Johnny Manziel is a human headline. He's walking, talking clickbait. He's one of the hottest superstars in the NFL, and he's never played a meaningful snap. In just one offseason, he's turned the Cleveland Browns from a Rust Belt punchline into the strongest eyeball magnet in American sports.
Despite riding a massive wave of hype into the NFL and landing in a lakeside town that hasn't seen a competent quarterback since Bernie Kosar was cut in 1993, the football-watching world is going to have to wait just a little longer to see what No. 2 can do against top-flight defenses.
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam told ESPN's Sal Paolantonio that when a homeless man told him to draft Manziel, he became convinced Johnny Football was the hope of the entire Browns fanbase. Days after drafting him, though, Haslam made Manziel's place on the team clear: He's a backup.
"Brian Hoyer is the starting quarterback," Haslam told Pro Football Hall of Fame luncheon attendees, per Mary Kay Cabot of the Northeast Ohio Media Group. "It's his job to lose."
After a summer of stacked money, inflatable swans, professional work ethic and questionable performances, that penciled-in depth chart is written in ink. On August 20, head coach Mike Pettine announced Hoyer would be the starting quarterback, per Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today Sports.
"He was the clear leader from the beginning," Pettine said in a statement. "We've maintained all along that if it was close, I would prefer to go with the more experienced player. Brian has done a great job in the meeting rooms and with his teammates on the practice field and in the locker room."
With that, the Browns benched the collective hopes of one of the most beleaguered NFL fanbases.
They were absolutely right to do it.
Though most NFL observers have fretted about Manziel's youth, celebrity, fun-loving lifestyle and occasional on-field outbursts, that's never been the biggest question about his transition to the NFL. Frankly, the NFL is full of party guys, or guys who partied in college. When you're talking about a bunch of young men with seasonal jobs and minimum salaries in the middle six figures, that stuff is par for the course. Staying out of the headlines will come with experience.
What he really needs to be taught, though, isn't how to handle himself off the field; it's how to play pro football.
As I wrote just before his pro day, study of Manziel's college tape reveals a player who struggles to read the field beyond his first read or two. He particularly struggled with routes over the middle and often broke down to scramble when he wasn't totally confident in his read or arm.
As Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Cian Fahey wrote in his tape breakdown of Manziel's second preseason game, those are exactly the issues he's struggling with in Cleveland. He's seeing the open man but not hitting him, and he's relying on his feet and instincts to make plays.
He's also finding out his feet and instincts aren't enough to beat NFL defenders. He's going to have to beat them with his head and arm, and his head and arm aren't ready to start.
"We were frank with [Manziel] on Friday that's the expectation, you're the backup quarterback," Haslam said at that luncheon after the draft. "This is a hard-working, blue-collar town, this isn't Hollywood. We want you to come in and go to work."
Though Bleacher Report National NFL Lead Writer Mike Freeman found Manziel's teammates think highly of his approach, professionalism and work ethic, that work isn't over—it's just beginning.
In first preseason game against the Detroit Lions, Manziel made a few plays from what looked like a heavily tailored, pistol-heavy version of the Browns offense. I wrote that Manziel needed to play without training wheels if he was going to start. He ran more of the playbook against Washington, but he couldn't execute it well enough to move the ball and score points.
The biggest takeaway from that game, though, was how disorganized and discombobulated the Browns offense looked. Flipping back and forth between the two very different offenses Hoyer and Manziel have been running from within the same playbook caused even Browns stalwarts like left tackle Joe Thomas to get flustered. There were wrong alignments, missed assignments and penalty flags galore.
The Browns couldn't prepare for the third preseason game—the all-important dress rehearsal—against a vicious St. Louis Rams pass rush with a mishmash of two different offenses. To get everyone back on the same page, they had to make a decision.
Since it had become clear Manziel wasn't going to have a magical, lighting-in-a-bottle rookie season like Russell Wilson or Robert Griffin III, going with the veteran made plenty of sense. Hoyer's smart, tough and cheap—the perfect veteran cover for a brutal early schedule. Besides, Hoyer's a bit of an unknown quantity himself; perhaps he'll catch lightning in a bottle and get the Browns off to a rousing start.
Likely, though, he won't—and with another month or two of practices, preseason games and mop-up regular-season duty, Manziel will have another chance to show the world what he can do. That's a much better scenario for him than if he were told to marshal a mixed-up offense and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens in his first three meaningful games.
The Browns didn't just give themselves the best chance to win in 2014 with this decision; they gave Manziel his best chance to develop into a winner.
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