Johnny Manziel has been a member of the Cleveland Browns, an unsigned member at that, for about 5 minutes. And yet in that brief period of time he’s managed to illustrate exactly why he was the most complicated, most confounding player to enter the NFL draft in years, maybe ever.
So much of Manziel is wrapped up in myth making, most of which is self-induced. He’s not the first athlete focused on his brand, he’s just the latest. But what will continue to make Manziel the source of much agita for Cleveland fans is simply that he’s at best a difficult fit with the region’s sensibilities. That doesn’t mean he can’t be successful here. It just means it will be a trying experience.
Cleveland specifically and the Midwest generally have a culture and a view. It’s often labeled with the term “blue collar” but that term has lost so much of its meaning and resonance. Still, Clevelanders will tolerate a significant amount of bullshit in the pursuit of a winner but they will not tolerate being mocked for their values. Hard work and sincerity are as highly valued as results, maybe more so. Clevelanders to their credit and detriment will suffer earnest losers more easily than arrogant winners. Whether he wins or loses Manziel, unchanged, will struggle with a fan base that would rather just love him than hate to love him.
You can and many have written unending paragraphs dissecting Manziel’s antics including his recent weekend trip to Las Vegas and his arrogant response to those who question his work ethic. It is true, certainly, that there is a time for work and a time for play. That’s as understood as well in Cleveland as anywhere else. But there is an order to it and right now, Clevelanders are rightfully asking, as did virtually every NFL personnel type in every draft room, whether Manziel understands that proper order.
I don’t think Manziel won over any new fans by acting outraged at the questions being asked about his commitment to his craft. Lacking perhaps the personal warmth to respond sincerely he did what most immature young adults do these days, he took to Instagram. He tweeted pictures of his Cleveland Browns iPad and playbook to establish what exactly, that he looked them over on the plane? That he studied a few plays between Moscow Mules?
Manziel sees himself as unique but that’s part of his naiveté. There is nothing new under the sun, just a repackaging of all that’s come before him. It was just a few years ago when Dallas quarterback Tony Romo was jetting off to Mexico with Jessica Simpson during the Cowboys’ playoff bye week. The timing of the trip was rightly questioned and his critics’ ire fueled when the Cowboys flamed out in the playoffs. Romo said virtually the same things Manziel is saying now. He’s young. He’s entitled to relax. He can study in Mexico, with Simpson draped on his arm, just as easily as he could in his home in Dallas. All true, theoretically. Again, though, time and place. Sometimes you have to just read the room.
What it came down to with Romo is what it comes down to with Manziel, as it does with any other player. Is he willing to really put in the work necessary to be an elite in the NFL. The fact that this was the most significant question about Manziel before the draft, one would think he would have tried to answer it more forcefully than he has thus far. Indeed he seems hell bent on demonstrating what’s true in the movies only, that Seth Rogan comedies can coexist with Darron Aronofsky dramas.
Romo more or less learned from his mistake and thereafter has courted a lower profile. No coincidentally his work ethic stopped being questioned. But Romo isn’t even the best example for Manziel to follow. That would be Tom Brady.
Peter King, in this week’s Monday Morning Quarterback, interviewed Brady. When the 2014 season opens, Brady will be 37 years old. To a great extent he has nothing more to prove as a quarterback. He’s already a prominent player in the conversation of greatest NFL quarterback of all time. He also is married to someone who is a prominent player in the conversation of the world’s most beautiful women. He attends his fair share of celebrity events in service of his wife.
What Brady knows and what Manziel still has time to learn is balance. Brady spends most of his offseason working to improve as a quarterback and ensuring that he’ll be able to withstand the rigors of a NFL season.
The money quote from Brady: “I’m not here to be king of the weight room. I do things to make me a better quarterback, whatever they are. Does it work? You be the one to judge. Watch me play. Then draw your own conclusions.”
That’s the point, isn’t it? Manziel is young and gifted but with a huge learning curve ahead of him. Will he be willing to do the things to make himself a better quarterback? The results will speak for themselves with others able to draw their own conclusions.
The other thing that struck about Brady’s interview was the passion that burns within, even at this age, to keep working. Brady said that it’s his love for the game that motivates him to get up at 5 a.m. on a random Thursday in May to work out. But it’s more. He also said that he still works on his throwing mechanics with his coach because he was the 199th pick in the draft for a reason and thus he has to be sure he is as efficient as possible with his mechanics.
Jack Nickaus, in his Golf My Way book and in countless interviews over the years, talked about his routine entering each golf season. He said he starts at the beginning by working on his grip, his stance and his alignment. Even with all the success he had on the golf course he knew that little inefficiencies creep into your game from time to time and if unchecked compound.
Ben Hogan, who fought a persistent hook, would spend hours upon hours hitting golf balls trying to perfect his swing and his ball flight. He had a saying, “the secret is in the dirt.” In other words, the only way to get better is to work at getting better.
Truthfully, we don’t know much about Johnny Football’s work ethic but there are some bright red flags at the moment. Manziel is constantly defending his commitment to football because most of what the average person now knows about him is from outlets such as TMZ instead of Sports Illustrated. His moves off the field, the pictures he takes, the way he’s portrayed are very calculated. He’s good time Johnny and he wants you to know there’s nothing wrong with it. Until he plays and produces or fails, that’s all we’ll really know.
This will all work itself out eventually. Browns fans would like to think the team drafted the next Brady or the next Peyton Manning but that’s neither Manziel’s wont nor his temperament at the moment. A big part of it is simply that Manziel doesn’t yet know what he doesn’t know. He’s never been through a NFL season. Indeed he’s never been just another player in a league full of established stars. The NFL comes easy to no one but Manziel will hardly be the first or last player to think otherwise.
The secret is in the dirt and the classroom and wherever else the likes of Brady, Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and the league’s other elite quarterbacks find it. Manziel will either find it in the same way or he won’t and the truth will eventually be revealed. He can’t scramble his way to competence but he can scramble his way to irrelevance. And if that’s the road he ends up traveling because brand cultivation and management become his priorities, then what he’ll find is that all that was for naught. If there’s anything that TMZ or the bikini clad princesses of Vegas care less about than a has been quarterback is a never was quarterback.