Cleveland Browns  

 

Cleveland Browns must let Johnny Manziel be Johnny Manziel

In the past five months, the Cleveland Browns have given us an awkward and abrupt firing of a rookie coach, a drawn-out and dysfunctional search for a replacement, the subsequent dismissal of the team's feuding CEO and general manager, a reported positive drug test that could lead to a lengthy suspension of the team's best player, a reported $100,000 analytics study to determine which quarterback they should draft, a dramatic trade on the first night of the draft that allowed them to pick a different quarterback, a series of public assurances that the team's beleaguered owner absolutely, positively did not influence said selection, and an interview with the owner in which he cited the impact of a homeless man's outspoken support for the QB they ended up selecting.

And now, most farcically of all, the Browns are waging an organizational campaign to make Johnny Manziel feel like a scrub.

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In a concerted public emasculation effort that runs counter to everything we know about competition, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, general manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine are making it very clear that Johnny Football -- the polarizing and captivating former Texas A&M quarterback for whom they traded up to select with the 22nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft -- is absolutely, positively not a big deal.

"Mike Pettine said it very well," Haslam told a group of Browns fans at the Pro Football Hall of Fame luncheon in Canton, Ohio, last Monday. "Johnny, right now you're our backup quarterback and you need to act like such."

To underscore his point, Haslam added, "This isn't Hollywood" -- a clarification I'm guessing Manziel was able to figure out for himself upon his arrival in the city his buddy LeBron James once called home.

Sticking to the script, Farmer went on ESPN on Wednesday and assured viewers that the Browns would treat Manziel "like we treat all the other rookies. ... The guy has yet to throw a pass, he's yet to throw a touchdown, he's yet to do anything that's dynamic, other than being drafted -- which is a tremendous accomplishment in itself."

In case Manziel wasn't getting the message that he's not all that, the Browns, a struggling franchise looking to give a passionate fan base reason to cheer, are also limiting media access to the player who has instantly shot to the top of the NFL's jersey-selling charts -- because, you know, they wouldn't want their potential franchise quarterback to get the impression that he's good or anything.

It's over the top and it's bizarre, and I'm having a hard time fathoming what the rationale is. Apparently, the Browns' brass is extremely concerned that Manziel's swagger, large personality and freakishly developed competitive drive will serve as a destructive force if it is allowed to roam unchecked -- that, in essence, they must tame this wild beast from the get-go, lest he become a monster. 

If so, that brings up an obvious question: Why the hell did you draft him, then?

Seriously -- it's as if Haslam, Farmer and Pettine are mad at Manziel for carrying himself with confidence, as if that's either surprising or counterproductive to playing quarterback at a high level. From what I can tell, Manziel's only expression of brashness since being drafted was to make his signature money hand gesture while walking to the podium at Radio City Music Hall after a longer-than-expected wait to be picked.

If that was what convinced Haslam, Farmer and Pettine they needed to neuter Manziel, they'd be better suited to presiding over Massillon High School's football program.

More likely, the reproachful trio is reacting to Manziel's past pattern of behavior, which is kind of like a rich dude winning over Miley Cyrus with a romantic love sonnet, only to give a salty speech at their wedding decrying his bride as a "mirror-kissing heathen."

Again, if the Browns are so concerned with Manziel's edgy persona and impudence, why didn't they simply turn their attention elsewhere on draft day, as so many other NFL teams did? And if they're so committed to incumbent Brian Hoyer, he of the four career starts and surgically repaired ACL, why did they feel compelled to spend a first-round pick on a quarterback (let alone spend a reported $100,000 on a study that concluded Teddy Bridgewater was the draft's top prospect at the position) in the first place?

Farmer's assertion that the Browns are treating Manziel "like any other rookie" is particularly laughable -- primarily because, you know, they're not. Have you seen any public comments from Haslam, Farmer or Pettine regarding their insistence that cornerback Justin Gilbert, the eighth overall selection, know his place on the depth chart? Has the team done anything but extend a "laurel and hearty handshake" (that's for you fellow Blazing Saddles devotees) to the rest of its rookie class?

