Building the Blueprint for a Stellar Rookie Season for Johnny Manziel

Michael Schottey@SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterMay 28, 2014

What can Johnny Manziel and the Cleveland Browns do to put together a perfect rookie season for the first-round pick?

Lost in all of this fake drama about Manziel's trip to Las Vegas is the very real fact that football is just around the corner. The long-suffering Cleveland fanbase is yearning for a quarterback to stem the tide of franchise ineptitude over the past three decades. 

Get a group of football minds together on how to properly wean a rookie quarterback into the NFL, and you'll get almost as many opinions on how that process should go.

Recently, however, teams have been leaning more and more on young passers and rookies in general thanks to the new rookie salary structures. Because of that, it's much more common for a young passer—not just a top-10 pick—to be thrown into the fire.

The success of those passers in their first season seems to be on the upswing thanks to some savvy coaching and the change in long-held paradigms of what an NFL passer should be. For Manziel, the blueprint is actually pretty clear. 


Build a Solid Foundation—Start Him Right Away

Look, if you want to think a quarterback needs to sit and marinate on the bench, more power to you. 

Anecdotally, both styles work. For every guy like Andrew Luck, who was thrown into the proverbial fire as a rookie quarterback and came out refined, just as many get burned up.

For every passer who sits like an Aaron Rodgers, just as many don't get markedly better on the bench and have careers that are irreparably harmed by not getting the experience they needed. 

Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen took a look at this just a week ago, coming to the following conclusion:

For many, there is value in rookies watching from the sidelines for a year (or even two) as they begin to grasp the pro game. This gives them the time to progress until they are ready to run an NFL offense on Sundays. 

However, there is nothing better than learning on the field in a true, competitive environment that demands accountability. 

And that's why I don't believe in giving quarterbacks a "redshirt" year to run the scout team if the roster situation allows them to play meaningful snaps as a rookie. 

I agree with Bowen but also know that's just one opinion in the cacophony of many on the matter. 

Here's what I know: The NFL is not built for long-term projects anymore. It hasn't been for a long time, but what little hope there may have existed for such a thing has been snuffed out over the past few years—both before, and certainly after, the most recent collective bargaining agreement. 

With the salary cap no longer hamstrung by immense rookie deals, and rookies now taking more prominent roles due to journeymen being forced off the roster, the idea that a team can spend a long time waiting on a player to develop doesn't hold water. 

Teams want rookies to have a role, or at least a clear path for it. 

That doesn't preclude a rookie passer from sitting behind a veteranlike with Brian Hoyer, who is making only $1 million in 2014 and will be a free agent in 2015. Yet, the new CBA also has limited the number of reps these players get both during the season and in the offseason.

With a rookie like Manziel riding the pine, where are the reps for him?

In a typical quarterback situation, the starter might earn 90-plus percent of the reps, with the backup garnering a handful and a third QB either getting a tiny amount of snaps or working primarily with the scout team—i.e., reps that have nothing to do with the team's offense. 

We can all agree that we don't want Manziel taking reps that aren't in the Browns playbook, right?

So, if he's No. 2, how do offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and Co. get Hoyer ready for Week 1 and subsequent starts while still giving Manziel the reps he needs to grow?

A 50-50 split isn't going to accomplish that. In fact, it might do more harm than good, and the Browns will be losing all of those games they didn't want to lose with a rookie starting anyway. 

Take Manziel, give him all of the reps he needs and find other ways to minimize the impact on him. 

The final reason Manziel should start is the same exact reason that some feel he should sit: The Browns are terrible offensively. 

I put every quarterback into two camps. Longtime readers have probably seen me say this before, but every NFL quarterback—to some degree—is either a facilitator or an innovator. A facilitator can make a team hum as long as he has the necessary pieces around him. A great facilitator can elevate the players around him because he does everything so perfectly. 

Manziel is not a facilitator; he never has been and never will be. 

No, Manziel is an innovator. Innovators aren't necessarily better players, but it's probably true that they get just as many (if not more) press clippings. They're the Michael Vicks and the Russell Wilsons of the world; the Brett Favres and the Fran Tarkentons.

They're not just runners, either. Favre remained an innovator long into his career...long after his legs started failing him. Matthew Stafford (never a threat for big yardage on the ground) is mostly an innovator with his arm. 

