Johnny Manziel enters the spotlight of Monday Night Football at FedExField for a contest that will decide whether he resides under center or holds a clipboard as a spectator come Week 1.
If he wants to be the starter in Pittsburgh, he better bring it in a big way Monday.
Forget all of the white noise, which includes the hype of expectations and the over-analyzing of each and every step Manziel and current starter Brian Hoyer make—for the rookie, that applies to on the field and off.
Just throw it all out the window and understand this—there is no way head coach Mike Pettine and the majority of the people in the Cleveland front office want to throw their prized rookie to the wolves on the road in Pittsburgh to start his pro career.
No way. If they do, there are much bigger issues in the organization.
It is safe to assume they don't, though, because they have set the deadline to name the starter for Tuesday, a mere hours after the affair in Washington. It is a smart move by Pettine, who lists the football reasons fans should want to hear as justification, as captured by The Associated Press, via USA Today:
Something unforeseen could come up, but we're hopeful because I do want to see if I can cut the quarterback questions down by about 90 percent after next week. The chemistry, the continuity, it's important to establish that.
In a way, the deadline serves another purpose whether Pettine wants it to or not—it cuts down on the time Manziel has to wow the staff and further get fans behind him as the starter.
Washington is it for Manziel.
There, he will get his shot, as Ian Rapoport of NFL.com notes:
Manziel better prove that he has learned from his debut performance. Against Detroit a week ago, he took too many hits, which caused the training staff to look him over on the sidelines at one point.
There was a fourth down where he missed a wide-open receiver for a big gain and instead engaged in a footrace to the edge. He moved the chains, yes, but it is a key learning point and a situation in which a more polished player would have made the correct decision.
Normally a major performance in the preseason—even in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football—does not do much.
But this is Johnny Football, so the stadium will be packed and the numbers of viewers will match that of a regular-season contest, especially now that fans know the starting job is on the line. Heck, the numbers might even be better than normal—Ford Field, which has hosted a Super Bowl—ran out of room for the media because it was so packed for a preseason game.
So let's not pretend this is some normal exhibition. Manziel has everything at stake in what amounts to a normal game that might just match the magnitude of that season-opener on the road.
Really, nobody is doubting Manziel's ability to pull it off, either.
The positive glimpses on display a week ago—which includes a 7-of-11 effort and 63 rushing yards—are certainly a foundation Manziel can build upon. It helps that he is being protected by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who coincidentally did the same favors for Washington's Robert Griffin III during his rookie season.
Encased in mostly pistol alignments that allow him to run the read-option, bootlegs, play actions and more, Manziel's abilities are permitting him the same luxuries the pocket-savvy RGIII put on display in his debut season.
The Washington first-team defense beat up on New England's Ryan Mallett a week ago despite a wealth of receiving weapons around him, but Manziel has the versatility that affords him a better chance.
Those improvisation skills when things break down better be out in full force along with better decision-making if Manziel is to capture the imagination of fans and force the coaching staff's hand, because he truly gives the team the best chance to win in Pittsburgh.
Will Manziel flounder or flourish under the immense scrutiny in the biggest job interview of his life since the tedious draft process? A somewhat expected rookie stumble does not mean he cannot win the starting job at a later date, but he, and surely his droves of fans, would like to see him take the field against Pittsburgh.
In order to do so, Manziel needs a performance reminiscent of his Texas A&M days. Anything short will see the organization go the safe route. Who can blame them?
Note: Preseason stats courtesy of NFL.com.
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