It was a few days after Johnny Manziel had imploded like a dying star against the Cincinnati Bengals, completing 10 passes for 80 yards and throwing two picks—one of the worst first starts for a quarterback in recent NFL history.
Many things led to that moment, and Browns players knew the Manziel meltdown was approaching. Some were starting to think his on-field issues went beyond his apparent disdain for studying and practicing his craft. There was something else. Something simpler. Something bigger.
Some players believed Manziel wasn't good enough to play in the NFL. It wasn't solely the work ethic or the partying, but a dramatic talent deficit.
In the wake of that disastrous start against the Bengals, a Browns player remembers a brief conversation he had with a teammate.
"Think about where we'd be now," the player recalled telling a teammate, "if we had drafted Teddy Bridgewater."
That's what the player remembered saying. "Think about where we'd be now if we had drafted Teddy Bridgewater."
Bridgewater would go on to set several NFL and team rookie records. He had four consecutive starts late in the season where he completed better than 70 percent of his passes, the first time a rookie's ever had more than two.
The Browns picked Manziel at No. 22, and the Vikings took Bridgewater 10 spots later. Looking back, it's ironic the perceived character issues with Bridgewater were a greater concern to some team executives than Manziel's. There were the infamous anonymous NFL executives who said Bridgewater couldn't be "the face of a franchise." This led to the brilliant Amy Trask, the former Raiders front-office executive, to excoriate Bridgewater's faceless critics in one of the best predraft rants of all time. She said at the time:
Is anyone other than me absolutely, positively offended by what we've been reading and hearing the past week or so about, "We're not sure he can be the face of the franchise?"
Not only do I find it offensive, but if you're going to say something like that about a young man whose career is about to start, put your name on it. Put your name on it. Don't say he can't be the face of your franchise but that's off the record. You want to say that? Put your name on it. And I find it offensive.
The criticism of Bridgewater was inane then and seems even more so now, as he played an admirable rookie season and is a highly handsome face of the franchise. Manziel became the face of Instagram.
This is where many were possibly wrong about Manziel. Maybe it's not just the partying, the lack of preparation or the possible substance abuse. Those are issues, to be sure, but as far as his ability to win at the NFL level goes, the aforementioned drawbacks are not as big as the larger problem.
And that problem is this: Maybe Manziel can't play.
What I can say with certainty is that's a prevailing theme among a significant number of players in that Browns locker room. That's what I've heard from several of them. The ESPN story about the locker room dissatisfaction is extremely accurate, but what is also true is that by the end of last season, some of Manziel's teammates didn't just doubt his ability to learn and prepare; they doubted his ability to be a competent quarterback.
This means that when Manziel returns to the team, he will not just have to overcome doubt about his work ethic but also the belief that he's basically an oversold version of Akili Smith.
When I contacted several Browns players toward the end of the season, they were clearly exasperated with Manziel. One player in particular told me he wanted to calm himself and would text me after the season ended. (I actually tweeted this after a short conversation with him.) The player honored his word.
This player remembered watching Manziel practice and noticed that the accuracy of his throws not only failed to improve but actually worsened. To this player—and he says other teammates have similar beliefs—Manziel was far less talented than the media and fans believed.
This is the huge problem for Cleveland. There's no question that a quarterback can improve on accuracy, but it takes an almost extremist attitude to do it.
I recently spoke with Aaron Rodgers, who explained how he improved his accuracy: hard work, constantly emphasizing the mental part of the game, doing what he calls mental reps. Even in practice when he's not taking a snap, if he's watching the backup run a pass play, he is running the play in his mind.
This was the sentence Rodgers used: "Make drill work as difficult as possible."
There have been many windows into Manziel's psyche. Some have been false, but some have been highly accurate and have foreshadowed where we're at now. I've called Manziel Eddie Haskell because of his ability to fool the best NFL minds when he was leaving college and started interviewing with team officials. He told them, at the scouting combine and in meetings, how he was a changed man. This was a mantra he's repeated several times, including after he ran into trouble while with the Browns.