And incidentally, even if the Browns' brass somehow has cause to lay down the law with Manziel, why not follow the time-honored mantra preached by every NFL coach and general manager and keep it out of the media? If Haslam, Farmer and Pettine want to show their rookie who's boss, that's their prerogative. Embarrassing the kid with public proclamations, however, is truly bad form.

If you're wondering how a more evolved organization might handle such a situation -- well, I'm glad you asked. Remember two years ago, when the Seattle Seahawks used a third-round draft pick on Russell Wilson a month after having signed free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn to a three-year, $26 million contract?

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Did owner Paul Allen, who was on the hook for $10 million in guaranteed cash to Flynn, tell Wilson to act like a backup? Did general manager John Schneider or coach Pete Carroll make a point of insisting that Wilson know his role?

Um ... no. Carroll allowed the unheralded rookie to compete with Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson, and Wilson seized the moment. As I wrote in August 2012, from the start, Wilson carried "himself with confidence and charisma that belies his lack of pro experience and isn't shy about asserting himself."

During that first training camp, Carroll shared a story about slipping into the team's indoor practice facility shortly after the draft and observing a private throwing session involving Wilson and some of the Seahawks' veteran receivers -- and marveling that the rookie "controlled the whole thing. ... He wasn't a jerk about it or arrogant, he was just being the quarterback. That was a really clear indicator that he's not gonna -- I don't want to say shrink -- but he's gonna stand up to the situation, because he knows what it is to be the quarterback and what that role is all about. I thought that was really impressive. He took command of it, just like the QB should. He wasn't thinking that he was too young to do it or that he was a rookie. I see them respond to him very seriously. He's got a presence about him."

And guess what? Wilson won the job, leading the Seahawks to the playoffs. As the quarterback told me last August, "I was gonna approach it like I was gonna be the starter. I had the same mentality then as I do now."

It should be pointed out that six months later, Wilson quarterbacked the Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory -- and I think it's pretty fair to say that there are a lot of people in the Pacific Northwest who are extremely thankful he didn't act like a backup during his first NFL offseason.

The worst part of all of this? It doesn't matter what Haslam, Farmer and Pettine tell Manziel. The dude is going to show up, suck the air out of the Browns' training facility and fight with everything he has to stand out as the team's best quarterback -- and, ultimately, to rally his teammates behind him in the pursuit of greatness. That's the way this young man is wired; that's the reason he became Johnny Football in the first place.

Manziel, like Wilson, is less than 6 feet tall -- shorter than the average NFL quarterback. He wasn't supposed to beat Alabama or win the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman, but he did, rallying his teammates to unforeseen heights through force of will. He followed that up with a brilliant sophomore campaign.

Surely, he is talented; he can spin the hell out of a football, and do so with tremendous accuracy. All of that is important. The most captivating part of the Manziel package, however, is that he lives to compete, and that he'll remain relentless and defiant in the face of any adversity. He'll always believe he's the best, and there's a very good chance he'll convince everyone around him to share that conviction.

The thing is, this is an ideal situation for a young player who possesses those qualities -- for these Browns are capable of winning now. Even with the looming potential loss of star receiver Josh Gordon, Cleveland has more talent than people realize. Farmer and Pettine were intriguing hires; each man, I believe, has the potential to be outstanding. At times last year, and in recent years, the Browns have gone toe to toe with some pretty good teams. Give them a difference-maker at quarterback, and watch out.

On some level, the person responsible for drafting Manziel -- whether it was Farmer's call or he was simply reading the room and pleasing his owner -- understood this. And if and when this vision comes to fruition, and Manziel takes command of the Browns' huddle and gives Cleveland the winner its long-suffering fans so richly deserve, you can guarantee Haslam, Farmer and Pettine will all be slapping him on the back and gloating, "I believed in you all along."

In the meantime, the three disapproving powerbrokers should take some deep breaths -- and take a lesson from Hoyer, the man whose turf they seem to be so desperately determined to protect. According to Farmer, Hoyer's reaction when the Browns drafted Manziel was a three-word text message: "Bring it on."

Translation: Let Hoyer and Manziel both act like starters -- or act however they want to act, in the name of competition -- and may the best man win.

Haslam shouldn't take it from me, however. There are plenty of homeless dudes in Cleveland who could probably tell him the same thing.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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