BEREA, Ohio — There is a man, a grown man, wearing a jersey bearing the name of a 21-year-old kid. Johnny Manziel. And it is no ordinary Manziel jersey. The man has attached about a half-dozen large, green dollar signs to it. As seems to be a prerequisite, he does the Manziel money-sign thingy with his hands.
It's Browns camp, and though there are grounded fans—ones who understand that this is Cleveland, where sports dreams are simultaneously nurtured and crushed—there is also an intense infatuation with Manziel. Intense may not be the word. Crazed. Insane. Otherworldly. Almost psychotic. That's a better way to put it.
"He's like a son to me," says a lifelong Browns fan who identifies herself as Pat. She has never met Manziel.
"My thinking is that Johnny can lead us to a title in just a few years, if not sooner," says another Browns fan at camp.
Browns fans have always been passionate, but Manziel has taken that passion to a different place. The team said its first camp practice drew 3,702 fans from 10 different states, the highest total for an opening day of Browns camp since the team started tracking attendance in 2005. The total attendance for the opening three days was 10,616, the highest total for three straight training camp practices since they started tracking. At some point, restraining orders may be needed.
Across the Cleveland metro area—hell, throughout the entire state—there is an excitement, almost a religious zeal, when it comes to Manziel. It doesn't approach LeBron James hysteria—nothing does. But Manziel's appearance here alone, without him having played a down of real football, has energized and unified this fan base in a way that once only Art Modell could.
It is actually incredibly fun to see. It's genuine and raw and grassroots. It is something real in a league, and a sports era, in which genuineness is often absent.
There is just one problem.
It's virtually impossible for Manziel to match the hype.
In interviews with players over the past three weeks, many have expressed concern that coaches are feeling pressure from fans and the front office to start Manziel. ESPN's Bob Holtzman recently reported that Browns players expect Brian Hoyer to start the regular season as the starting quarterback, but the story is clearly fluid.
Two things are becoming clear to teammates watching the situation play out:
1) When Manziel isn't rolling up dollar bills in bathrooms or hanging with Floyd Mayweather, he is incredibly studious. Players say that he doesn't party and that, of all the Browns' rookies, he studies the most. He's actually fairly quiet in the locker room, even laid back, two players said.
"None of us have seen the crazy Manziel," one player said. "All we've seen is the professional Manziel."
"He's the fastest learner I've ever been around," another said.
"It looks good," said wide receiver Nate Burleson, when asked if Manziel is grasping the playbook. "I came in early because I was injured over the summer. Injured guys and rookies got a couple practices in before everybody else. He was looking like he's looking now. He's whipping that ball around. He knows what he’s doing. He's a rookie, so he's going to make a couple mistakes here and there. You can't expect the guy to be perfect. I'm in Year 12 and make a mistake or two. He looks good and he knows the playbook. He's just in a position where everything is over-exaggerated, but he's handling it well."
"I think Coach [Mike] Pettine and the staff here have called this an open competition, and I believe that it is," Manziel said. "I'm just trying to get in here every day and try to be better as a player, as a teammate, really hone in on my craft and try and make this football team as good as I can. Whatever my role is on this team, I think that will be decided with play within these next few weeks. At the end of the day, what I want is what's best for this team, what's best for this organization, because this is about the Cleveland Browns. This isn't about me. This isn't about [Hoyer]. This isn't about just the quarterback position. It takes 22 positions on the team to make this whole thing work and come together, so it's not just about us."
Pettine said Manziel's attitude has been "great. From the day he walked in here, he's been extremely coachable. It's been great to meet him. He asks the right questions. He's been fine."
All of that is the good news. His professionalism in the locker room, away from the paparazzi, isn't a question.
2) The more-surprising thing that players and others in the organization have noticed, is that Manziel hasn't displayed the dazzling abilities that he did in college. They don't see extraordinary quickness or arm strength that amazes.
"I haven't seen anything that makes me go, 'Wow,' " one player said.
Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, 28, while praising Manziel's competitiveness and swagger, also said: "I don't care what the job is, you can tell the difference between a 28-year-old and a 21-year-old."
I checked with players early in camp and then weeks later, and the message was the same. Manziel's skill level hasn't stood out.
