Would You Trust Your Offense to Him?
From now until the opening of training camps, The MMQB will run a series of our Greatest Hits from the site’s first year. From May, Peter King travels the country to find out what the best quarterbacking minds think of Johnny Manziel...
DURHAM, N.C.—“He’s got great balance. How good is that throw? I mean, how good is that throw?” says Duke coach David Cutcliffe, watching Johnny Manziel video in his office.
RENTON, Wash.—“He’s all arm. He throws a lot of passes that way,” says former Brett Favre tutor Mike Holmgren, watching Manziel video near his Seattle home.
MELBOURNE BEACH, Fla.—“He can make every throw, and I don’t know every NFL offense from top to bottom, but just put him in the shotgun and spread the field out and let him play. You’ve got to find a way to let him play. He would be perfect for Chip Kelly,” says Doug Flutie, who was Manziel before there was a Manziel, watching Manziel video in his home hard by the Atlantic Ocean.
SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I.—“His mechanics are awful. It’s hard not to be influenced by the things you’ve heard, that the problem is lack of discipline. That manifests itself off the field and in the way he plays. Even just carrying out fakes—it’s just like, ‘Ah, screw it.’ Those guys don’t make it usually. But he’s athletic enough and talented enough that if he works, he can make it,” says longtime NFL offensive coach Kevin Gilbride, who retired after last season, watching Manziel video in his home a few long spirals from the New England coast.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn.—“The kid’s got the balls of a burglar,” says 2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon, waching Manziel video near his Twin Cities home.
* * *
We came, we watched, we dissected. In the past month I watched coaches video of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel with five of the smartest quarterback people I know. Specifically, we watched two games from 2013: Manziel’s two-man show (with wideout Mike Evans) in a thrilling narrow loss to Alabama, and Manziel’s s struggles to cope with a disciplined defensive front in a decisive loss to LSU.
I wrote the cover story for this week’s Sports Illustrated with the analyses of the five men on Manziel. I was struck with the “Yeah, but …” aspect of so much of what they said. Let me sum up: They, like so many in the NFL, are on the edge of a sword with Manziel—drawn to his athleticism and field presence and fearlessness, repelled by the prospect of his having to adjust from being a runner/thrower to much more of a pocket passer in the NFL game. That’s a major generalization, of course. Each liked what he saw, to differing degrees. Flutie, predictably, would take Manziel high in the May 8 draft. Gannon, bothered by Manziel’s sloppy mechanics, wouldn’t take him high but thinks he’s an intriguing prospect. Holmgren thinks he’s a long shot to be a top NFL player. Gilbride does as well, but Gilbride thinks the right mechanic could fix Manziel’s flaws and make him a very good player.
I found Cutcliffe’s remarks the most intriguing. Not because he’s smarter about the position necessarily … but because Duke played Texas A&M in the final game of Manziel’s college career, and Cutcliffe and his staff spent three weeks prepping for Manziel, and because Cutcliffe has a close handle on the NFL game because of his off-season coaching with the Manning brothers.
So we will start there, in the office with Cutcliffe in this virtual roundtable, with me interjecting occasionally but mostly staying out of the way.
* * *
The Alabama tape is on. Manziel, on the first series of the game, launches two balls perfectly thrown, one 35 yards in the air to Evans’ back shoulder, and then other 41 yards in the air, leading Evans perfectly down the right sideline.
Cutcliffe: “Somebody’s coached him well. Yes, he’s staring down the route, but it’s man coverage, with no help. So what is critical is to throw it on time. You see how quiet his lower body is. He’s not having to step. It’s not just arm strength. That’s torso strength. I like a torso throw. That’s a beautiful throw to Evans. Look at that throw.”
Gilbride: “Everything he does is sloppy. Those are two pretty good deep balls, though. I like his arm.”
