Johnny Manziel did not steal the starting quarterback job from Brian Hoyer in his pro debut, but the game did provide one critical piece of information.
Kyle Shanahan has got this under control.
"This" being the circus that is Johnny Football, the marriage of the world's most popular sport and the 24/7 news cycle. It being the weight of expectations after the Cleveland Browns made Manziel the No. 22 pick to breathe life into a hapless organization and sports town in need of wins. It being the hype bestowed upon Shanahan himself thanks to his work with one Robert Griffin III.
Normally, a first preseason contest does not say all too much about a rookie. Vanilla schemes. Veterans hardly see the field. First-year players finally realize they are no longer the big dogs on campus.
Those who look at the box score will see a 13-12 Cleveland loss to Detroit and a 7-of-11 effort from Manziel for 63 yards and a complementary 27 rushing yards.
But the schemes employed by Shanahan—pistol alignments, the read-option, bootlegs and the like—reek of RGIII's rookie year and of a man trying to protect his impressionable, young signal-caller.
Better to have Manziel be boring than implode at a sold out stadium that ran out of room for the press during a preseason game.
But it is all part of the process, even if it was heavily scripted to help shield Manziel from criticism and bring him along at a turtle's pace. Manziel rarely ran out of a pistol in college, but it is a package that RGIII was able to find great success in as a rookie in 2012.
The former Texas A&M star told Daryl Ruiter of 92.3 The Fan that his offensive coordinator dives into that set of film in particular:
Manziel said OC Kyle Shanahan shows some RG3 film to demo some installation of the offense— Daryl Ruiter (@RuiterWrongFAN) August 11, 2014
He also revealed that he has personally reached out to RGIII in order to better understand the intricacies of the approach, per NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala:
Manziel said of course he picked fellow Texan and Heisman winner RGIII's brain on Kyle Shanahan's O. Has watched lot of his rookie film too— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) August 11, 2014
Baby steps both positive and negative were certainly on display in Detroit.
There was a read-option gone awry several times and at one point the medical staff had to take a look at the signal-caller. There was a particular fourth down that saw him out-sprint a defender to the edge to pick up the necessary one yard—with an open receiver in front of him for what would have been a much bigger gain.
There were great passes with plenty of zip and smart scrambles for plenty of yardage, topped off by feet-first slides.
Nobody would be silly enough to suggest that these baby steps will lead to a similar season to what RGIII produced—a division crown and the Offensive Rookie of the Year award (not to mention improvisation rushes that resulted in a shredded knee).
There is reason to have cautious optimism, though. Manziel finds himself with an underrated cast of receivers thanks to names such as wideout Andrew Hawks and tight end Jordan Cameron. Back Ben Tate has been effective when given the opportunity, and Terrance West is a bully between the tackles who may steal the starting gig.
NFL Network's Albert Breer brings up an interesting comparison, to say the least:
On Johnny Manziel ... Remember how much Kyle Shanahan held back with RG3 in 2012. And ask New Orleans how that worked out in the opener.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) August 10, 2014
The stat line Breer speaks of was a 19-of-26 effort for 320 yards and two touchdowns with a 73.1 completion percentage and 42 rushing yards to boot.
Granted, that was against a historically bad defense and Manziel's Week 1 opponent—Pittsburgh—figures to be a bit better, but the point stands that we have been down this road with Shanahan and a quarterback with a similar skill set before. And he is only getting better at a rapid clip.
"We put Brian out there with the ones because he was ahead with the playbook,'' coach Mike Pettine said, per USA Today's Jim Corbett. "And he's done nothing to have that taken away from him. But Johnny has made improvement, a lot of improvement."
What Cleveland has on the cusp of the regular season (assuming Manziel is the starter) is quite an intriguing scenario.
Manziel has shown the zip on passes to make the necessary throws and the uncanny awareness and athleticism that makes him a threat when things break down, not to mention when he can sense the breakdown before it occurs.
That pairs with Shanahan, a coordinator unafraid to build an offense around a rookie and give him primarily risk-free throws to work with in a basic formation that keeps a defense on its toes.
Under the guidance of Shanahan, the sky truly is the limit for Manziel. All involved, including fans, need to exercise serious patience, but the foundation for a productive relationship between coach and player is in place. The rest tends to come with time.