BEREA, Ohio — Johnny Manziel’s first training camp practice, like for the rest of his teammates, began with warm-ups. The quarterbacks were loosening up their arms with easy, short passes to the running backs. That’s when a security guard, walking between a gallery of fans and the field, suddenly dropped to the ground.
“Dear God!” he called out. “I don’t want to stand in front of Johnny Football.”
Everyone wants to keep an eye on Johnny Manziel, right?
So begins the Cleveland Browns’ 2014 season. Fans scooped up all 4,000 free online tickets for yesterday’s practice, and the next five, and all 25,000 seats for next weekend’s Family Day scrimmage in Akron. There were Johnny Cleveland tees, and fans wearing Texas A&M colors, and a guy who taped green money signs onto his No. 2 Browns jersey. A couple dozen media members formed a gauntlet outside the door leading from the locker room to the practice field, waiting for Manziel to emerge, which happened at 9:22 a.m.
Then, the most polarizing rookie in the NFL went out and had a pretty plain Day 1 of training camp practice. Brian Hoyer worked with the starters, as expected. Manziel worked with the second-team offense, as expected. He passed 15 times, handed off to a running back on seven plays, took a couple would-be sacks and took off running once in 11-on-11 team drills—to cheers from fans close enough to see.
There were no pads in this practice, no Johnny package of plays. Not yet.
“The really great athletes,” owner Jimmy Haslam said after practice, “make their news on the field, not off the field.”
Yes, that was a scolding. Manziel’s summer partying—including the infamous picture of him rolling up a bill in a Vegas bathroom—was captured by paparazzi and social media for all to see. “We expect better from him,” Haslam added, naming LeBron James and Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Derek Jeter as examples.
It was also a way of imploring Manziel to deliver on his physical gifts. The Browns have certainly prepared their fan base for the possibility of seeing Manziel on the bench Week 1. The starting quarterback job is up for grabs, but Hoyer has been given first crack at it, having been assigned precious reps with the first-team offensive line in the opening practices and the first preseason game. But like the security guard referenced, everyone’s keeping an eye on Manziel.
Even Hoyer, described as a “class act,” doesn’t pretend off-the-field lifestyles matter in a QB competition. “No one is going to cheer for a good guy if he is 4-12.”
Head coach Mike Pettine likens Manziel’s transition—from a Texas A&M offense that encouraged his freelancing ways to an NFL offense with play calls as long as a dozen words—to trying to drive at 200 miles per hour. If you accelerate all at once you’ll crash, but you can build up to it over time. That process is now underway, under the watchful eye of Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Robert Griffin III’s former tutor. Shanahan was constantly offering instruction on the practice field yesterday morning. For instance, during a drill that had the quarterbacks throwing short out routes, Shanahan reminded Manziel not to stare down the receivers.
“Johnny,” Shanahan called from the middle of the field, “try and look at me as long as you can before you throw.”
Once, Hoyer helped show Manziel where to line up for a drill. But they don’t have much interaction on the practice field. They want the same thing, after all. Hoyer, the hometown boy, spotted a pal he played youth baseball with in the crowd yesterday. Manziel, the first-round pick, was surrounded by hundreds of people wearing his name and considers LeBron James “a business partner of mine.” Sure, Haslam prefers Hoyer’s off-the-field style at this point (he called him a “class act”), but even Hoyer doesn’t pretend that matters in a quarterback competition. “No one is going to cheer for a good guy if he is 4-12,” he said.
When Manziel returned to Ohio from his lively summer break, he had a talk with Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer, and on the eve of training camp, he opened his press conference with a statement acknowledging his “rookie mistakes.” But through his self-psychoanalysis—stick with us here—he rationalizes that the same traits that make him a spectacle off the field make him a spectacle on the field, too.
“Here’s the thing that I want to say,” Manziel said. “The reason I’m popular, the reason people follow me and there’s been such a buzz around me is when I went out on Saturdays at Texas A&M, I played with an extreme amount of passion, I wore my heart on my sleeve. But more than anything, I had fun. … It’s the same way off the field.”
Maybe that was on Manziel’s mind yesterday because he was back playing football again. Or maybe that was a justification for doing what he wants to do in his free time. But the people of Cleveland, who have stood by the team through a string of quarterbacks named Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson and Brandon Weeden, can certainly get behind having some more fun on the field.
So some of them chanted, “Here we go, Johnny!” and willed him to take off running and mimicked his infamous “show me the money” finger rub. All eyes on Johnny Manziel, for the time being the most popular backup quarterback since—hey-o!—Tim Tebow.
Pettine, glancing around on his way off the practice field, said: “Nothing I haven’t seen before.”