Johnny Football magnet.
Preamble to yet more words about Johnny Manziel, the 22nd pick in the NFL draft Thursday night: Between 7 p.m. and midnight Thursday, Twitter recorded approximately 2.5 million Tweets related to Manziel. In the same five hours, 519,000 Tweets were posted, combined, concerning LeBron James, the Miami-Brooklyn and Portland-San Antonio playoff games, and the NHL playoff games (Boston-Montreal, Anaheim-Los Angeles). Five times as many people Tweeted about Manziel alone as Tweeted about the four most important games of the night and the most charismatic athlete in America playing in one of the games—James. “That is a pretty wild stat,” Manziel said.
Now that I have your attention, let’s start this section at 9:33 p.m. Thursday, with the three permanently fixed cameras on Manziel waiting to show his reaction as commissioner Roger Goodell steps to the podium. To Manziel’s left in the green room backstage at Radio City Music Hall is his 33-year-old agent and confidant, Erik Burkhardt.
“With the 13th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft,” Goodell says, “the St. Louis Rams select Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Pittsburgh.”
Manziel does not like to let people see him sweat. He knew his every move on this night would be scrutinized closely. But the Rams passing on him hurt. Because now he thought he’d be in for a free-fall. He turned to Burkhardt, and sort of out of the side of his mouth, said this:
“E.B., we’re screwed.”
I asked him about this over the phone Saturday night, when he was back home in Texas for 24 hours of relaxation. “I did tell Erik that,” he said. “I felt that way, because there was so much uncertainty after that. I felt really good about St. Louis. My workout with them was great. They spent a lot of time getting to know me and researching me, and I did well when they put me on the board with coach [offensive coordinator Brian] Schottenheimer. So yes, I have to admit, I was a little surprised there when they passed on me.”
“But,” I said, “what about Dallas at 16? You didn’t think that might happen?”
“No, not really,” he said. “After talking to [owner] Jerry Jones a little bit, I understand why they wouldn’t. I felt it would be crazy for the state, for them, and for me. I thought the whole thing would be hectic. Plus, Tony [Romo] is so great. It just wouldn’t have been a great fit. I knew that, and Jerry knew it too, I think.”
As the picks went by, starting soon after the Rams chose at 13, Cleveland GM Ray Farmer worked the phones, trying to find a partner to move up from their second pick in the round (26th overall) to grab Manziel. He couldn’t find a fit. Finally, with less than three minutes to go in Philadelphia’s 22nd slot, Farmer heard this from an Eagles representative over the phone: “If you’re not gonna jump in here, we’re gonna trade the pick right now.” It’s cloudy what his offer had been to this point, but now he had to sweeten it, and he offered the 83rd pick overall, a third-rounder, in addition to their pick four slots lower than Philly. Done deal. The Eagles liked that offer better than an offer from Minnesota, because the Vikings would have been moving up from 40.
And so here’s Johnny. But the Browns must have really loved the Manziel tape—because his workout with Cleveland brass 19 days before the draft was a mess. On Good Friday night, Browns coach Mike Pettine, GM Farmer, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains went to dinner with Manziel and Burkhardt at a country club outside of College Station, near the Texas A&M campus. “We worked out 10 quarterbacks and ate with all of them,” Pettine said Saturday night. “That’s the only meal we didn’t pay for.” The workout was set for 8 a.m. Saturday morning, so the Clevelanders and Manziel could make it home comfortably for Easter. One problem: no receivers. So a high school buddy, Shanahan and Burkhardt—in jeans and sneakers—were the pass-catchers. After the workout, which included some clanks off Burkhardt’s hands, the agent said to Manziel: “I’ve seen you better.”
“I’d be better,” Manziel said with a laugh, “if you could catch.”
“One thing I liked about our meeting,” said Pettine. “We talked about being prepared to handle the pressure and the demands of being an NFL quarterback, and he told us, ‘I’m equipped to handle it. I think I’ve handled it already.’ I think he’s right.”
Manziel was in Cleveland Friday and got handed his playbook—on a tablet—and examined the playbook on his trip home from Cleveland. Having a playbook will be different for him, because A&M didn’t give out playbooks, just weekly game plans. “It’s a bigger league and a bigger deal,” he said. “But I’m preparing the same way I always would. It’s football.”
Now about everything else Cleveland …
• What to do about Josh Gordon? Assuming Gordon is found to have tested positive in the NFL’s substance-abuse program (which ESPN reported Friday), he’ll likely be banned for somewhere between eight and 16 games. Gordon, 23, has been disciplined twice previously for testing positive: once by coach Art Briles at Baylor, and once by the NFL last summer, causing him to be suspended for the first two games of the season. Playing 14 games, he still led the league in receiving yards last year and was the first receiver in history to have back-to-back 200-yard receiving games, in weeks 12 and 13.
