Johnny Manziel entered the NFL with more attention than any college player since Tim Tebow, and the Cleveland Browns are hoping they drafted a franchise quarterback with the 22nd overall pick and not just a gimmick player who will sell tickets.
Evaluating Manziel's first three games after having watched every snap of his career at Texas A&M before the draft, it's easy to see why he's struggling to make the same impact plays for the Browns. However, it's still much too soon to write the book on Manziel's ability as an NFL quarterback.
If Texas A&M was the first chapter in the Book of Manziel, consider this the start to Chapter 2. Where is he struggling, specifically, and what can offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan do to help him get back on track?
Let's go to the tape.
Manziel vs. Pressure
The beauty of Manziel at Texas A&M is that many defenses simply chose not to test him. With his ability as a passer and runner, many defensive coordinators decided to sit back in coverage and try to keep him contained as a runner.
Because of that philosophy—and thanks to Manziel being protected by two top-10 picks at tackle (Jake Matthews, Luke Joeckel) and another potential top-10 player (Cedric Ogbuehi)—most defensive ends chose to contain rush instead of truly pinning their ears back and attacking the pocket.
We saw this from LSU against Manziel in 2012 and 2013. Les Miles opted to get his ends upfield just enough to take away outside running options.
He also devoted his inside linebackers to a spy look (they were assigned to Manziel and the halfback and shadowed them all over the field). This allowed Manziel to throw many passes from a clean pocket.
Couple the contain rush with All-World-level pass protectors at tackle, and you can safely say that Manziel came into the NFL ill-prepared to handle a speedy edge rush. That's what we're seeing in the pros thus far, too.
He has two good tackles in Cleveland—Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz—but he's seeing defenses that are fast enough and strong enough to finally pressure him. Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett wasted no time in getting his edge defenders after Manziel.
Look at how Washington played him pre-snap. There are eight players near the line of scrimmage—something he saw very little of in college. Only Alabama head coach Nick Saban routinely tested Manziel in this way at A&M, and never with the size and speed that the NFL can unleash on a quarterback.
This is where Manziel's biggest struggles have come from thus far. Mentally, he's unprepared to look at this sophisticated defense and have a game plan pre-snap for what comes next.
He must know pre-snap who the "Mike" is, what the coverage is, if the cornerbacks are playing press or off, where the free safety is lined up and where his hot read is. That's a lot for any rookie quarterback to digest, and Manziel is struggling to make those reads.
That doesn't mean he can't pick it up and figure it out but right now he's mentally drowning before the snap.
Manziel vs. the Playbook
Sports Illustrated's Peter King (h/t ESPN.com's Pat McManamon) shared the news post-draft that the Browns' playbook was the first Manziel had ever had. At A&M, per King, "Manziel ran a group of plays given to him from week to week." That's a little different than the NFL.
Now, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport noted:
Browns soon found how much of a learning curve a college spread QB like Manziel has. Play calls were tough. Snaps under center. Protections.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 20, 2014
That's no surprise.
Coming from what amounted to a spoon-fed system at A&M to an NFL offense is not easy, and no amount of studying can replace reps in terms of getting Manziel on the field. The Catch-22 comes in that his not being mentally ready to handle the play calls keeps him from getting the reps he needs to better master the offense.
I had no concerns with Manziel's football intelligence predraft, and still don't, but his acclimation to the NFL and an NFL-style offense has been slow. Still, his instincts and ability to make split-second decisions are some of the best I've seen from a college quarterback. You don't beat Alabama and win a Heisman Trophy as a freshman without some crazy skills.
During Jon Gruden's "QB Camp" on ESPN, Manziel said his pre-snap procedure was "numbers in the box for a run or check-run, and then looking at safeties and corners." That's close to what an NFL quarterback is doing, too, but the actual play call from the coaches to Manziel is much different.
He also noted to Gruden that the center made all the line-protection calls at A&M. That's something he's learning to read in the NFL. If the defense brings six defenders and Manziel has five blockers, what happens? The entire offense must be on the same page and right now it is not.
A normal Texas A&M play was titled 8-X Indy, while in the NFL that's more likely to be 10 words. Getting that verbiage out, understanding what it all means and still working his pre-snap reads and audibles is something that will simply take time.
Manziel vs. His Mechanics
Arm strength is a given asset for quarterbacks, but an overlooked part of arm strength is what drives the ball.
Ideally, a quarterback will set his feet and drive the ball to his target. That means stepping to the ball, lining up your shoulder and generating torque in your core. Manziel doesn't do this. And sometimes that works, but in the NFL it won't be a high-percentage play.
Look at Manziel in Week 2 of the preseason against Washington. All of his mass is traveling away from the intended target instead of toward it. This is a bad habit he continues to display as he gets more reps in the NFL. Against Washington, I counted five consecutive plays where Manziel threw the ball without setting his feet.
Not only does his mass travel away from the target, but he isn't even throwing with both feet on the ground for many of his plays. This will fly against Duke and Louisiana-Lafayette, but it won't against DeAngelo Hall, Ryan Clark and other NFL players.
Manziel won many over predraft by showing improved mechanics at his pro day. The step and throw needed to drive the football in the NFL was on display. But when the game is live and the pressure mounts, he is too often reverting back to this playground ways.
While he's destined to make SportsCenter on a weekly basis for one crazy play after the next, to be a truly successful NFL quarterback he must master his mechanics. Manziel's practice mechanics—feet on the ground, shoulders squared up—must be the mechanics we see from him when the pocket is clean enough to warrant sound technique.
Brett Favre could pull off these plays, but that was 20 years ago. The NFL is now bigger and faster on defense, and Manziel isn't an exceptionally fast runner like a Robert Griffin III, Michael Vick or Colin Kaepernick.
He's shifty but not fast or powerful, and that will result in him being caught and knocked on his tail. Washington did that courtesy of a DeAngelo Hall hit on the sidelines. After that play, Manziel looked pocket scared for the rest of the night.
Manziel vs. the Future
In my predraft scouting report on Manziel, in big bold letters, I wrote, "DO NOT COUNT HIM OUT!" And that's still true today. His struggles through his first three preseason games are not unfixable. They are also not indicative of how his career will play out.
Manziel is a rookie—and a young one at that since he came out of Texas A&M as a redshirt sophomore. He has time to learn and improve his mechanics, and he will get a chance to do so while Brian Hoyer takes the starting job into the season.
The positive for Manziel is that his shortcomings are all coachable and fixable. Mechanics can be taught and drilled in. Verbiage and terminology can be learned. What you can't teach are things like instincts, quickness and improvisational skills.
He will never be the statuesque pocket passer that many prefer in the NFL, but Peyton Manning will never weave through a defense to pick up a crucial third down with his legs.
The positives for Manziel are still there. And the people overreacting to a few preseason games—most of them with the second- and third-team offense—will quieten down.