Johnny Manziel has had quite the storied two-year career. If you follow him even remotely, I needn’t waste time filtering through the pieces of his shattered pro image. Johnny Football came and went a year ago, and now a humbled 22-year old seems to be finally putting things back together.
Manziel isn’t just putting his image back together, either. He’s slowly developing into a legitimate NFL passer. He started camp off a little rough, but inch by inch he began proving he had put the time in to study the playbook, to learn how to pick things up in regards to what the defense is doing, where everyone else on the offense needs to go, and the list goes on. The mental aspect, a side of Manziel’s game that we’ve never had the luxury to really see thanks to Texas A&M’s stripped down offense, is poking through and we’re seeing the fruits of his labor.
It began with a strong showing in camp just a few weeks ago, then a nice performance in Cleveland’s intra squad scrimmage. Then came his first preseason game, where he completed 7-11 passes and ran for a 12-yard touchdown. There weren’t any crazy bombs, the touchdown run was nice but basic, and Manziel didn’t dazzle all that much.
But that’s just fine. Before Manziel can master the league on any level, he needs to first take the baby steps of knowing his offense, knowing his reads and protections, and hitting on the small things. In game two, we saw more of that than ever, as Manziel looked relatively composed and calm in the pocket, made solid reads and used his athleticism to get out of trouble.
Manziel really hit his stride in the fourth quarter, when he rolled out to his left and fired a beautiful toss across his body for a long completion. Soon after, Manziel stepped up into the pocket as it collapsed and fired a pretty touchdown pass.
This was progress and it was plain to see. A year ago, that roll out might have been intercepted, or Manziel just takes off running, or he gets sacked, or the pass just isn’t close to the receiver. This time, Manziel had a plan in mind, he knew what he was doing and where he was going and he made a very solid play. The touchdown throw he made soon after was very nice, but even better than the score or the throw itself was how he responded to the pressure the correct way. Manziel didn’t bolt up the field like he usually would. He could have done that and it would have been fine, but he maximized the play, stepped up into the pocket, trusted his arm and his receiver, and made the best possible play the field and defense had to offer.
That’s more than progress. That’s evolution.
Again, it’s baby steps and it’s the preseason. It’s also against Buffalo Bills spares. But only a fool can suggest Manziel’s progress means nothing simply because of who he’s going against – for two reasons. First, because he’s also playing with total spares on his own offense. Josh Lenz? A makeshift offensive line of spare blockers? That was never more evident than on the final throw of the game, where Manziel put his elite scrambling ability on display for the second time on what was shaping up to be a clutch drive (he had a nice scramble for a completion called back by penalty prior to that), but was burned by a bad drop by a backup wide receiver. The other big thing is, more important than numbers (the kid was 9-12 before things got dicey on that final drive), is that Manziel isn’t just winging it anymore. He’s figuring things out on the line, he’s adapting to the game itself, his offense and what the defense shows him. He’s starting to look like a true NFL quarterback.
Scary, I know.
But he’s not there yet. In fact, Manziel might need another entire season of sitting and learning before he’ll be truly ready. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Manziel was a project to begin with – an elusive, athletic tiny, cocky kid who had a better arm than anyone gave him credit for. He’s still elusive, still athletic, surprisingly seems less tiny, a little less cocky and the arm looks just fine.
And that has to be okay. Brett Favre was a loose cannon when he came into the league. Aaron Rodgers wasn’t even close to ready in his first few years in the league. It took Alex Smith years to become even a game manager. Progress can take time.
Of course, Manziel’s maturation hasn’t come without it’s fair share of hiccups. He took a bad sack early in this game, definitely got fooled at least three times by Rex Ryan blitzes and threw a bad duck late in the game. He also had a couple of possessions that went nowhere, but that could easily be chalked up to poor play-calling, the defense or just being put in third and long situations on a regular basis.
So, yes, there were mistakes. But overall, this was a strong showing by Johnny Manziel. This doesn’t vault him to the starting job, and it shouldn’t. Josh McCown isn’t the answer, but he’s a fantastic stop-gap option that should be able to do just as well as Brian Hoyer did a year ago. And if/when he falters and Cleveland isn’t going anywhere, the switch to Manziel could happen. Perhaps by then he’ll be fully ready, but even if he’s not we’re seeing enough tangible evidence that he’s going to get there at some point. A rocky 2015 season wouldn’t be the worst thing, provided Manziel keeps the momentum moving in the right direction.
It’s too bad that Manziel wasted his rookie season. He could have been where he’s at now last summer. But something tells me he’s going to be worth the wait.