Monday, December 15, 2014

Johnny Fizzle

In the category of finding something positive to say about an absolutely dismal day at Cleveland Browns Stadium Sunday, there’s this:  Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel at least faced the media afterwards and answered their questions, owning the dismal moment.  After that, there’s nothing whatsoever that anyone anywhere could take from the pitiful display the Manziel and the Browns put on at home, losing 30-0 to a very average Cincinnati Bengals team.
Head coach Mike Pettine doesn’t much mince words and so we go again to him to succinctly summarize what fans saw on Sunday.  “Looked like a rookie, played like a rookie,” Pettine said.  Exactly.
The glass half full folks will acknowledge that it’s not as if Manziel went into the game with a fully loaded arsenal.  As just a small example, his pass to Andrew Hawkins that could have and should have been a first down on the Browns’ second series was on the money and inexplicably dropped.  Maybe a catch there would have sent a better tone but truthfully the glass half full folks are right.  Sending a rookie out with that kind of supporting cast in the NFL is going to be difficult for any quarterback.
As the season winds to a close, the same things that have plagued the Browns for 15 years now still plagues them.  There is no depth on this team.  When center Alex Mack went down, the offense essentially fell apart.   The running game stopped working and Brian Hoyer went from flash to flash in the pan.  It’s really confounding to ponder how important Mack is to this team.  And here I thought the Browns overpaid him in the offseason.  They didn’t pay him enough.

It’s not just Mack going down, either.  There’s no depth anywhere else, from receiver to tight end to the rest of the slots on the offensive line.  The NFL season is always an exercise in attrition and that’s never a contest this team with its holes can ever win. 
With due deference to ESPN blowhard Merrill Hoge, General manager Ray Farmer seems to be a relatively good judge of talent so perhaps he just needs a few more drafts and free agent signings to plug additional holes.  But right now, just as in seasons past, the Browns are not built to overcome any adversity.  A late season swoon isn’t a surprise.  It’s expected when the bulk of your starters would be back-ups nearly everywhere else.

But there is more, much more when talking about Sunday’s game.  Manziel, to no one’s surprise, looked woefully unprepared.  Sure, Manziel has been roaming the sidelines for 13 games with barely a whiff of playing time.  But that isn’t an excuse for his looking so lost.  The fear with Manziel and his casual approach to his craft is that if or when he was needed he wouldn’t be ready.  Manziel was needed.  He wasn’t ready.  Neither was the rest of the team.

You want evidence?  How about the fact that the Ryan Seymour, playing center, center for god’s sake, had a false start.  I’m actually uncertain how that’s even possible, yet it happened Sunday.  I’d say that was the low point but it felt more like a microcosm.
I suspect what’s really afoot is that Manziel’s game is so different and so undisciplined that it confounds not just coaches and fans and personnel directors, but the guys having to execute his half commands.  Consider not just the false start by Seymour but the litany of other false starts along with being flagged twice for having illegal receivers down field.  A third time the fullback, Ray Agnew, technically eligible was blocking downfield because he thought Manziel was going to run.  He didn’t.  The penalty was offensive pass interference but the infraction was the same as what caused the other illegal receivers downfield flags.

It wasn’t just a game where a team, otherwise prepared, simply came out flat.  It was a team that wasn’t prepared on any level, offense, defense or special teams.  Manziel looked out of place, despite his claim that he wasn’t overwhelmed, and his line looked confused.  The receivers were simply lost, unsure exactly what Manziel was going to do at any moment and lacking any semblance of concentration when balls did come their way.
But why just bury the offense?  The defense played its worst game of the season.  From the opening series to the “I quit” touchdown they gave up at the end of the game, the defense likewise looked unprepared.  It’s surprising, too, considering how it dominated the Bengals’ offense last time around.  Yet they had almost no answer for running back Jeremy Hill.  It wasn’t helped of course by the rather casual, arm only approach the defense took toward trying to bring him down.  But the larger point is that given how poorly Dalton performed the last time around, the Bengals best hope was a running attack and it’s as if nobody on the Browns’ side of the ball considered the possibility.

About the only thing that kept this game from being far worse, on the scoreboard anyway, was Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton.  Bengals fans are understandably worried about its team’s ability to do advance in the playoffs with Dalton leading the charge. In years past you could at least argue that Dalton was a decent regular season quarterback.  Now he’s not even that. 
But on this day, his play was almost an afterthought anyway.   All he really did was keep 30 points from being 45.  Big deal, the Browns’ offense only crossed the 50 yard line once and that ended with an interception in the end zone.

So now what?  Well, the playoffs are not in the picture, no matter how tightly fans cling to the thinnest threads, so the usual calculus of deciding which quarterback gives the team the best chance to win isn’t necessary.  Pettine said after the game, to the surprise of exactly no one, that Manziel is your starter next week (and the last, undoubtedly) and then heading into next year’s training camp, unless still another quarterback is signed or drafted.
The long view though is still the same as it was before the game on Sunday was even played.  Can Manziel be a viable NFL starter?  He can’t overcome his lack of height, but he can overcome his lack of work.  Manziel’s future in the league is completely tied to his willingness to learn certain truths about the NFL.

First, it’s the ultimate football stage.  Manziel could hide his weaknesses in college because the caliber of competition was so uneven. In the NFL, whatever your weaknesses are will be exposed, sooner rather than later.  If you don’t prepare, games like Sunday’s are the result.
Second, an undisciplined player is an unemployed player.  Manziel’s approach in college thrived on a lack of discipline.  What made him exciting was the fact that no one ever knew what he was going to do next.  That can and obviously did further his abbreviated college career.  The NFL is about precision.  Even its chaos is orchestrated.  Consider Manziel’s first interception.  It was the inevitable result of what happens when a quarterback throws late over the middle.  In college a defensive back with no chance of a pro career likely would have broken coverage by then.  It simply doesn’t happen that way in the NFL.

Third, these are grown men and not, as the Bengals’ Domato Peko said “little college kids.”  Raw talent isn’t enough.  Good coaching helps but the difference maker is the individual.  I hate to invoke the ghost of Mike Phipps here, but he floundered in the NFL, despite incredible talent, because he was lazy and undisciplined in his work habits.
The good news, again for the glass half full folks, is that this was only one game.  Manziel can take temporary comfort in the knowledge the most other rookie quarterbacks struggled early as well.  But if you really want to see the glass half full then maybe the best thing that happened was the abject disaster that was Manziel’s debut.  If it served as a wake up call or a little comeuppance for Johnny Fizzle, then the Browns and their fans will be well served in the long run.  In other words, for a season which will represent the high water mark for wins in the last several years, Browns fans are still left wondering when exactly it will be their turn to actually enjoy a season from start to finish.

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