The Manziel circus is in full swing in Cleveland, and the ringleader job might be his to lose. Plus, Michael Sam is not an alien, why the color of Week 1 was yellow and more observations with the first set of preseason games in the books
“It’s your time now.”
—Cleveland receiver Anthony Armstrong to Johnny Manziel in the huddle Saturday night, before the first play of Manziel’s career.
DETROIT — At his locker in the visitors’ quarters Saturday night, not long before the clock struck midnight at Ford Field, stood safety Donte Whitner, the ebullient Cleveland Brown. Not a lot of people would be thrilled to be a Brown. But Whitner, born in Cleveland and educated at Glenville High on 113th Street in the city and then at Ohio State, had to soak it all in Saturday in the bowels of this stadium. For eight years he’d played professionally in Buffalo and then San Francisco, and tonight he’d finally put on the white jersey with brown numbers of his hometown team. “I stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom for 10 minutes, just staring,” Whitner said. “So strange. Like, I’m a Brown. My heart’s been here, and now I’m here.”
I figured Whitner would be the best man in the room to ask about the quarterback—the phenom, Johnny Manziel, versus the unproven but decidedly more even-keeled vet, Brian Hoyer. Whitner knows what Cleveland the city wants. Whitner has played in a Super Bowl and was the leader of a Niners secondary that held up its end for three straight playoff seasons. Whitner said all the right things about the competition between Hoyer and Manziel, which does appear close in the wake of Saturday’s preseason opener here. Close, with Manziel gaining fast on the turn into home … which no one expected a month ago. This looked clearly to be Hoyer’s gig, at least to start the season. Not anymore. The gap has closed significantly, and Saturday night was Exhibit A why.
“It’s been fierce,” Whitner said. “Two guys fighting for their lives. It’s close. I’d say [the locker room] is split about 50-50. We know they both can play.”
Manziel outplayed Hoyer in the 13-12 loss to Detroit, but the rookie (seven of 11 for 64 yards and no touchdowns or picks, six carries for 27 yards) was a B and the vet a C or C-plus. Not enough to tip the scales, yet. But from the first throw of the two quarters he played—a lasered eight-yard out route to Anthony Armstrong—Manziel was the player he’d been at Texas A&M in terms of confidence and running the game his way. That helped on a couple of throws, and on a 16-yard scramble that parted the Red Sea on the Detroit line. But it hurt him on a fourth-and-short when he rolled right and ran for the sticks, bypassing what would have been a medium- to big-gain throw to fullback Ray Agnew; Manziel barely made the necessary yard for a first down. That was a clear case of Manziel playing the way he did at Texas A&M, taking the offense into his own hands and saying, I’ll get the first down. Everyone stand clear. That’s not a smart way in the NFL because it’s just going to get him hit more. And at his size, the object is to let the other offensive guys get hit, not him.
The fact that Manziel is close heading into one of the last tests Monday night against Washington (Browns coach Mike Pettine ideally would like to name a starter by game three of the preseason) is surprising. When Hoyer and Manziel left Cleveland in mid-June for their pre-camp break, Hoyer had a comfortable lead over the rookie. Manziel wasn’t entirely sure of himself, and he was making a few mental errors and not playing with his usual confidence in practice. The Browns wondered if he’d come back in top mental and physical shape. He did, despite his Vegas dalliances. It’s probably true that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan would prefer playing the veteran, at least early. But how much difference is Hoyer’s experience, really? He’s thrown 193 NFL passes and started four games. This isn’t the Arizona Kurt Warner we’re talking about.
One more “but” for Manziel: He can’t be running at Saturday’s rate—six times in six series—and survive. Which he knows. “Obviously,” he said, “that’s not the plan, for me to get that many carries every week. The better I get at progressions, the more I get comfortable with the play calls and the scheme and what we’re trying to do and pre-snap looks, the more and more I continue to get better over time. And less and less running. Hopefully that will weed out.”
I asked Whitner what he thought of Manziel after being around the celeb quarterback for a couple of months now.
“Very quiet,” Whitner said. “Very respectful. He’s earning his keep so far. He’s not asking for any privileges. He’s just a rookie, and he’s acting like one. When we have the rookie show, he’ll sing just like the rest of them. As far as football goes, I’m seeing him put the ball on the money like a veteran. Sometimes the receiver drops it. Sometimes the receiver isn’t even looking for the ball and it bounces off him. He’s got the confidence a quarterback has to have.”
Too much confidence? I saw the right amount on the field, and, for what it’s worth, humility off it. On the field, he was the spitting image of the Texas A&M Manziel, throwing BBs and running when he wanted. I thought he’d be a bit tentative and not as decisive as, say, he was against Alabama in his defining college games. Not at all. He was who the Browns drafted.
When he finished showering and dressing (white button-down Oxford shirt, dress jeans) after the game, he stood at his locker and quietly talked on his phone or talked to a couple of the team PR guys softly. In front of the press, it was all about the team, and about progress. “For me,” he said, “it’s all about getting better. At the end of the day, what I want is what’s best for the Cleveland Browns. Whichever quarterback that is, whichever way I can help this team, that’s what I’m about. I need to soak in this game tonight, learn from the film, and things will work out the way they’re supposed to.”
That’s the press-conference Johnny. That’s fine for the fifth quarter—the post-game message-sending—but for the first four quarters, Whitner and his mates want a different Johnny.
“We need him to be Johnny Football,” Whitner said.