Innovators aren't about plugging into an offense and elevating the whole to be better than the sum of its parts. No, innovators are all about, "Damn the torpedoes! Let's go score this freaking touchdown by any means necessary."

When everything else breaks down, Manziel will still make plays. 

When the receivers and running backs fail to make an impact on their own, Manziel will still make plays. 

When the defense—talented and well-coached but faced with a number of new pieces in new places—falls apart and gives up points late, Manziel will still make plays.

It's what he does because it's who he is.  


Utilize a Minimalist Style—Less Really Can Be More

OK. Manziel starts, then what?

Shanahan actually has the blueprint here because he helped write it. 

Injury aside, Robert Griffin III put together one of the best rookie quarterback seasons in recent memory. He did so on a team that clearly didn't have a whole lot else going for it (see: any time in the last two years when RGIII wasn't at 100 percent). 

A lot of talking heads and Washington fans want to blame Griffin's injury for his poor play in 2013, and that's certainly a part of it. The biggest reason, however, that Griffin slid back and had more "rookie" mistakes in his second year was that he was far more of a rookie in terms of X's and O's in his sophomore year than in his rookie campaign. 

Hold on, baby birds, just let me feed ya. 

For Griffin's rookie season, Kyle Shanahan (along with his father, Mike) installed a playbook that looked an awful lot like the Air Raid offense that Griffin ran at Baylor. Spoiler alert: It also looks a lot like the Air Raid offense that Manziel ran at Texas A&M. 

Griffin spent much of his rookie year on autopilot and made a lot of great plays because of it. 

Then the Shanahans made the mistake that got them fired. 

Without a full offseason due to that injury, the Shanahans still expected Griffin to pick up a West Coast offense without offseason reps (see how it comes back to that?). Maybe in an alternate universe, RGIII avoids getting injured, fully absorbs the intricacies of the West Coast and becomes the next John Elway under Mike Shanahan, but it was a terrible mistake under the circumstances. 

If Shanahan feels any pressure to install his daddy's passing attack in Cleveland, he better put the RGIII fiasco behind him with the presence of Manziel. He sure-as-shoot better not let Hoyer's ability to run the West Coast allow the more experienced QB to "win" the competition. 

See, this is the old style of NFL coaching that many in the league have started to shake off. Once upon a time, scheme was this rigorous thing that needed to be adhered to at all times. It made coaches feel good about themselves and helped prop them up as the geniuses they believe themselves to be. 

Harsh? Yeah, well...the truth hurts sometimes. 

Nowadays, though, scheme isn't the end; it's the means. Winning is the end, and I'm pretty sure we can all get on board with that.

With scheme less of a stringent black-and-white sort of thing, coaches can feel free to add college-style packages like read-option, package plays, spread-heavy sets, etc., without doing it in such a hamfisted way as dedicating an entire chunk of the game plan to some flawed notion like the Wildcat. 

Shanahan knows this, and he better follow it. 

This is how you put together the 2014 Cleveland Browns offensive playbook. You call Manziel into the offense, congratulate him on his new starting position on the team, and then ask him what his 10 favorite passing plays are.

Then, you join those with your zone-blocking scheme rushing attack, and that's the bread and butter of your offense. Somewhat ironically, that's how Mike Shanahan came up with his grand notion of combining the ZBS and the West Coast. It hadn't really been done before, but they were two schemes he liked and were compatible. 

Once the Browns have repped the ever-living crap out of those bread-and-butter plays, it's time to start adding control plays, or the plays that add a little flavor to the playbook.

For a lot of teams, these end up being screens, draws and play-action roll-outs, but that's already Manziel's bread and butter! So, this is where Kyle Shanahan earns his money, and he did in 2012, as some of the innovative stuff RGIII and Washington were doing was pretty great to see at the NFL level. 

The idea, though, is not to win games by thwacking opponents over the head with a giant playbook, and no one is going to be impressed by Shanahan or trip over themselves to offer him head coaching jobs if the Browns have the best playbook in the world and Manziel was never able to pick it up.

Heck, that got him fired at his last stop. 

Ten(ish) passing plays—directly out of the college playbook—a few complementary control plays and a commitment to the run game is exactly how Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick have done what they've been able to do early on in their careers. 

From there, after the wins start to pile up and there's a full offseason (healthy, please healthy) within which to further develop the quarterback, the playbook can start to grow into what if eventually needs to be for long-term success. 

The blueprint is there; now the Browns just have to follow it. 


Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter.


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