Gannon: “He’s got a tendency … Watch his feet when he throws the football. He hopped. There’s some things when you see him structurally with his feet that concerns you a little bit. He needs a coach who’s going to be very disciplined with him and very demanding of him with the feet, because in the pocket you see a lot of examples of him flushing before he has to. There are some things where he’s sloppy with his feet but gets away with it because he’s such a great athlete. Good arm. Good throws.”
And more throws. More mechanical issues, with a hop to his throw, and little use of his legs for power and leverage.
Cutcliffe: “Now what I don’t like is this hop. It’s a nightmare. That’s a freakin’ nightmare. He doesn’t really have to do that. I don’t know what got him started in that. … But his arm strength is incredible, I can tell you that. Even watching throwaways.”
Holmgren: “I don’t like some of the stuff he does. You see how stiff his front leg is? He must have a pretty good arm. He likes that throw. So much spread and shotgun—I’m not bothered by it, but I would call it a little bit like Alex Smith coming out of college. He was with Urban Meyer at Utah. He’s a systems quarterback. He’s a perfect fit for that system. Now are you going to run that system in the league? He’s going to have to drop back. He’s going to have to be in the pocket. He’s going to have to protect himself. It’s not going to be this system.”
“In the NFL, are you going to get away from those D-linemen?" Flutie says. "From those linebackers who are faster than you?”
Gannon: “There’s some things when you see him structurally with his feet that concern you a little bit. He needs a coach who’s going to be very disciplined with him and very demanding of him with the feet, because in the pocket you see a lot of examples of him flushing before he has to. He’s not going to take the extra hitch. He doesn’t trust the protection. Part of it is that he’s a six-foot tall guy, and I went through this a little bit, even as a 6-3 quarterback. These are big guys in front of you, and it collapses on you, and you’re much more comfortable outside the pocket. I think he’s much more comfortable outside the pocket, a much more accurate thrower outside the pocket. There’s some things where he’s sloppy with his feet but gets away with it because he’s such a great athlete.”
Flutie: “Sometimes he just trusts his athleticism too much. You can’t just run around and make plays in the NFL. It doesn’t happen. The field is too small, given the speed and size of the players. I found that out. But in the NFL, are you going to get away from those D-linemen? Are you going to get away from those linebackers who are faster than you? In the NFL you can’t always rely on athleticism.”
The mayhem throws, the running everywhere with no endgame but what’s in Manziel’s head … sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a debacle, and sometimes his vision wins for him.
Gannon: “You talk to the people in Pittsburgh about Ben Roethlisberger. Mike Tomlin says, There’s gonna be three or four plays every game where he runs around and makes six guys miss and then gets sacked and loses 10 yards. But we have to tolerate because of the couple times a game where he does that and he throws for a 70-yard touchdown. That’s who he is. You’re going to have to take some negative plays, because that’s who he is. You can’t take that natural instinct away from him.”
Cutcliffe: “This is why I think he can be a good pro quarterback. He has great vision of the field. Down here at the 10-yard line, see 32 of Alabama there? Johnny Manziel is aware of him or he throws an interception right here. Anytime you see backers running laterally, you know it’s man. Now you’re trying to throw it on time. See how he thinks he’s getting that guy clean? I’m telling you—seven out of 10 quarterbacks throw that. So he saw it. Bill Walsh said it best: When you’re scrambling, make first-and-10 decisions—which means conservative decisions. More games are lost than won in football, really. This is an opportunity to lose a game."
Gannon: “I’ll tell you what, though—he finds completions.”
Gilbride: “His mechanics are awful! (Laughing) He’s falling to the left! Oh my goodness. He’s gonna drive somebody crazy, but you know what, you’re gonna be hugging him too when he makes some of those spectacular plays.”
Cutcliffe: “Johnny, are you doing this? Really? This is an arm throw. This is Harry Gilmer, the jump passer. All he has to do is a little pocket movement to his right, set his feet, and throw the football. That is a mechanical flaw.
