Texas A&M quarterback. Manziel hadn’t met anyone in the room. When he walked in, all the Jaguars coaches and officials stood.
Manziel went to owner Shahid Khan and shook his hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Khan. I’m Johnny Manziel.”
Then to his son Tony Khan, a team senior VP. “Hi Mr. Khan, Johnny Manziel.”
Then to coach Gus Bradley. “Hi Coach Bradley, pleasure to meet you. Johnny Manziel.”
Then to GM David Caldwell, and then to offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. All the same: handshake, look ’em in the eye, refer to them by name. He knew them all. Now, he didn’t know the scouts in the room, but he knew five men by sight that he’d never met. “That was impressive,” Caldwell said. “He did a really nice job in there. He was prepared for the interview, very prepared.”
That was the goal for Manziel in the six-and-a-half weeks he’s spent in Carlsbad, Calif., north of San Diego, working with quarterback coach George Whitfield, quarterback consultant Kevin O’Connell and a training staff. Get better at being a pocket quarterback and not just the human highlight tape he was at Texas A&M. Work in the classroom with former Patriots and Jets backup O’Connell, studying the offense of every team that might pick him. O’Connell and Manziel even studied Washington’s offense from last year, not because they think there’s any chance the team will draft him, but because Kyle Shanahan, last year’s Washington offensive coordinator, now works in Cleveland, and they wanted to get a feel of what he likes to call and how he likes to use protections. Hammer home schemes, specific plays and formations each team is partial to using.
Then, Manziel wanted to address all the Johnny Nightlife questions—the ejection from the Manning Passing Academy last summer for turning up late for his job as a camp quarterback counselor, the tweeted photos at all hours at all sorts of bars. Some teams won’t like that; Houston’s buttoned-up owner, Bob McNair, certainly will frown at the prospect of having a playboy quarterback, if that’s what the owners of the top pick judge Manziel to be. An executive of one team who met with Manziel over the weekend said, “Has there been one killer incident for him? If there is, we haven’t found it.” [Manziel and his agent, Erik Burkhardt, declined to discuss how many teams he met with this weekend or which they were, and the executive of the team I just referred to didn’t want to identify his team because it has an established quarterback and didn’t want to drum up controversy in that market. But it’s known from reports in various places that Manziel met with Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Dallas, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia coaches and team officials, and very likely Oakland, this weekend before flying back to Texas late Sunday afternoon.]
“We’ve found nothing that’s come across as a fatal flaw to us,” Caldwell said.
Finally, Manziel and Burkhardt wanted to limit his time being famous—he can go unnoticed in Southern California but is treated like a rock star throughout Texas after winning the 2012 Heisman as a college freshman—and maximize his time with the teams. So except for a dress rehearsal for his Pro Day and then the Pro Day workout March 27 in Texas, you’ll find Manziel mostly in two places—Carlsbad or on the road meeting with teams. “Our goal is to give every team that’s interested the maximum amount of time with Johnny they want,” Burkhardt said. “The more time, the merrier. Because when they spend time with him, they’ll get to know the real Johnny.”
It all seems like a smart approach. Manziel is a unique prospect who will require significant research. Even though the 5-10½ Russell Wilson just won the Super Bowl, below-average size at the position—Manziel measured 5-11¾ at the combine—is a detriment to greatness in the NFL. Small quarterbacks often have to be out-of-the-pocket improvisers; last year Manziel had poor games in losses against LSU and Missouri when hemmed in the pocket, frustrated he couldn’t get out on the edge and make something happen. “One of our goals,” Whitfield said at the combine, “has been to show that a player who’s been driving an automatic can now drive a stick-shift, and he can make the kind of plays from the pocket you’re going to need to make in the NFL.”
But he’s also unique in this regard: How many prospects get less famous going from college to the NFL? Manziel might be the one. Johnny Manziel anywhere in the NFL will be nutty, but he’s already had the kind of training he’ll need to deal with being the billboard for a franchise.