One player explained that this is creating a pseudo-divide in opinions: Some of the younger players want to roll with Manziel, while older ones like the stability Hoyer provides and believe that stability will help them push through a brutal season-opening schedule.
Please, I don't want to make this sound like some sort of hardened controversy. This story ebbs and flows and has few hard edges. It's complicated. But it does seem clear that some of the Browns players feel Manziel's legend is outpacing what he can actually do.
This is the irony. People around the sport actually love what the Browns are doing as an organization. They believe the front office and coaches are solid and the team overall is on the right track. In a small poll of six general managers, five said they were most optimistic about the Browns when it came to the league's rebuilding franchises. The sixth picked Buffalo.
So Browns fans energized by Manziel may be right to be excited, but they also may be getting excited for all the wrong reasons. It may not be Manziel that turns the Browns around in the short term. It may be everything but him.
At camp, I thought I saw flashes of Manziel-ness. A good throw here, some swivel hips there. But it is also true that Hoyer, in camp practices at least, looked like the better quarterback. Even with a brace on his knee, Hoyer moves well.
What's happened as camp has progressed is that Hoyer has peaked while Manziel—still making mistakes, because all rookies do—has shown more flashes of talent. To the players, it's not enough to displace Hoyer, but to the Browns' coaches, Manziel has shown enough so that Hoyer is no longer entrenched as the starter.
One practice I attended showed the dramatic difference between the two. Hoyer was incredibly accurate with almost every throw he made, while Manziel struggled and even took a sack. Yet every pass Manziel did complete, he got applause from fans.
This is the dilemma the Browns organization faces: Will Manziel's popularity overwhelm the team's ability to control it?
There was a local reporter here doing a story from the stands at camp. She finished by screaming at the camera something to the effect of "Go Browns" or "Go Johnny" before being enveloped by barking fans.
On sports talk radio, the hosts had fun with a bet on whether Hoyer or Manziel will be the starter. A listener made a suggestion that the loser of the bet must shave a penis in his head.
One day, at Browns camp, there was a zipline. It was there. Not even LeBron gets a zipline.
There was a scene at practice that will likely be duplicated wherever Manziel goes. He walked off the field and approached a group of fans waiting for autographs. There were 40 to 50, at least, shoving posters, hats and shirts in his face to sign. He stayed for 25 minutes, signing as much as he could.
At various times, I heard fans yell the following, as Manziel would walk on or off the field.
"We love you, Johnny!"
"Marry me, Johnny!"
"Johnny, marry my sister!"
What's happening with Manziel is fun to see and exciting for a sports town that has seen so many brutal times, with those times often beginning with "The." The Fumble. The Decision. The Move to Baltimore.
The largest problem remains that it's virtually impossible for Manziel to meet the expectations fans have for him.
Let's be clear. Manziel is talented, but he's a rookie—and so far that talent, in a system not suited to his abilities, isn't shining through in significant amounts. It may at some point, but that could be years away.
Few people are better qualified to talk about the Browns and Manziel than Ernie Accorsi. He was the team's general manager from 1985 to 1992, has rebuilt multiple franchises, won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants and overall should be in the Hall of Fame. More specifically, Accorsi has drafted, multiple times, high-profile quarterbacks early in the draft.
What he told me on the topic is lengthy, but it's worth the read:
First of all, the Browns fans are great. When I was there, the Browns were winning and the Indians and Cavs were not very good. We were their sole identity.
When I was either with a rookie franchise quarterback (Bert Jones) or drafted one (Bernie Kosar and Eli Manning), the first thing I did was get a good veteran quarterback with him. With Bert we had Marty Domres. The day after I drafted Kosar, I traded for Gary Danielson. After I drafted Eli, I signed Kurt Warner. The Browns have that. Hoyer is a solid pro.
The only difference is that my three knew their roles. Hoyer is competing for the job.
Though in recent history some younger quarterbacks have had success, history shows that rookie pass throwers struggle mightily, particularly ones on rebuilding teams.
Bert started his first game, played well, then struggled. [Coach Howard] Schnellenberger put Domres in to finish the season. Danielson started the season and had us in first place late in the year. Got hurt and Kosar got us into the playoffs. The next year with Kosar we were 12-4. Eli started about the 10th or 11th game, struggled, then won the division his second year.