In the excellent Bruce Feldman book called The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, Manziel says he will be a changed man. Feldman interviewed Manziel in his last year at Texas A&M, after various issues and pseudo-scandals. Manziel told Feldman:
I've had to grow up a lot with the whole NCAA deal with all of the scrutiny. It made me realize it wasn't the best idea, posting about all the places I was going to and all the stuff I was doing, I've learned a lot from my mistakes. I'm off Twitter for now, and I just want to focus on the season. I'm not tweeting, and I don't have time for that. The biggest thing for me is, I want people to know that all the stuff that was talked about with the off-season didn't get in the way of all the work that I had put in with (quarterback guru George Whitfield) 'cause I worked hard to become a better passer. We talked all the time. It was nice to go out and show how much I got better. I really did work hard. Were there times I could've been out here slaving this summer? Yes, but I didn't feel like that was what I needed to do. I felt like I deserved to have a little bit of fun, and it was really blown out of proportion.
The problem with that quote is, the greats do bust their ass in the summer. And the winter. And the fall. And the spring. And in every possible moment they can.
(And Manziel would return from his self-imposed social media hiatus with a vengeance.)
Manziel would relate different variations of how he changed, or learned, or learned to change, in numerous interviews, both public and, according to several team officials, in private with them during the scouting combine and afterward. We now know not only did Manziel not change, he regressed.
Manziel sold the Browns a bill of goods. The Browns, in turn, sold fans and media the same garbage.
Sure, if Manziel had an attitude like Rodgers', maybe things would have been slightly different his rookie year. What we know is that young studs like Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Bridgewater do put in that extra work. In some ways, it's what separates them from the rest.
Yet Rodgers also came into the NFL with certain natural talents. In his case, the league underestimated him. With Manziel, it looks like his abilities were overestimated.
There are potential lessons from Manziel's disastrous rookie season. It's unfair to totally write off a player so young, but there is also something to say about maximizing talent. It's likely Manziel would have practiced and played better had he utilized a hyper-professional approach to playing, like a Rodgers or even a Bridgewater.
Yet it's also possible that would have only mattered so much because, again, it's looking more and more like Manziel just isn't that good.
There are numerous quarterback busts in history: Matt Leinart, Dave Klingler, Heath Shuler, David Carr, Ryan Leaf, Joey Harrington, Rick Mirer…it goes on and on and on.
One of the things those players have in common is struggling, badly, early on. Not the usual struggles all rookie throwers face. Worse than that. The NFL overwhelmed their abilities, like too many people trying to use GoGo inflight wireless, and they never recovered. Like Manziel, they looked exceptional running college offenses then were buried by the complications of professional defenses. Add to that the additional pressure of social media scrutiny (which Manziel brought on himself) and it's a nasty mix.
There's a degree of the eye test here when it comes to Manziel last year, and I get what this Browns player was saying. Manziel looked smallish, limited and inaccurate. He apparently looked that way in practice as well, according to the player.
Even rookies who struggled showed promise. I remember Troy Aikman's rookie season, and he got blasted, but in the process of getting beaten to a pulp, you saw numerous flashes of ability. We might see those flashes if Manziel started an entire season, but it's doubtful.
The Browns aren't abandoning ship. Not yet. Owner Jimmy Haslam said in a meeting with Cleveland beat writers:
I think it's way too early to give up on Johnny. We certainly haven't given up on him.
I applaud him for raising his hand and saying "I need help." We're going to do everything we can to support him. Our primary interest is making sure that he gets well, if you will. Fixes himself. However long that takes, we're going to stand beside him. We hope Johnny can get that straightened out because we feel he's a really good athlete and can help our team. But the first thing he's got to do is get himself fixed.
He's an easy guy to pile on.
Yes, yes he is, in part because of his own actions. In part because of a Browns organization that remains dysfunctional despite suckers like me thinking the team finally knew what it was doing.
The Browns are left with this frightening scenario. It's not Manziel's off-field disasters that are hurting him. It's worse.
It's that he might not be a good player. At all.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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