Why the NFL Must Learn to Love, Embrace Johnny Football

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Why the NFL Must Learn to Love, Embrace Johnny Football
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The Cleveland Browns tried to shut national media out.

What happened in Vegas didn't stay in Vegas.

Browns running back Ben Tate said, "It's just as a player I know that I would get tired if people were constantly monitoring if I picked my nose, if I spit to the left or right. I mean, it's annoying. He's a human being," per ESPN.com's Pat McManamon.

Sports media observers like Awful Announcing's Matt Yoder are already bracing themselves for a Tebowmania-like frenzy of self-perpetuating, cud-chewing, tail-eating 24-hour coverage.

Like it or not, Johnny Football is here, and so is Manzielmania.

The question is, is it here to stay?

 

Manzielmania

On paper, the Browns are doing the right thing by trying to put the Johnny Football toothpaste back in the tube.

They've limited practice observation to local media, telling him to his face that he's "the backup quarterback" and "this isn't Hollywood," per Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer. They're putting veteran Brian Hoyer out there as the starter and letting Manziel acclimate to coordinator Kyle Shanahan's new offense.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

Here's the problem: He's Johnny Football. He won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman. He lit up the SEC with his arms, legs and will to win. He broke records, made dazzling plays, engaged on social media and indulged in the off-field benefits of being a college football superstar.

Even worse, his on-field game is as ineffable as it is indelible. He could step onto the field and shred the AFC North to ribbons or he could be a complete and total bust; neither outcome would surprise.

He's got what the movie biz calls "wannasee": A powerful force compelling audiences to rush to see cool movies on opening weekend. Cleveland may not be Hollywood, but people have seen Johnny Football's trailer, and he's going to put butts in FirstEnergy Stadium seats.

The Browns' attempts to make him an anonymous rookie are noble, but it's not going to happen. Until Manziel gets on the football field and proves himself a star or flop, the paparazzi will follow him everywhere he goes.

 

The Real Deal

The outsized hype that followed Tim Tebow from the SEC to the NFL was based on a similar college career: Tebow was also a two-way quarterback, fiery leader, young Heisman winner and SEC record-breaker.

However, NFL scouts and draft media were sounding alarm bells about Tebow's game while he was still in college. Doubts about his throwing motion, accuracy, arm strength and field-reading skills were being raised and debated well before his dismal Senior Bowl showing.

Manziel's game isn't without some similar flaws—I broke down my concerns in advance of his pro day—but his upside as an NFL passer is much, much higher than Tebow's ever was. Here's Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller and analyst Michael Felder breaking down why Manziel could be great as a pro:

Before second-year Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels traded up into the first round to get him, some analysts thought Tebow could fall into the middle of the third round.

When McDaniels' Broncos imploded and John Fox took over, he retooled the offense around Tebow's limited game. The result was an improbable run to .500, with many daring escapes and unbelievable endings.

After breaking a bizarre three-way tie at 8-8 to win the AFC West championship, the Broncos knocked the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers out of the playoffs with Tebow's greatest miracle, a game-winning 80-yard touchdown pass:

This only fostered the bizarre, cult-like appreciation of Tebow's ability to conjure wins out of thin air, and he didn't hesitate to ascribe these occurrences to a higher power.

According to Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post, Tebow comforted teammate Wesley Woodyard just before overtime of a crucial late-season game. "Tebow came to me and said, 'Don't worry about a thing,' because God has spoken to him," Woodyard told Kiszla. Shortly thereafter, Woodyard forced a fumble that set up the Broncos' game-winning 51-yard field goal.

Much of football-watching America lapped it up. At the time, Poll Position found 43 percent of the 1,076 people surveyed who were aware of Tebow's success believed "divine intervention played a role" in his success.

Ever since then, though, Tebow's limitations as a quarterback have been painfully apparent.

The groundswell of national support for Tebow as a religious, political and college football totem drove the media to breathlessly cover his every move. But as Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports reported in May 2013, NFL teams collectively decided his reverent following and attached media circus made him unemployable as a third-string quarterback.

 

Johnny Football, Emphasis on Football

There's nothing more obnoxious and exhausting in today's sports media world than mountains of breathless hype for someone whose play doesn't deserve it, and that's where we're at with Manziel.

As Tate told McManamon, "He hasn't played a down in the NFL yet."

Until he does, Manziel is a high-ceiling, low-floor, college football superstar in a football-crazy town that's been desperate for a quarterback since Bernie Kosar was released in the middle of the 1993 season. The possibilities are endless and intoxicating, but they'll vanish when met with reality.

Once Manziel has a decent number of starts under his belt, he'll be judged on his football merits. He'll be proclaimed a franchise savior, a colossal bust or, likely, a promising work in progress. Silly things like Instagram pictures and nights out on the town (in which many successful pro players indulge) will stop making national headlines.

Unlike Tebow, Manziel's success or failure won't be a wedge driven between college football fans and NFL analysts, nor interpreted as validation or condemnation of anyone's beliefs.

 

Ready for His Close-Up

Until he establishes himself as a pro, will the glare of the national spotlight ruin Manziel as a quarterback? He's already been exposed to far more media pressure than any of his fellow rookies, and he's unquestionably learned from those experiences.

Before the NFL Scouting Combine, nobody bothered to pay attention to whether Blake Bortles "spit to the left or right," as Tate colorfully described the media's breathless coverage of Manziel. Meanwhile, Manziel's spent the last two years finding out that if he oversleeps, it'll lead SportsCenter that night.

The Browns can try to downplay his talent, personality or importance to the team and city of Cleveland, but it's wasted effort. They, he and we all need to accept reality: Like it or not, this will be the Summer of Johnny Football—and the Browns had better hope next summer is, too.

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