But now he could be more of a problem than he’s worth, the same way the immensely talented Justin Blackmon is turning out in Jacksonville. The Browns are trying to establish a winning program, and if they can’t trust their best player, which Gordon clearly is, they’re going to have a tough decision on their hands if and when he’s suspended, and when he returns. Gordon has two years left on his rookie contract. How can the Browns possibly know what to pay him in a second contract, having no idea if they can trust him from one week to the next? If Gordon did test positive, and knowing that a monster contract would likely be coming at the end of this season if he could stay clean, it’s either a measure of the depth of his problem or a measure of his immaturity. Or both.
• About passing on Sammy Watkins and all those receivers … Farmer told me that before the Browns made the trade with Buffalo to move from fourth to ninth in the first round, “We were very close to turning in the card. We very easily could have turned in the card with Sammy’s name on it.” I wondered if he would have regrets about passing on him and taking cornerback Justin Gilbert if Watkins turned into a Randy Moss-type talent. “Even if Sammy turns into Randy Moss, Justin Gilbert can be every bit as good as Patrick Peterson. That’s how much talent he has. And in the game today, I feel cornerbacks are as important as wide receivers, and maybe harder to find. So I have no regrets about it, no.”
Okay. But to get no receiver in a good crop of them, knowing you might not have Josh Gordon all season—and maybe forever—is the problem I have. When you start a draft with 10 picks and get zero wideouts, and have to rely on either a blockbuster trade for a veteran or signing a damaged-goods free-agent like Santonio Holmes or Miles Austin, that’s wrong. “It’s still a maybe [about the Gordon ban],” Manziel stiff-upper-lipped. “I firmly believe coach Pettine and Ray Farmer will address it and put us in the best position possible.”
Now, I want to be clear about the job Farmer did. I thought he had a very good draft, with that one large asterisk. He got first-, fourth- and sixth-round picks in 2015 as well as long-term starters at quarterback, cornerback and tackle (in his opinion); if that happens, it’s executive-of-the-year drafting. Farmer moved decisively and without fear. He knew he’d get criticized for not picking a receiver, and he’s ready for it. “I’ll be candid here,” he said. “The real position to get a receiver would have been at 35, and we thought of it. There were receivers there we liked a lot. But we loved [Nevada tackle] Joel Bitonio at 35. He was clearly the highest-rated player for us then. Not another guy of his caliber, or even close, there. We stayed true to our board. Then we hoped one of the receivers we liked would have fallen to 71, but they were gone then. That’s the heartbreaking part of the draft. You like so many guys, and they get picked, and you say, ‘There goes another one.’ It hurts, but you can’t have everyone you want.”
I support trading out of the fourth pick, particularly if it means you get two high picks next year and a corner you feel is the best in the draft. So I would have made that deal. If it were me, I’d have taken a Marqise Lee or Jordan Matthews instead of Bitonio.
• How soon will Manziel supplant Brian Hoyer? The good thing for Manziel is that Hoyer doesn’t have a huge head start on him in working with Kyle Shanahan and the new offense—just one month. I’d be surprised if Manziel doesn’t win the job before the Sept. 7 opener at Pittsburgh, but whether he does or not, it won’t be long before he’s under center for good. “We’re not handing him the job,” Pettine told me. “It’s going to be an open and fair competition, and the best man will win.”
• Memo to Dawg Pounders happy with the Manziel pick: Stop cursing Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi. Just stop it. Do you know how much those two men helped you draft Manziel? With Banner and Lombardi running the 2013 draft, the Browns traded their fourth-round pick to Pittsburgh in exchange for the Steelers’ third-round pick in 2014; that was the 83rd overall pick in this year’s draft. In September, Banner/Lombardi traded running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis for the Colts’ first-round pick in 2014; that was the 26th overall pick in this year’s draft. On Thursday, Farmer traded those two picks—26 and 83 overall—to Philadelphia for the 22nd overall pick, the pick he used to draft Manziel.
One last point about Manziel: Imagine if he’d been drafted by the Rams at 13. Imagine the TV trucks, news helicopters, and Ellen DeGeneres and Deion Sanders and Chris Berman and Brian Williams at a May practice to see Manziel and Michael Sam. I think Sam’s in a good spot. Sam plus Manziel would have caused ESPN, NFL Network, Access Hollywood and Outsports to open news bureaus in the shadow of the Gateway Arch. Not too conducive to learning one’s trade.
So as much as Manziel must be questioning his weaponry now that Josh Gordon might be lost for the year, maybe the St. Louis thing wouldn’t have been any better. And don’t assume Manziel isn’t happy being with the Browns. I certainly don’t. He’s already fired up that Houston and Jacksonville, two teams that passed on him, are on Cleveland’s schedule this year. He seemed excited to start his me-against-the-world campaign in Cleveland this week.
Something he said, seriously, Thursday night when it was over and he was a Brown illustrates the fact that we’re dealing with a different cat here. “I kind of like the fact the Browns had the guts to pass on me twice, then come up to get me,” he said. It’ll be an interesting ride with Manziel for at least the next four years.