Johnny Manziel Doesn't Have to Be Savior of Browns Offense

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2014

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel poses with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected by the Cleveland Browns as the 22nd pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Thursday, May 8, 2014, in New York.  (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

The Cleveland Browns instantly became one of the football world's most talked-about teams last Thursday when they drafted former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the most polarizing offensive player available.

It doesn't appear that a middle ground exists in the way analysts and fans view the exciting, but spotlight-seeking superstar. It seems that you either love the kid or you despise him.

The same might also be said of Manziel's potential as an NFL quarterback. 

Before the draft, Merril Hoge said that he sees bust written all over the former A&M signal-caller. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees told that he believes Manziel can "absolutely" be a starter at the pro level. 

The fact that Manziel has landed with the Browns, a franchise that hasn't experienced a playoff season since 2002, only intensifies the scrutiny under which he will find himself.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

To be considered an NFL success, Manziel will have to find a way to return the Browns to relevance, a tall task considering the franchise hasn't even experienced a non-losing season since 2007. However, there is at least some reason to believe the man known as "Johnny Football" is up to the challenge.

While Manziel is as atypical a quarterback as we have seen, he did manage to prove himself at the highest level of collegiate competition. While earning the Heisman in the mighty SEC is impressive and a possible indicator of future success, many of his skills seem to translate to the NFL as well. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Manziel completed 73.5 percent of his passes from the pocket last season with an average of 9.7 yards per attempt and 56 completions of 20 yards or more. 

This suggests that Manziel can excel in a traditional pocket-passing offense, though he will probably never be a prototypical dropback thrower.

The big question is whether Manziel can find a way to make a successful NFL transition while playing for Cleveland, a team that has sent just one quarterback to the Pro Bowl (Derek Anderson, 2007 season) since the franchise was reignited in 1999.

To answer that question, we will take a look at just how Manziel will look in the Cleveland offense and his potential role with the team. We do so with a caveat, of course. Manziel will have to find a way to overcome incumbent quarterback Brian Hoyer to find the field this season, and the offense could look very different a year from now (the Browns are armed with a pair of first-round picks in next year's draft).

Fans expecting Manziel to carry the Browns to the playoffs this season the way Robert Griffin III carried the Washington Redskins in 2012 are likely to be disappointed.

It's true that Manziel and Griffin share some of the same attributes, like the ability to make plays on the ground or through the air. It is also worth noting that Manziel will be coached by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who helped Griffin find breakout success as a rookie.

Browns fans would likely take the 3,200 yards passing and 815 yards rushing Griffin amassed as a rookie, but they shouldn't expect that type of performance from Manziel. This is because the former A&M star is entering an entirely different situation.

For starters, the Browns are not nearly as devoid of talent as the major media might want you to believe. The team's roster currently contains six players who made the Pro Bowl last season, including four on offense.

Even with star wideout Josh Gordon possibly facing a one-year suspension, Manziel will have the assistance of a Pro Bowl tight end in Jordan Cameron and a pair of Pro Bowl linemen in Alex Mack and Joe Thomas. The Redskins returned zero Pro Bowlers when Griffin was a rookie.

In fact, the Browns looked like a very good team when Hoyer (3-0 as a starter last season) provided a competent quarterback presence under center. This means there was realistic hope for Cleveland to turn the corner this season even before the arrival of Manziel.

In short, the Browns won't be (or at least shouldn't be) asking Manziel to be the savior of the franchise the way Washington pinned its hopes on Griffin. While Manziel has certainly shown the ability to scramble and make plays on his own (2,169 yards rushing over the past two seasons), asking him to carry the team would be a mistake.

One would hope Shanahan has learned from the mistakes that helped lead to the dismissal of his father's staff in Washington. While I believe running back Alfred Morris' role in that 2012 turnaround was vastly underrated (he did rush for 1,613 yards and 11 scores), most of the pressure was placed on Griffin.

Asking Griffin to do too much and to absorb too many hits with his 6'2", 217-pound frame (Manziel measured in at 6'0" and 207 pounds) resulted in a severe injury and a scrambling quarterback that lost his burst last season.

Instead, Manziel's early time in Cleveland (at least on the field) will likely be spent as just another team member, albeit at an extremely important position.

This is the role quarterback Russell Wilson slipped into with the Seattle Seahawks a couple of short seasons ago. While Wilson's leadership and talents should not be understated, he has seldom been the focal point of the team. Seattle's Super Bowl success was built on a stout running game and a smothering defense, with Wilson making plays when needed.

This is the formula Cleveland seems to be trying to emulate, which makes a ton of sense. The NFL is largely a copycat league, and there is no better formula to copy than one that has delivered the most recent Lombardi Trophy.

If you haven't been paying attention to the Browns' offseason (and as always, we won't blame you if you haven't), the team has quietly been assembling a defense that could be scary good in 2014. 

Let's remember for a second that Manziel was not Cleveland's first draft choice. That honor went to Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert. Cleveland also drafted linebacker Christian Kirksey and talented small-school corner Pierre Desir, who join Gilbert and free-agent additions Donte Whitner, Isaiah Trufant and Karlos Dansby as fresh faces on Cleveland's ninth-ranked defense (332.4 yards per game allowed).

This means that Manziel should be able to rely on a defense that is closer to Seattle's fifth-ranked unit in 2012 than the 28th-ranked defense that Griffin consistently had to bail out as a rookie. Cleveland should also be fielding a unit defensive-minded head coach Mike Pettine should be able to have some fun with.

Griffin did benefit from a strong running game, as did Wilson. Should things play out as expected, so should Manziel. The Browns have taken big steps to improve their backfield during the offseason, adding former Houston Texans standout Bet Tate in free agency and former Towson running back Terrance West in the third round of the draft.

While Gordon's potential suspension does put a damper on things (especially for fans), it is worth remembering that the Seahawks just won a Super Bowl with zero Pro Bowl receivers. This is another reason why mimicking Seattle's formula is smart.

Yet another reason is for durability concerns. While Griffin has already sustained multiple injuries in his short career, Wilson has not. This is due to his ability to run as a secondary option and to avoid the big hit when outside the pocket. If Manziel can do the same, concerns about his smaller frame should be lessened. 

One advantage Manziel might actually have over both Wilson and Griffin in their first seasons might be found in the pass-blocking department. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Seahawks were ranked 14th in pass-blocking in 2012. The Redskins ranked 19th. Cleveland has added former Seahawks lineman Paul McQuistan (it's a copycat league, remember) and second-round tackle Joel Bitonio to a line that ranked fifth in pass-blocking last season.

Of course, it isn't really fair to compare Manziel, Griffin and Wilson as players just because there are similarities in their styles. However, it does appear that Cleveland has a clear and defined role in mind for Manziel. It is one that more closely resembles the role of the quarterback who is wearing a Super Bowl ring than the role of the one who has spent the past year wearing what resembles medieval leg armor.

Men like Griffin, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning have entered the NFL viewed as franchise saviors. Manziel doesn't have to be because that isn't what Cleveland needs.

Like the Seahawks two years ago, all the Browns really need is a capable, competent and steady presence under center to complement a very talented roster. That Cleveland spent a first-round pick to find its guy where Seattle was fortunate enough to grab theirs in the third doesn't change this fact.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

While Manziel will likely have difficulty escaping pressure off the field and in the media, the Browns have things set up to lower the pressure level on him by allowing him to be a game manager. 

Whether Manziel is ready to take on that subdued role is another conversation entirely.


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