Next Monday night will not mark the first start that Johnny Manziel has made at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, but it is the most important. For the first time in his career, he's been handed the keys to the Browns offense and been named the unchallenged No. 1 on the depth chart.
But this doesn't mean that Manziel is suddenly going to become one of the most efficient or dominant players at his position.
Expectations for Manziel over the next six games need to be realistic and tempered based on his particular skill set and where he is in his development from a mobile, scattershot college quarterback to a more traditional pocket passer.
That's not to say that Manziel won't continue to exploit defenses using his signature ability to stretch plays with his feet. But it's Manziel's progress as an NFL-style quarterback that was taken into account when he was named the Browns' starter.
|Johnny Manziel, 2015|
There will be struggles, no doubt.
Opposing defenses will likely do a better job of hiding their coverages, disguising their blitzes and doing everything possible to take Manziel out of his comfort zone when it comes to reading their intentions.
Manziel will have to do a considerable amount of on-the-job learning, which means that steps forward will likely be accompanied by steps backward.
And we'll still likely see what makes Manziel who he is as a quarterback—which means abandoning plays when the first read is covered and taking off. Sometimes, these plays work. Other times, they don't. These gambles have long frustrated Browns head coach Mike Pettine, and they won't disappear into thin air simply because Manziel has been named the starter.
No, frustration is likely to visit Pettine numerous times with Manziel as his quarterback. But those frustrations are natural and part of the process.
As long as Pettine doesn't get frustrated enough to pull Manziel off the field or intentionally try to take him out of his natural element to the detriment of the entire team, then Manziel will at least be given the opportunity to grow and learn.
After all, improvement comes from actually doing the work. And there's no better locale for that than in an actual game rather than simply in practice running the scout team or in positional meetings watching film.
There's little growth to be had on the bench.
If the Browns are truly interested in Manziel being their franchise quarterback, the one they have been seeking for so long, then accelerating his growth by giving him the starting job is an important and necessary step to take.
Manziel's risk-taking isn't just limited to the moments when he chooses to make plays with his feet. While not one to eschew the high-percentage openings given him, just one look at his directional passing numbers compiled by Pro Football Focus shows that big plays are always on his mind.
Though Manziel has thrown 75 of his 128 pass attempts from behind the line of scrimmage to zero-to-nine yards beyond it, he's also more than willing to try to air it out. The results have been mixed. He's thrown 37 passes that have traveled between 10 and 19 yards in the air but has completed only 14 of them. But those 14 passes have netted him 211 yards and two scores.
When going deep, throwing 20 or more yards downfield, he's been more accurate, though the sample size is smaller at 10 attempts. Those passes, though, have resulted in six completions for 276 yards and two scores.
Notably, his two interceptions have come when throwing passes from zero to nine yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
|Manziel's 2015 Passes, By Direction|
|via Pro Football Focus|
Manziel's style impacts not only the receivers he's throwing to and what they are required to do, but also requires a shift from Cleveland's offensive line. Manziel holds on to the football longer than Josh McCown. According to PFF, 53.8 percent of Manziel's throws have come when holding on to the football for more than 2.5 seconds, compared to 46.9 percent of McCown's throws.
The time to throw is quite different between the two quarterbacks, with McCown taking an average of 2.63 seconds compared to Manziel's 3.13 seconds.
This means the line will need to continue pass-blocking for Manziel longer than it normally expects. While a half-second doesn't seem like a lot of time, in football it makes a significant difference.
The thing Manziel will need to work on over the next six weeks is how to get the football out of his hands more quickly, if only because the results are better when he does. Though most of his throws are made after holding on to the ball for over 2.5 seconds, his completion rate is just 52.5 percent. When he throws more quickly, he's completing 65.2 percent of his passes.
So, not only does Manziel have to work on improving his time to throw, while he does so, his receivers and offensive linemen need to adapt to the fact that his plays take longer to develop than McCown's.
Just as Manziel has to adjust to his new role, everyone around him must adjust to the type of player he is.
It's an evolution that will be occurring simultaneously between all 11 men on offense on the field. It's quickly evident that the transition from McCown to Manziel will be an ongoing process and not something that will be fully formed in just a game or two.
This is why it cannot be expected that the simple act of Pettine naming Manziel the Browns' starter will suddenly and permanently result in wholesale improvement of the team's offense. There are a number of adjustments that Manziel and his supporting cast will have to make, many of them in-game.
The Browns may believe change at quarterback is good. But change at that one, crucial position results in changes to the entire offense and how every player is tasked with executing it.
Expectations for the Manziel era may be high, but they must be tempered in accordance with the reality of the situation.