Cleveland Browns preseason football isn't usually the hottest ticket in sports.
When that ticket is for the professional debut of Johnny Manziel, though, good luck finding a seat.
Not only did the Detroit Lions sell out Ford Field of chances to see the hard-partying, Heisman-winning, 21-year-old throw his first professional passes, but the Lions couldn't even find seats for all the media who arrived to cover the game.
Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post tweeted in disbelief that a recent Super Bowl venue could be overrun by the swarm of scribes eager to pen Manziel's first chapter:
The Lions tell me Ford Field's press box is completely full for Manziel's PRESEASON debut Saturday. And that place hosted a Super Bowl.— Bart Hubbuch (@HubbuchNYP) August 7, 2014
How did he look?
He looked confident, athletic, impressive and promising, just as he did at Texas A&M. However, the offense he ran was wildly different than the one executed by Brian Hoyer. If Manziel's going to be the Browns starter at any point this season, though, his entertaining debut can't be anything more than a starting point.
By the Numbers
Just by the numbers, Manziel's passing was uncharacteristically boring. He went 7-of-11 for 63 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.
Sometimes, numbers do lie, though; there was plenty of boom and bust.
Manziel's first pass attempt was a success: a quick out to receiver Anthony Armstrong. His first designed run play, however, wasn't.
On the ensuing 3rd-and-1, Manziel called his own number on a read-option—only to find out NFL defenders aren't just faster than their college counterparts, but they're more disciplined. Three Lions converged on Manziel at the line of scrimmage, and the Browns were forced to punt.
When he took over in the second half with a short field, Manziel mixed up a couple of short scrambles with a 10-yard run by fellow rookie Terrance West. After a third-down pass to Dion Lewis didn't result in a conversion, kicker Billy Cundiff buried a field goal, capping Manziel's first scoring drive.
On Manziel's third series, he faced a quick 3rd-and-8, and plenty of pressure from the Lions defense. He neatly stepped up and slipped through the middle of the Lions line. Not only did he pick up the first down, but he added eight more yards—before calmly sliding feet-first.
Manziel will need to keep that cool-headed sense of self-preservation if he wants to stay upright.
On a third-quarter 3rd-and-16, Manziel put it on a dime to Charles Johnson over the middle, giving the wideout an opportunity to stretch for the sticks. Johnson didn't quite convert, but the read and throw were exactly the kind of clutch pass Manziel had to show he can make in the NFL.
Manziel didn't make the most of every opportunity, and he didn't take over the game—but he also didn't make a critical mistake. Had it not been for a Dion Lewis fumble, a couple of dropped passes and a couple of offensive penalties, Manziel might have led the Browns to more than just three points on four drives.
The Training Wheels
That experience showed in the packages and personnel he put around Manziel: lots of Pistol formation, some read-option plays, some bootlegs, plenty of called runs and a good bit of play-action.
Though the game plan was ideal for Manziel's strengths—and minimized the risks he'd have to take throwing the ball—it didn't look anything like the conventional Shanahan-style offense nominal starter Brian Hoyer ran throughout much of the first half.
Hoyer took some time to get into a rhythm, but it was clear the Browns trusted Hoyer's arm much more than Manziel's. Hoyer rewarded that trust by settling down, making some impressive throws, and moving the ball in chunks (at least when his receivers caught it).
If the Browns start Manziel against Washington in the preseason's Week 2 Monday Night Football, as Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com reported they will, he can't be constrained to this limited package.
Head coach Mike Pettine claimed the starting decision hasn't yet been made, as Yahoo! Sports' Eric Edholm relayed from NFL Network:
Mike Pettine says "no decision has been made" about Johnny Manziel starting second preseason game, re: NFL Network report. #Browns— Eric Edholm (@Eric_Edholm) August 10, 2014
Nevertheless, the offense Manziel ran isn't going to cut it in the regular season, when far more fearsome defenders than the Lions second- and third-stringers will be lined up across from him. Manziel can't scramble, dink and dunk through the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers six times a year.
We Haven't Seen Anything Yet
Johnny Manziel doesn't have to be a starter this season to be a success.
He doesn't have to be christened the No. 1 before the third preseason game to make an impact.
Manziel's first exposure to professional action was a carefully orchestrated, cleverly managed debut. If this is the plan for him going forward, he'll be a viable change-of-pace option for the Browns if Hoyer's having a bad day—and a viable break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option if Hoyer goes down hurt.
If that's Pettine and Shanahan's plan, they're executing it beautifully.
If they're seriously considering starting Manziel over Hoyer in the near term, though, Manziel's got to be given the reins to the starting offense, with the whole playbook. By not letting him fail, they're also not giving him a chance to truly succeed.
If the rapt attention the football-watching world paid Manziel on Saturday night is any indication, all eyes will be on him again in a week. Either the Browns will have to keep hiding Manziel, or he'd better be able to show us a whole lot more.