Friday, May 09, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Johnny Freakin' Football Edition

It’s always nice when a team like the Cleveland Browns gets the player it really wants in the NFL draft.  Who knew that player was Justin Gilbert?

Bouncing around the first round like he was a combination of Butch Davis and Eric Mangini, Browns general manager Ray Farmer certainly made things interesting for the fan base.  And when Farmer traded back up to only then draft Gilbert you could hear the loud sucking sound throughout Northeast Ohio.  Fans once again felt their usual abandonment as another general manager used the 8th pick in the draft to select the 16th best player.

But things ultimately broke Farmer’s way and through another bounce he was able to grab Johnny Freakin’ Football with the most cursed slot of the draft for quarterbacks, 22nd.  That was the home of such previous notables as Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden, and also J.P. Losman. 

When the dust cleared, the Browns had a new cornerback and a new, potentially franchising shifting quarterback in Manziel.  For all the jumping around Farmer did it’s hard not to shake the notion that simply staying put could have, likely would have, resulted in the exact same picks.  The advantage, and this is actually significant, is that for all that movement the Browns not only ended up where they would have any way without it but they essentially stole Buffalo’s first pick in next year’s draft for what amounts to a couple of extra later round picks.  It was a mild version of the movie Draft Day.

In that context, Farmer had a good, if lucky, night on Thursday and, frankly, it’s about time someone associated with the Browns had a lucky night.  It wouldn’t surprise at this point if the other shoe dropped and owner Jimmy Haslam found himself indicted on Friday.  The Gods never give to Cleveland what they can’t otherwise extract at a higher cost.

There’s a lot to like about Manziel.  Most of it is intangible and if there is one thing that most NFL general managers and even coaches hate is taking a player whose intangible qualities are greater than his physical attributes.  It’s exactly the reason that Jacksonville drafted Blake Bortles instead of Manziel.  Bortles is built like Ben Roethlisberger and is better looking.  Jacksonville went all in on that combination and we’ll see whether it was justified or whether Bortles will be the kind of guy who, in two years, is trolling for backup spots in Dallas like Weeden.

There’s no way to know Manziel’s real upside as a NFL quarterback until he gets under center week after week.  Weeden never lost the deer-in-the-headlights look.  Tim Couch had his spirit broken.  The game just moved too fast for Brady Quinn and Colt McCoy. 

In some ways, many actually, Manziel reminds me of Brian Sipe, another relatively weak armed, undersized quarterback whose greater gifts were mental.  There are ways to overcome a lack of size in the NFL and Manziel certainly carries himself as the kind of player who can overcome his lack of size.  Drew Brees was in a similar position.  If Manziel even ends up as a better version of Sipe then the pick will have been justified, particularly in context of all the other blown first round picks over the years.

But the dark cloud hanging over Johnny Football is whether he ends up as more of a Mike Phipps.  There’s an old story about Phipps that former Browns head coach Blanton Collier liked to tell.  When Phipps was drafted, Collier, who had retired, was brought back as a consultant to help school Phipps and get him ready for the NFL.  Collier was an offensive genius with a knack for quarterbacks.  He was everything that Mike Holmgren wanted to be.

Collier worked Phipps out and gave him the benefit of hour after hour of classroom instruction.  When the schooling ended several days later, Collier asked to looked at the notepad he had given Phipps at the beginning of their sessions.  Collier wanted to review the notes Phipps had taken.  When Collier opened the notebook, it was blank.  Phipps hadn’t written a thing.  It was at that moment, with Phipps still a long way from playing his first game, that Collier knew the Browns had made a mistake.

Which way will Manziel go?  Will he be an engaged student or the know-it-all jock with the attention span of a puppy?  There’s no good way to know before the draft because it can’t be measured.  Jon Gruden’s quarterback school is hardly a benchmark.  It’s a made for television farce that by design offers little insight about the player while extolling the perceived genius of Gruden.  Manziel’s heart will get measured from about this point forward as head coach Mike Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan figure out just what they got in Manziel.

The other thing about Manziel, and this is hardly news but still remains worth mentioning, is that his lack of size and lack of build is still a detriment in a league of physical freaks.  Manziel may be able to move around better than, say, Bortles, but he won’t be able to absorb the same kind of hits.  In other words, the chances of Manziel coming out of any season without at least one separated shoulder seems remote.  Pray that it’s his non-throwing shoulder.

Manziel proved himself to be a playmaker in college, not just once but several times over.  If there’s one thing that the Browns have lacked for most of their 2.0 existence is playmakers of any kind.  Manziel seems to have a knack for stepping in shit and coming out smelling like a rose.  For most of the Browns 2.0 existence when a player’s stepped in shit he rarely can get his foot dislodged let alone get the stink out of his jersey.

As for the drafting of Gilbert, I’m skeptical.  It was a reach and in exactly the most awful way possible.  Pettine said that Gilbert was the best corner for the Browns’ scheme.  Uh oh.  When a team as perennially awful as the Browns and with more holes to fill than a city crew filling potholes on Cleveland’s east side focuses less on picking the best player available and more on filling the roles imagined by a rookie head coach that no one wanted initially, everyone and I mean everyone should see that for the red flag that it is.

Does that mean Gilbert was a mistake?  That can’t be judged specifically.  It’s more the process of his selection that should worry the fans.

Farmer now enters the second day of the draft knowing that he did well on the first part of a multi-part exam.  But he can’t coast.  The rest of the exam awaits.  The reason the Browns are the Browns isn’t just that they made horrific first round selections.  It’s because they also made awful selections in most other parts of previous drafts as well.

Coaches like to say that defense wins championships, but that’s only half right.  What matters just as much if not more in the NFL is depth.  It’s great to have a shut down corner like Joe Haden, for example, but when he was out the drop off was precipitous.  No team can have two deep Pro Bowlers at any position but what’s hindered the Browns even more than a lack of a quarterback is the fact that the fall off between its starters and its backups is probably greater than that of any team in the league.  Indeed, most of the Browns’ starters would be the backups on other teams.  When a starter goes down in Cleveland they’re filling it with a guy that wouldn’t likely be on most teams’ rosters.

Let’s see how the rest of the draft turns out.  It’s off to an interesting, intriguing start.  And let’s recognize, too, how genuinely nice it was to see Browns fans celebrate the drafting of Manziel particularly after it looked like the worst thing in the world had just happened to them, they weren’t getting what they wanted.  But remember that if not getting what you want is the worst thing in the world, the second worst is getting what you wanted.  Now that’s a theme Browns fans should be able to rally around.

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