Most rookies struggle. Even [John] Elway. Shula was masterful with [Dan] Marino. He just used him to mop up early, then gave him the reins, and he played well, but they went to the Super Bowl the year before, so he walked into a decent team. [Ben] Roethlisberger played well but again, good team.
This from Accorsi is also interesting. Former Detroit coach Jim Schwartz asked him to come to Lions camp during Matt Stafford's rookie year and evaluate Stafford to see if he was ready to start.
"I watched him," Accorsi remembered. "That was not a good team. I said, 'Jim, don't play him early. You can't protect him. He's going to lose his confidence. And get hurt. Play the veteran and let [Stafford] get his feet wet.' He started him, and that's what happened."
Meaning, Stafford started, and while he had some good moments, there were more low points, and Stafford did get injured.
Accorsi gave one example that I think is particularly comparable to Hoyer-Manziel:
The Eagles drafted Sonny Jurgensen in 1957. He started over half the games in '57 and '58 and had a winning record. The Eagles traded for Norm Van Brocklin in '59 and benched Jurgensen. Van Brocklin won the world championship in 1960. Jurgensen took over in '61, was so much better despite not playing at all for two years and went to the Hall of Fame. Recently he was quoted in a book about the '60 Eagles. He was asked how upset were you when the traded for Van Brocklin and benched? Jurgensen said, 'Let me tell you something, if I hadn't sat behind Van Brocklin for two years, I would have never made the Hall of Fame.'
There are exceptions to this rule. Troy Aikman started his rookie year, took a massive beating and ended up in the Hall of Fame. It's also true that quarterbacks today are far more prepared for the rigors of the NFL than quarterbacks in generations past because they start running pro-style systems as early high school, if not before. Consider that since 2008, rookie quarterbacks drafted in the first round are averaging 12 starts their rookie seasons.
But mostly, Accorsi is correct.
Accorsi added: "Bottom line, I like to have a veteran start and let the franchise rookie get his feet wet at the end of one-sided games when the pressure is off. Just nurture him in long relief before you give the ball to start. Then you have to decide when he's ready. Remember, Elway put his hands under the right guard his rookie year against the Steelers. The guard said, 'John, I don't have the ball.' "
So much attention has been paid to Manziel's off-field antics.
"I think Johnny said it well: He made some rookie mistakes," owner Jimmy Haslam said. "I think the really great athletes make their news on the field, not off the field. And hopefully Johnny can look at guys like LeBron [James], [Tom] Brady, Peyton [Manning] and [Derek] Jeter and pattern himself after those guys who make their news on the field."
Did Haslam believe that Manziel listened to the warnings delivered by the Browns hierarchy?
Haslam explained: "Yeah, listen, I don't want to wear this subject out. Johnny said it himself: He made some mistakes. We expect better from him. I'm sure he'll perform. Now we're anxious to see what he can do on the field, which is what really counts."
Yet, in the Browns locker room, I could not find a player who cared about Manziel's off-field escapades. What is happening in the locker room—for the moment—is teammates mostly thinking Hoyer puts them in a better position on the field. That could change, and it's not unanimous, but again, for the moment, if the Hoyer-Manziel competition were a game, Hoyer would be leading 17-0 after the first quarter.
Some Browns players think there's no wrong answer.
"I love Johnny. I do. Johnny is for real," Burleson said. "I like confident quarterbacks. I like guys that are borderline cocky. Both of those guys have that. You can see it. Johnny makes a play. He walks back and he's got a swag to him. His shoulders are bouncing. Same thing with 'B'. Hoyer would throw a ball and throw a little wink at you.
"That's what I like. I like getting in the huddle and seeing these quarterbacks basically saying, 'I'm the captain of the ship. Let's hit the seas and let's go pillage and plunder what we want.' That’s exactly what these two guys got. We're going to follow their lead. This is an intense sport. We're not here to play around. We're here to make the city proud. We’re working for that. We've got a long way to go, but we've got two guys competing for the same spot and we can’t go wrong either way. It's exciting."
Browns fans would agree—and then some.
But those fans, while wearing their Manziel gear and doing their money-money hand thingy, may need to do something they don't want:
Be patient when it comes to Manziel. Really, really patient.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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