Johnny Manziel's Debut Merits Start in Browns' 2nd Preseason Game

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Johnny Manziel's Debut Merits Start in Browns' 2nd Preseason Game
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Johnny Manziel made some magic happen in his NFL debut Saturday, something the Cleveland Browns offense has sorely lacked since returning to the league in 1999.

The rookie first-round quarterback wasn't spectacular in facing the Detroit Lions, but Manziel did enough to merit a start on Monday Night Football next week, on the road, opposite a similar dual-threat counterpart in Washington's Robert Griffin III.

NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal cited colleague Dan Hellie, who reported that Manziel has been anointed the starter for the team's second preseason contest. Browns head coach Mike Pettine denied the report, per ESPN.com's Pat McManamon:

So that at least casts some doubt on the seeming inevitability of Manziel starting, though it shouldn't, based both on the credible report and how Manziel performed.

Manziel is learning a vastly different offense than the air-raid attack he was accustomed to at Texas A&M. Nevertheless, the multifaceted system conducted by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has been adapted to Manziel's strengths before.

Shanahan aided Griffin's rookie-year development in 2012, to the point that Washington won the NFC East title. A falling-out occurred thereafter, but the initial, sensational results were irrefutable. A reminiscent burst of excitement could dazzle Cleveland if Manziel is inserted as the immediate starter—or at least is given a legitimate opportunity to be in that position.

Pettine commented on Manziel's learning curve from his more simplistic college playbook, per WKYC.com's Matthew Florjancic:

[Manziel] understands football, but when you switch offenses and you're going from just a completely different system, it's just like learning a foreign language. You know it in your own terms, but then, you have to find out, "Okay, how do I translate? What I know was this is now this." That's just part of the learning curve for everybody, especially rookie quarterbacks.

That considered, it's hard not to be impressed with how Manziel fared Saturday.

In facing Detroit, Manziel completed 7-of-11 passes for 63 yards, running six times for 27 yards. It's the preseason, so it's important to recognize the context of those results, compared with those of Manziel's competition for the Browns QB job in Brian Hoyer.

Bleacher Report's Matt Miller encapsulated the circumstances Manziel was beset with in terms of a lackluster supporting cast:

Hoyer was 6-of-14 passing for 92 yards, though he did see the likes of Miles Austin and Josh Gordon drop key passes that could have made those numbers look a lot better. Hoyer performed well, especially after returning to the field for his first game since tearing his ACL, other than a couple of throws he'd admittedly like to have back.

These numbers from ESPN Stats & Info outline the bottom-line production that shows neither QB led Cleveland to the end zone—another potentially misleading fact:

There was no question by evening's end which signal-caller was a cut above. It was Manziel.

This is what yours truly saw, and that perception may be evolving into reality within the locker room, per Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot:

A source told cleveland.com that Manziel has the momentum and the superior talent. They've also been pleased with his leadership and progress since the beginning of camp. If he plays well in Washington on Monday Night Football Aug. 18, he'll be very much in the conversation for that week one start in Pittsburgh.

And that brings us to the impending showdown in the nation's capital. Few could question whether the stage would be too big for Manziel, given how he's shone amid arguably unprecedented scrutiny. Manziel welcomes the attention, soaks it in and harnesses it to produce greatness on the gridiron.

What better way to prove he's the answer Cleveland has been looking for under center—er, in the pistol formation—than to put Manziel under the bright, Monday-night lights?

Rick Osentoski/Associated Press
Johnny Manziel (left) may be in the process of unseating Brian Hoyer as the Browns' starting quarterback.

Even when he was playing with a meager supporting cast in Detroit, he showed flashes of brilliance, plenty of zip on the ball and the trademark Johnny Football playmaking ability. The times Manziel took off were when he either had a wide-open lane, like on his 16-yard scramble on third down to move the chains, or when protection broke down.

Hoyer enjoyed a clean pocket and didn't dirty his jersey with the first team. Those who criticize Manziel's gall to stand and deliver in the pocket ought to admire his courage to hang tough and zing multiple accurate throws with often shabby blocking.

A microcosm of the criticism Manziel faces at times, when he "misses" open receivers or runs prematurely, was a product of those surrounding him Saturday, at least in his first taste of NFL action.

Credit: NFL.com

The fourth down Manziel converted on the ground, barely squeaking past the chains to avert a turnover on downs, drew the ire of some when he didn't throw to the flat to fullback Ray Agnew. A defender was flying in Manziel's face.

Manziel could have dumped it to Agnew and trusted the block-first bruiser's suspect hands, but he would have likely absorbed a brutal hit. Instead, Manziel avoided the oncoming Lion readying to knock his block off and took matters into his own hands.

Brendan Leister of DraftBrowns.com alluded to this play in particular, too:

The likes of superstar Gordon, slot-dynamo Andrew Hawkins and talented wideout Austin would offer Manziel a massive upgrade in receiving targets if he gets the starting nod in Washington.

More importantly, though, Pro Bowl linemen in left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack will offer Manziel better quality reps to showcase just how far along he is. Not to mention first-year left guard Joel Bitonio, who has a nasty streak to him, will make Manziel's life easier if the Nevada product's performance in the preseason opener is an indication of what's to come.

Pettine probably said it best in denying Manziel has been named the starter for next Monday: Hoyer didn't do anything wrong, but Johnny Football is gaining some momentum. It's going to take a transcendent, perhaps unconventional quarterback to elevate the Browns this season, particularly if Gordon is indeed hit with a lengthy suspension.

There is no need to misconstrue this compelling QB-competition saga based on how much fanfare and polarizing debate Manziel draws on top of the electricity he brings as a player.

Credit: NFL.com

Both Manziel and Pettine have done a rather masterful job managing the post-draft media circus. Cleveland's new regime has successfully fostered an equitable battle for the Browns' most important position—all the more vital considering how unstable it's been for the past decade and a half.

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This isn't a popularity contest type of decision, though. Pettine has said from the beginning that the best player of the two will get the starting nod—that it's all about football. 

Remember, he is called Johnny Football for a reason. He's pretty good at the sport.

Saturday confirmed what may have been suspected all along. Hoyer is an efficient game manager, while Manziel is indeed the superior talent with his arm and legs.

To what extent the Browns will exploit Manziel's intangibles at the professional level is unclear. For clarity's sake, and for the sake of the Browns' immediate and long-term future, Manziel deserves a shot with Cleveland's first team Monday.

Chances are, if Manziel is afforded that expected opportunity to run with the No. 1s in D.C., and he plays as he did in his maiden NFL appearance at Ford Field, the Johnny Football era will officially begin in Cleveland based on merit, not jersey sales.

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