Johnny Manziel Facing No-Win Situation in Cleveland as Pressure Mounts

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Johnny Manziel Facing No-Win Situation in Cleveland as Pressure Mounts
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If you want to know why a Cleveland Browns quarterback battle is interesting for the first time since, well, ever, look in a mirror. If you want to know why there is enough media in Berea, Ohio to overthrow a small government, again, reflection time. If you want to know why you can literally not go five minutes on any NFL-related broadcast on any network without hearing the words Johnny Manziel—OK, you get the point.

We're all at fault. Probably more than Manziel himself. Fans, detractors, media companies and the like have built a cottage industry on #ManzielTakes—one that threatens his NFL career before it even gets off the ground.

We can trace the roots back to his freshman season at Texas A&M. Because of coach Kevin Sumlin's media policy—freshmen are not allowed to talk to reporters—fans and media types were given a blank slate upon which to write whatever they wanted. Johnny Manziel became Johnny Football. The All-American, smiling, scrambling, boisterous, awesome, captivating quarterback talent putting the Texas A&M football program on his back.

His "swagger" was a way to express personality in ways his mouth could not. He won the Heisman and became a living legend all before anyone knew anything tangible about this kid. He was the milk-drinking, vitamin-taking, home-by-9-p.m.-to-tuck-orphan-children-into-bed quarterback moms could invite into their house on Saturdays.

Until he wasn't.

Already a kid from a well-to-do family—one with the means to underwrite a celebrity lifestyle—Manziel began basking in his fame. He hung with Drake. He went to (18-and-over) casinos. He chilled courtside at NBA games. He had one, two or 12 beers despite being under the age of 21. He (allegedly) got thrown cash to sign autographs.

He acted in a manner that endeared him to some, vilified him to others and made him the most famous player in college football history. The vilification narrative was always the most interesting. Nearly every negative column, blog post or radio segment was twinged with equal parts schadenfreude and disappointment. Manziel became hated because he wasn't "who he was supposed to be." He wasn't who these people envisioned when hyping "Johnny Football."

I have, in my 24 years on this planet, never heard a situation described more aptly than Bomani Jones does here:

Manziel's post-hype sophomore season is instructive of what to expect in Cleveland. Every mistake was magnified. Every money-sign touchdown dance reported on as if it were a new phenomenon. Some found a way to pin Texas A&M's disappointing 9-4 record on Manziel despite the Aggies defense being an utter horror show. 

The Browns entered camp with their own host of positional shortcomings. Josh Gordon will miss the entire 2014 season if his suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy is upheld. Behind Gordon on Cleveland's depth chart is the Scotch-taped remains of someone resembling Miles Austin, a broken-down Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins, who is coming off a lost season and is the size of a thimble.

Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

The Browns boast a solid offensive line, but starting running back Ben Tate has never played a full 16 games or carried the ball 200 times in a season. Their defense is probably among the league's 10 best, assuming Barkevious Mingo or Paul Kruger can do anything of substance as edge-rushers.

But we're talking about a team destined to finish somewhere between 6-10 and 8-8 no matter who is under center. 

No matter those other shortcomings, the spotlight remains fixated on the quarterback spot. Manziel could be competing with a burlap sack and lead SportsCenter every evening. Brian Hoyer gets the co-starring role in a film we've already seen play out many times before.

Hoyer is almost eerily an archetype. A steady veteran presence with good but unspectacular arm skills, Hoyer is the exact opposite of who you'd want to see in a quarterback battle. He's good enough to beat out Manziel but not good enough to maintain the starting job on this team. There is an air of inevitability about the whole process. 

That comes despite the cottage #ManzielTake industry doing their best to write contradicting narratives by the day. 

There are stories of Manziel's struggles. Stories about him improving. Stories about how he's been just good enough and Hoyer has been just shaky enough to make the quarterback competition a week-to-week battle. 

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

The lengths to which the Browns' announcing crew went to praise Manziel in Saturday's preseason opener were uncomfortable. At one point, he was complimented on the speed with which he found his helmet. There is home cooking expected in local broadcasts, to be sure. But you might have received more independent analysis from Manziel's parents.

Then there was Twitter. Which, I mean, ugh.

Look hard enough and you'll find some independent analysis, but you can be excused if you miss it amid the agenda-driven dreck so fast you can be blamed if you miss it. Nowhere on the planet is a quarterback being judged on a per-throw basis. Manziel's progress is being live-tweeted as if it were an Emmy broadcast.

Sadly, the Manziel story has taken on a Tebowian life of its own. On merit, Tim Tebow deserves an NFL quarterback job. He led a team to a second-round playoff berth, provides a legitimate weapon with his feet and works as hard as anyone in the profession. In a world where Blaine Gabbert and Jeff Tuel are gainfully employed, someone could probably cut Tebow a check.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

But Tebow flamed out of the NFL after just 35 games because of everything that comes with him: the fervent fanbase. The throngs of media who follow his every move. The constant line of questioning about how he'll be used, what it's like to be his teammate, how he's getting along with everyone in the locker room, what brand of toilet paper he uses, etc.

It's exhausting to play with Tebow. It's exhausting to coach Tebow. NFL teams won't put up with distractions when they come attached to below-average backup quarterbacks. The leash for Tebow was incredibly small—as it will be for Manziel, whose off-the-field exploits add another layer beyond Tebowmania.

Chilling on a swan isn't so cute when you're throwing interceptions. Unfortunately for Manziel, history says he'll will be a below-average quarterback in 2014 if he lands the job.  

Since the AFL-NFL merger, there have been 36 quarterbacks drafted No. 22 or later to make eight or more starts as a rookie. Two, Dan Marino and Russell Wilson, have quarterback ratings higher than 90. Five have quarterback ratings under 50. The average rating is 66.5. As a group, they have thrown 372 touchdown passes against 469 interceptions.

Modernizing the data set (I ran it to 1990 and 2000) helps slightly. The touchdown-to-interception ratio moves close to even and the quarterback rating slides up to 71.5. Further limiting the data set (I ran an additional range from picks No. 22-64, the theoretical end of the second round) changes little. Limited to supposedly "good" prospects, though the sample is pretty tiny, kept roughly the same ratio and a near-identical rating. 

Acknowledging that today's NFL is more passer-friendly than ever also doesn't help. In fact, it's probably the opposite. Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck each debuted recently enough to warp expectations. Cognitively separating an anomalous group of superstars—which is exactly what those trio are, assuming Griffin returns to full health—is much easier in a historical context. It's much harder when their breakouts happened two years ago.

Wilson, Griffin and Luck are the standard to which some fans will hold Manziel. Being merely OK neither fits the "boom-or-bust" narrative nor assuages concerns. He could turn in a perfectly fine rookie season and come into 2015 competing for his job again. Interceptions, botched scrambles and mental miscues will be used as evidence he can't hack it. 

We build athletes up, then tear them down with equal fervor. Never do fans or the media look internally and acknowledge our own role in the matter. The industry of Johnny Football was as much a creation of our own fictionalized universe as it was an appreciation of Manziel's on-field excellence. Texas A&M bilked him for millions, writers pushed false narratives to sell a headline and then we wondered why the movie wasn't as good as the book.

Unless Manziel comes in and is instantly great, the public will rip to shreds the Johnny Football "myth." Before that happens, maybe it's time we acknowledge our role in creating it.

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.

All stats are via Pro Football Reference.

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