Gannon: “He doesn’t want to step up into the pocket. If you watch him here, he’s a guy that likes to drift. There’s a little bit of push, but he could step up. But he wants to get outside because it’s easier for him. It’s easier for him to see. It’s easier for him to make these plays, and that’s where he’s had the most success. I talked to the defensive coordinator at Duke about preparing for him. He said you’re better off letting him complete the pass to the primary receiver, because that doesn’t hurt you. Where he really hurts you is when he gets outside contain, and that’s where the big plays show up—off the scramble.
"The problem is, in the NFL—and we see it all the time with Vince Young and Terrelle Pryor and all these athletic guys—what happens is you get a good defensive coordinator who will get up the field and set the edge and force this guy to function and operate as a pocket passer. What we’ve always learned in the NFL is you talk about the integrity of the A-gap and the B-gap [the gaps on the offensive line closest to the center] and being able to step up and trust it. This guy, to me, is going to have a problem with that. Drew Brees is so good about sliding and resetting, and he’s able to change his body angle and make awkward throws, and he’s able to find gaps and windows.
"It’s not just whether Johnny Manziel is ready for the NFL, it’s whether that team is ready for him. Do they have a good defense? Do they have a running game? Do they have a veteran running back they can lean on while he figures stuff out? Because if not, it’s going to be going so fast for him.”
One thing all five agree on: They like Manziel’s physical gifts.
Cutcliffe: “He’s got great torso strength, shoulder strength, arm strength, hand strength. I want to see him be more consistent in his finish. If you’re finishing consistently the same way, if you study some of the great ones—they find a way to finish the same way. If you do that, he will become more consistent as long as he’s willing. He may be accurate, but he’s doing more than he needs to do.”
Gannon: “He has the ability to avoid the rush, and create, and improvise. I like that in a quarterback. That’s the one thing when I watch this tape that gets me excited about Johnny Manziel. I like the fact that he can make something out of nothing. I like the fact that he can avoid the rush. I like the fact that he can keep plays alive. Those are all good things. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady can’t do that, but they are so freaking good and have so much experience in audibles, changing plays, accuracy, timing, history, knowledge of the game—that’s why they are able to survive. Because even when they can’t run away, they can function or just flip it away.”
Cutcliffe: “Look at his hand engulf that ball. He’s got huge hands. Look at that. That’s scary looking, that much hand. It looks like somebody’s done a caricature. And because of that, look at where he throws that ball.”
Holmgren: “I heard Gruden say Manziel reminded him of Steve Young. I had Steve Young in college. It’s not even the same animal. Fran Tarkenton a little bit. Tarkenton was such a good passer. Oh boy. He was really a good passer.”
Gilbride: “I’d rather have the guy who takes a shot than the guy who’s afraid to take a chance. He ain’t afraid to take a chance. Those are the guys who win. It’s nice to have a guy who can solve problems. It’s nice when you can solve them with your feet. It gives him a solution to difficulties that guys who can’t run don’t have. It can’t be the only solution, or the team will never be good.”
He abandons the pocket early, regularly, to make plays. Sometimes it’s good, but it’s the strict teachers in the group who wish he’d stay longer.
Cutcliffe: “This is pretty good poise in the pocket. I would want him to move up instead of back. One of the problems with his size becomes that issue—you have to have pocket movement to get vision if you’re that size. But it also is a credit to the folks coaching Russell Wilson. Mike Holmgren said it: He’s got to have the right people coaching him to understand all these idiosyncrasies to help him be successful. You’re not going to run the exact same pocket as you had run with Tom Brady, who is big and tall. But in the end, he maintains his poise.”
Gannon: “His lack of patience in the pocket is a concern. I don’t get the sense that he’s very comfortable in the noise and the traffic up in the A and B gaps. He has a reluctance to step up inside the pocket, set his feet, and make an on-time delivery. He has so much confidence in his ability to create and improvise that at times it can be a negative. He is late with his eyes at times. You’ll see him look on timing throws, trying to look off a near safety, it’s not necessary. It makes him late with his eyes, and as a result, he is late with the throw. It affects his accuracy.”
