Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Next Man Up, Again

One of the more spirited debates among NFL fans and within the NFL circle is whether or not a team needs a franchise quarterback or can be successful, indeed prosper, with a quarterback that is merely adequate.  So much of where you land in that debate depends on how you define franchise quarterback in the first place.
Except in Cleveland. 
In Cleveland, we land exactly where you’d think we would: confused but hopeful.  It’s not even that the Browns would settle for adequate.  Adequate is how a franchise quarterback is defined.
On Tuesday, the Cleveland Browns back-channeled an announcement and then front-channeled it with a quote from head coach Mike Pettine that Johnny Manziel, the new heir apparent savior, will start against the Cincinnati Bengals this week while Brian Hoyer licks the wounds of one head scratching interception after another.

Pettine’s quote didn’t make a lot of sense, but then again it’s not like he actually uttered the phrases.  When Pettine said in the team’s press release that the decision wasn’t about either Hoyer or Manziel, that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.  It came off exactly what it was, which was someone on the public relations staff trying to put a spin on the story that, what, would otherwise have been less frustrating, less maddening to Browns fans if they had known the truth?
The decision is all about both Hoyer and Manziel.  Hoyer has played like the career backup whose been left in the game too long.  He’s been amazingly consistent in the last few weeks in his inability to move the offense or complete passes to guys wearing the same jersey.  Maybe he went south when center Alex Mack went down.  Irrespective, he went south and one more start would only land him, finally, in the location where he’d been trending, Tierra Del Fuego.

Nobody, whether employed by the Browns or among those contributing to their salaries, needed to get any closer to that bottom.  The decision to start Manziel wasn’t controversial and didn’t need to be spun.  We all could go by what we saw.  So no need to spin.  Let the chips fall where they will.
With that, one of the larger questions now revolves around what really are or should be the expectations when it comes to Manziel.  Does he need to be a franchise quarterback or just merely adequate?  Is there really a difference?

Fran Tarkenton, in an interview with Jenny Vrentas of The Monday Morning Quarterback, noted the dual phenomenon of teams always seeking “the guy” but watching other teams, like Arizona, succeeding with “workman-like” quarterbacks.  Of course, Tarkenton defines a franchise quarterback narrowly, referencing the obvious examples of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.  But the point is well considered.  There are few franchise quarterbacks anyway.  Teams can be successful with journeymen, as defined in the best sense of that word, and a really good defense.  After all, the playoffs feature 16 teams and as sure as anything else in the NFL, there aren’t 16 franchise quarterbacks in the league.
Which brings us back to the numbing sameness of the Browns and the never-ending odyssey to find a quarterback that, frankly, just fits in a category above mediocre.

Manziel isn’t just the next man up; he’s the 21st next man up for the Browns 2.0.  I’ll do the math for you.  That means the Browns have averaged 1.4 starting quarterbacks for each of the last 15 years, a number that’s already outrageous but is actually skewed by the fact that Tim Couch, the franchise poster child for mediocrity, started 59 games.  So yea, your eyes aren’t deceiving you.  Every year you can plan it, like the buzzards returning to Hinckley, that the Browns will have 2 and possibly more starting quarterbacks within the season.
So wither on to your next stop, Mr.Hoyer.  Thanks for signing the guest register and we hope you enjoyed your stay with your home town team.  There are some very lovely parting gifts for you on your way out of Berea for there’s no chance now that your next contract will be countersigned by some other team looking for a serviceable backup. 

Let’s pause, though, to appreciate Hoyer for a moment.  He truly does represent the grit of the city and its fans.  What he lacked in talent he made up for in work ethic.  A true pro, a real mensch.  But the league will expose your weaknesses much more quickly than your strengths and it’s as clear as anything that Hoyer’s weaknesses have been exposed.
Sure Hoyer could return before season’s end but it will be because of an injury to Manziel and not because there’s any point flipflopping him with Manziel.  Hoyer’s time here is over and with his contract expiring there’s no chance the Browns will bring him back unless it is clearly understood to be in a backup role, again, and at far less than he and his agent anticipated just a month ago.

The transition to Manziel is similar really to the one the Browns made more than a generation ago with Gary Danielson and Bernie Kosar.  It wasn’t questioned.  The time had arrived.
Whether Manziel can even follow the trajectory of Kosar, remains very uncertain.  The questions surrounding Manziel are the same when he entered the draft and the same as they were just a week ago.  Does he have the drive, the work ethic, the intellect, the commitment to be something special in a league that will tolerate almost anything except on field success?

It won’t take all that long to answer the questions.  To this point we’ve seen very little of Manziel.  We’ve heard plenty and virtually none of it surrounds the key issues that translate to on field success.   Manziel has tantalized, certainly, in the limited action he’s seen but you’d be foolish to go all in on him at the moment.
It would surprise exactly no one if Manziel put zero thought into starting, let alone any work in on Tuesday because it was Manziel’s day off.  Just a week ago he demonstrated that hanging with the bros is higher on his list of things to do on Tuesdays, even when your immediate future may be about to change.  Indeed, Manziel, from all appearances looks to possess the work ethic of a 14-year old.  There’s a reason why an old hand like left tackle Joe Thomas was very definitive with Pettine last week about starting Hoyer over Manziel.  Hoyer wasn’t playing well, everyone could see that.  But he was putting in the work, trying to get better and had a track record.  Clearly Thomas felt Manziel’s work ethic wasn’t quite the same and so recommended Hoyer to start that one last game because the team was still trying to make the playoffs.  Now, not so much.

I’d like to think that Manziel got the message from his blind side protector, but I doubt it mainly because no matter how many times the team has sent Manziel public messages (which probably pale in comparison to the number of private ones they’ve sent), Manziel has been obstinate in response.  He’s completely committed to the brand and persona of Johnny Football.  Whether that extends to actual performance is the great unknown.
Manziel actually can be what his talent suggests but he will not survive in the NFL on talent alone.  Few do.  Tom Brady only became Tom Brady through exceptionally hard work, year after year.  Same with Peyton Manning.  The problem for a guy like Manziel is that it doesn’t appear as if he’s ever known hard work.

It’s not just that he grew up with mostly a silver spoon from which to eat his Maypo but that’s part of it.  The bigger part though is the fact that he’s got such innate talent in the first place.  The gifted can be prone to falling back on that ability rather than work to develop it further.  The habits they develop in the interim don’t serve them well when talent is simply not enough.  Eventually they get bypassed by the less gifted but harder working.
Even at a big school like Texas A&M, or really any big time college program, it’s still true that the overwhelming majority of the players do not go on to any sort of professional career.  The truly talented can still outshine most everyone else.  In the NFL, that’s simply not the case.  Everyone in the league is comparably talented.  The difference maker is often the work that’s put in to rise above.

Will Manziel make that commitment?  Put it this way, the league is highly skeptical.  Otherwise Manziel doesn’t drop to the bottom of the draft the way he did.  To date Manziel’s response has been display of arrogance and indifference to the perceptions and opinions of anyone, not just the fans and the critics.  He carries himself with an attitude that smacks of immaturity, a sort of “he doesn’t yet even know what he doesn’t know. “
Come Sunday, that equation will start to change.  He’ll get an inkling of how little he knows as Bengals players just waiting to baptize him take their shots on his slight stature.  How he responds will be very telling, not just on Sunday but over the next few weeks and for the rest of his career.  And if past is prologue, and let’s hope not, sometime next September it will be time for the 22nd next man up.

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