With mere days to go until the opening of training camp, when we’ll truly begin to suss out the answer to the greater question of whether he can be a successful franchise face during an NFL season, Johnny Manziel has proven without equivocation he is a bright, glittering star of the NFL Silly Season.
Perhaps the greatest ever.
Think about it. If his post-combine life was one great, big MadLib—you know, the famous fill-in-the-blank children’s word game—it would appear as if Manziel’s answers have all been chosen by Harvey Levin.
For example, let’s pretend this MadLib got published back in May, right after the first-round of the NFL Draft in New York City:
“After hanging with ________ and ________ in ________, Johnny Manziel was then spotted at ________ with his new _______ and _______ before _______ and being ______ a rolled-up _________.”
Now let’s have some fun and fill in the blanks. Shall we?
First, here are the answers Cleveland Browns brass from owner Jimmy Haslem on down would have collectively chosen:
“After hanging with his old choir and pastor in church, Johnny Manziel was then spotted at home with his new playbook and practice DVDs before calling his dog and being brought a rolled-up newspaper.”
Fair enough. Now, here’s how the snark-aholics at TMZ would have filled out the MadLib at their cubicles:
“After hanging with Rob Gronkowski and bikini hotties in Las Vegas, Johnny Manziel was then spotted at a Hollywood party with his new friends Justin Bieber and Floyd Mayweather before going back to Vegas and being caught on Twitter holding a rolled-up 20-dollar bill.”
Incredible. The only thing missing is a Kardashian of some kind.
Make no mistake: for those whose job it is to fill in figurative blanks of NFL coverage during The Silly Season, this is chum in the water. And when it comes to Johnny Football, we in the NFL media need a bigger boat.
But, when it all comes down to it…what does it all really mean?
Just because Manziel doubled down on his Memorial Day Weekend Gronkapalooza by getting photographed with Canada’s most notorious egg-tossing, Fisker-speeding tabloid cover boy and America’s most well-known sports-gambling sports figure in the same photograph doesn’t mean he won’t crush it on the NFL gridiron this fall? Right?
Or does it?
Just because the guy who rubs imaginary money as a sign of his confidence was apparently photographed rubbing actual money in a way that inspires little confidence in his ability to become an NFL franchise face doesn’t mean that he won’t become exactly that for Cleveland. Or does it?
Just because he was mostly able to do what he wanted off the field at Texas A&M while doing mostly whatever he wanted on the field for Texas A&M doesn’t mean he can’t also live his life that way at the NFL level and be successful. Or does it?
Are we seeing in real time what we would have been seeing in real time had Twitter and Instagram been around when, say, Broadway Joe Namath was living life in the fast lane while building towards and winning a Super Bowl? Or is it worse?
In other words: is all of this Silly Season-worthy material? Or does it meet the standard of serious business because it will affect wins and losses for the Browns in 2014?
Only the playing season will tell. Indeed, this is that rare storyline whose Silly Season status hinges on regular-season results. Thankfully, there’s only a handful of ways that breaks down:
1) Manziel starts Week 1 and plays well. If this happens, then all of the above becomes Silly Season material to the nth degree. If Manziel plays well right away and wins, well, then expect to see Bieber in the Dawg Pound by October.
2) Manziel starts Week 1 and struggles. If this happens, then slowly but surely, Manziel’s lifestyle gets called into question. If Manziel struggles to the point Brian Hoyer eventually gets the nod, then all of the above immediately loses Silly Season status and comes crashing down on Johnny Football. And then it’s all Bieber’s fault. Which, by the way, isn’t far from the truth in all matters.
3) Brian Hoyer starts Week 1 and plays well. If this happens, then all of the above becomes absolutely moot until the minute Manziel steps on a field. And a large contingent of tortured Browns fans will spend that time torn between enjoying Hoyer’s winning ways or worried if Hoyer’s winning is really a short-term mirage stunting the long-term growth of a team they envision having a higher ceiling with Manziel under center. Classic Cleveland angst.
4) Brian Hoyer gets the nod and struggles. This is the scenario where the Browns and new coach Mike Pettine wind up in the crosshairs as sticks-in-the-mud. If the team struggles under Hoyer while Manziel fidgets on the sideline with a clipboard and an earbud, then all of the above will be considered by the fan base as Silly Season material that the Browns are improperly taking too seriously by benching Manziel. Unless, of course, the team knows something about the Silly Season behavior that the outside world doesn’t know.
And that last part is the Johnny Manziel conundrum in a nutshell: We just don’t know. We think we do, but we honestly don’t.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped virtually every breathing person on the football planet from forming an opinion or taking a side. People either love Manziel for conducting himself in a manner that flies in the face of football convention or loathe him for it and can’t wait for the unceremonious fall. There is no grey area, which is a hallmark of virtually every TV-rating needle-moving figure in sports (see James, Lebron; Bryant, Kobe; Rodriguez, Alex and Woods, Tiger).
That’s why the Texas A&M Heisman Trophy winner enters his first season of professional football as full-on must-see TV. My take: I love it. I think it’s great. Who are we to tell someone how to live a life? If he blows it because he can’t handle fame, as Charles Barkley suggests, or can’t handle his friends, then that’s on him. And he becomes a cautionary tale for other supremely talented young kids coming up the ranks. If he succeeds, and folks are wringing their hands as to how that manifests itself with impressionable fans, then it’s on coaches and parents to caution their kids that not everyone can do it the Manziel Way. Nor should they. The NFL will still stand if Manziel wins and makes headway on the sports pages and TMZ Sports pages. In the meantime, Cleveland will rock. And the fans there deserve the rocking after all the misery.
Outside of all that, however, for someone whose job it is to discuss football every single day of the year, I wish to personally thank the football gods for one Jonathan Paul Manziel, the King of the Silly Season. The man who single-handedly helped us all get to Training Camp in 2014.