Gilbride: “He takes off, and he’s just turning down underneath throws that in the pro game he’s going have to make. Those intermediate guys are open. You say, ‘Make them bleed. Make them bleed. Make them bleed’ [on short passes]. Then eventually, they’re going jump the shorter routes and you’ll get the deeper throw.”
Cutcliffe: “Out of the pocket, that’s where he manages to get the job done. Again, his knowledge, his vision is what impressed me in person against our defense. He knew what we were doing and where to go with the ball. And his suddenness. He’s not having to do a whole lot with his lower body to throw that thing incredibly well with velocity. That’s just what I saw in person in the bowl game. I could not believe his ability to just snap it off and get it out there in a hurry—with accuracy and with velocity.”
Gannon: “When I watch him—and I’ve watched probably half a dozen games—I don’t see as much of the anticipation. He’s a guy who sometimes wants to see the receiver open. Now these back shoulder throws, he’s got so much confidence in this bigger receiver. But I’m talking about some of these in-breaking routes and out-breaking routes where he’s not anticipating.”
Holmgren: “Everyone’s saying, ‘Russell Wilson. Russell Wilson.’ [Packers GM] Ron Wolf and I were evaluating running backs and I said, ‘I really like this guy.’ He says, ‘How tall is he?’ I said, ‘He’s 5-7 or 5-8.’ He says, ‘Don’t move.’ Runs into his office and comes back with a computer printout and goes, ‘These are all the running backs who have ever played in the NFL. How many were good and were 5-8 or less?’ There was one: Barry Sanders. He says, ‘He might be the next Barry Sanders, but probably not.’ If you say, ‘Well now because of Russell Wilson, we should draft 5-11 quarterbacks”—well, Wilson is so special in other areas that allow him to do that. Plus their defense is so good. Plus their kicking game is good. Plus they have Marshawn Lynch. So it all fits that way for him.”
Gannon: “He needs to go somewhere where you’ve got a great quarterback coach and a great coordinator, and they’re really going to drill him on footwork—a guy like Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton, somebody who’s going coach the crap out of him on how to play in the pocket.
“You hope he goes somewhere and gets a chance to thrive, as opposed to Jacksonville or somewhere where he’s got to be that guy and carry a team when he’s not ready to do that yet. [Jags offensive coordinator] Jedd Fisch is not a guy who’s going to take out the whip and crack it. He’s not that guy. Johnny needs a guy who’s not going to be his buddy—who’s going to be his coach. This guy needs tight reins.”
LSU often defended Manziel by rushing five, and putting them in sort of a halo around Manziel, making it hard for him to escape the pocket.
Flutie: “You bring five guys. This is a Belichick thing—you tell your defensive ends, Don’t go deeper than the quarterback. His only escape is out the backside of the pocket, not up and through. It makes him stand in there and throw the football, and it creates a wall in front of him, which I struggled with at times as well. What I always did when I saw that is I picked the one matchup I like. I feel a five-man rush. It’s usually man-to-man on the outside. It would be very difficult for me to go front side to back side and find another receiver. So I picked my guy and picked my matchup and put the ball on a spot where I thought I could get it to my guy and make a play for you. And that’s what he’s done with Mike Evans. He’s his man-to-man bailout.”
Gilbride: “Just like LSU did on defense, that’s what [NFL teams] are all going to do. They’re going to try to hold him in the pocket and make him prove he can be disciplined and accurate enough, and throw the ball to beat you. Can he do that? Sometimes there’s going to be a breakdown and you solve it by running around, but you can’t do that all the time and be good.”
The game’s changing, which should be an advantage to Manziel. Or is the game really so different from a decade ago? Feels like it is. Gilbride says no.
Gilbride: “I hear that all the time, but I say 10 years ago, Michael Vick was running around like a maniac. Kordell Stewart was running around like a maniac. Mark Brunell was running around like a maniac. Those guys have always had a place. More teams maybe are running the read option, which demands that a quarterback can throw and still be athletic enough. But if you think of the old days, quarterbacks were option football. They were great athletes. Then it was, Could they throw? And the ones that make it become quarterbacks. The ones that don’t stay ‘slash.’ Manziel’s got to grow. He’s not going to make it just running around. But it will allow him to be successful early on while he’s developing into the complete quarterback. Because early on he can still solve some problems with his feet.”
Flutie: “It’s not going to be textbook. His footwork is not great, but it’s kind of out of necessity. As a smaller quarterback or as an athletic quarterback, I always liked keeping my separation from the offensive line. So sometimes you drift. Sometimes you don’t really set firm, which would drive NFL people nuts. But he’s still able to make throws and throw the ball accurately when doing that. When it’s not there, now he’s continued to drift a little bit and create that separation so he can be elusive.”
Manziel reportedly got the highest score of a quarterback on the 50-question Wonderlic test this year: a 32.
Gannon: “Better than the alternative. Shows he can learn a new offense, probably pretty quick.”
Holmgren: “You go into those meetings, discussing quarterbacks, and guys are saying, He’s dumb. He got a 17 on his Wonderlic. So I get a bunch of these tests one day in Green Bay and call a staff meeting with the coaches, and I say, ‘Okay, I’m going to pass this out. No questions. You have 10 minutes to take this test. Go.’ I had taken it two days before by myself. So I collect them all and grade them. The next day I pass them out. They all got their scores… and Andy [Reid] got a 27, and he goes, ‘What’d you get?’ I said, ‘I got a 33.’ He says, “I want to take it again! I gotta take it again!’ I didn’t let him. From that point, guys there had a little more appreciation for the test. It’s not that easy.”
Cutcliffe: “You can tell he’s smart. You train a quarterback from the neck up and the neck down. The neck down is all those mechanics and things that have to happen mindlessly. So what he tells me—he’s got a little issue mechanically, but he’s using his eyes and his mind really well. He’s busy during the play. He gets it."
Flutie: “I love his situational awareness. His ability to rise to the occasion of the game—whether it is a two-minute drive at the end of the half or the end of the game, understanding that he’s got to get two more scores in the last two minutes so we’re going to hurry this up and take a few more risks. A feel for where people are in the pocket around him. All those instinctive things that you can’t teach. I mean there are some guys that are 6-5 with a great arm and are smart and all that, but they get the ball stripped from them all the time. Guys coming around the corner. He knows where people are and where the defenders are. He has a knack for setting up his blocks when he takes off and runs, he’ll move a guy. All those little things that are very instinctive.”
What don’t you like?
Flutie: “Throwing the ball up for grabs a little too much. Sometimes you have to give up on a play and throw it away. He really will not give up on a play. I’ve seen him throw some balls out of bound and throw them away, but boy, he gave it every shot he could. In the NFL, you’ve got to know when your journey is over, which means get down and don’t take the hit. The biggest challenge for me as a smaller quarterback, and I think he’s going to have that challenge, is that front side to back side read. When you bring five especially—to go from one side of the field to the other. He’s going to have to move to make that secondary throw, rather than just pivot on his feet, keep the ball high and the ball out.”
Cutcliffe: “Can he make it? Yes. Will he? Has a lot to do with all the X factors. Where he lands, the system he’s in, who’s coaching him, his commitment and willingness to continue to improve. Let’s remember this: He’s coming out early. He’s got to take all of the skill he has and realize that ‘great’ doesn’t come in how far you can throw it and how hard you can throw it or how many big plays you may or may not make. It comes in consistency. We can start talking ‘great’ player when you’re an extremely consistent player. That means hitting open receivers when you should hit them. That means the accuracy stays there. Training that lower body to be friendly—to quit falling off throws, to lose his accuracy when he doesn’t have to. Being on the field with him at the bowl game, it was total command of that football—his ability to spin the ball, put it where he wanted to put it, to his ability to keep his eyes downfield, and his awareness during a play downfield … Those things far exceeded what I thought it was going to be. And it wasn’t just his quickness. His strength shocked me a little bit. He’s an extremely strong football player as a quarterback."
Would you want to coach him?
Cutcliffe: “I would. How could you not want to coach this guy? I’d love to coach him. It’s a challenge in some areas, but he’s got so many gifts. He’s the kind you want to get your hands on.”
Gannon: “You’ve got Drew Brees, and you’ve got Russell Wilson—we’re gonna see about this kid, but you like what you see so far. But how many guys are at six feet that have really thrived in this league. So, can he be that guy? I think there are subtle changes to be made. It’s like taking a guy’s golf swing—you don’t try to change the whole golf swing. But there’s simple things like, ‘Hey, two hands on the ball in the pocket.’ That doesn’t change the way he throws the ball. That’s a simple thing. There’s some things with his feet, where if we could just show him on these cutups where his body angle is back here, we want to try to get up here more. We want you to play bigger, not smaller. His instinctiveness, his creativity, his maneuverability, his athleticism, his toughness, his willingness to run up inside with the football—all positives.”
Holmgren: “I think [long-term success] is a long shot. When he makes plays, he’s most effective moving, scrambling, gets a little lucky, and then he’s got a lot of those throws that most guys can make. When he has to really throw the ball accurately, I just didn’t think he threw the ball well enough. Now in his pro workout [Holmgren watched his Pro Day workout], he had a really good workout, but there’s not people flying around. You’re not reading things. You need to be able to throw in the pocket and make throws on third-and-nine, when everyone in the whole park knows you’re going to throw. Two, physically, he’s not exactly what you want. He’s not tall enough. Now that doesn’t mean he can’t make it, because Russell Wilson made it. But not many guys do.”
Flutie: “He’s got to be a worker. Any quarterback at the NFL level absolutely has to be. In recent years the athleticism has been successful—just being an athlete at the quarterback position. But those guys are more than just athletes. You can’t just run around and make plays in the NFL. The guy who’s willing to come in early and leave late, first one in last guy out. Tom Brady—every day—first guy in, last guy out. Game planning with the coaches. Know that game plan inside out. I remember hearing Peyton Manning as a rookie, they said, ‘Oh, he can’t watch enough film. He’s the only guy I’ve ever had come up and ask to watch more film.’ I was rolling my eyes, thinking, What is this guy trying to do, impress? But in this day and age, with how much is being thrown on a quarterback—like getting out of plays, calling multiple plays in the huddle, and alerts at the line of scrimmage—you have to be that way.”
The Final Word
Flutie: “I hope they don’t take the fun out of the game for him, because I felt my first time around they did for me. After playing in Canada and coming back, I didn’t allow it. I was more mature and confident about what I was doing. Johnny doesn’t lack confidence, and they won’t give up on him easily. I felt that in my era it was one bad game and I’m out. Russell Wilson isn’t throwing for 400 a game, but he’s doing all these little things to help you win. Scrambling for a first down. Hits some big plays here and there. I think the success of Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson—the spread offense guys—and also Drew Brees and Russell—the shorter guys—that Johnny’s gonna get a legitimate shot. When I played, you had to be a 6-4 or 6-5 guy to have a couple years to screw up and still be around. I think they’ll hang with him and give him a real shot. Because he’s dynamic. His instinctive play is just phenomenal.”
Photo credits for panel: Grant Halverson/Getty Images (Cutcliffe); Bill Nelson/SI (Holmgren); Paul Marotta/Getty Images (Flutie); Bill Kostroun/AP (Gilbride) Michael Loccisano/Getty Imagesfor SiriusXM (Gannon)