Fate owes the Cleveland Browns a few breaks.
Since rebooting in 1999, the franchise has been on a long slog of disappointment. The Browns could write a thesis on first-round mistakes in the draft (Tim Couch, Courtney Brown, William Green, Braylon Edwards, Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden). They've been plagued by internal problems since returning, from staph infections in the locker room to bickering in the front office. They have gone from one coach to another, and from one quarterback to another. The only thing that has stayed the same are those classic uniforms (which are changing next year, thanks to Nike). They've made one playoff appearance since version 2.0 began, an exciting loss to the rival Steelers in the 2002 Wild Card Round.
This past May, Cleveland wheeled and dealed on draft day, snagging Johnny Manziel in the back half of the first round. Fans could once again hope that better days were ahead. While Manziel had been heavily questioned ahead of the draft -- for both his play on the field and his antics off it -- he had won a Heisman Trophy and posted back-to-back stellar seasons at Texas A&M.
New coach Mike Pettine began the season with established hometown boy Brian Hoyer, who had shown promise in 2013 before suffering a season-ending injury. But in the first 13 games of 2014, the journeyman sputtered to a 76.3 QB rating, with 11 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a lowly 55.3 percent completion rate. Finally, after Hoyer completed just 13 of his 30 passes (with no touchdowns and two interceptions) in a loss to the Colts that dropped the Browns to 7-6, Pettine decided it was time to look to the future of the franchise. He put Manziel into the lineup for a big divisional showdown with the Cincinnati Bengals. Hoyer and the Browns had beaten the Bengals 24-3 in Cincy one month prior. Now it was up to a rookie quarterback -- making his first NFL start -- to repeat that feat and keep Cleveland's playoff hopes alive.
You know what happened next.
If you were seeking a highlight tape to prove why Manziel should not have been a first-round pick, this game film would suffice. He was indecisive, inaccurate and unable to generate something out of nothing. The Browns were shut out, 30-0, and Manziel completed 10 of his 18 passes for a measly 80 yards, with zero touchdowns and two interceptions. Cleveland went 1 for 10 on third down, had six three-and-out drives and finished with 107 total yards of offense (the lowest total in the NFL this season). The one series in which the Browns did move the ball -- a 10-play, 51-yard march in the second quarter -- ended with an interception in the end zone.
Manziel, not for the first time, looked like a guy who was more famous than good, someone who wasn't worthy of the considerable hype that surrounds him, or the considerable attitude he brings to the table. In a word, he was terrible.
But it was only one game. Lots of good pro quarterbacks were awful in their first start. Pettine has made it clear that the Browns will stick with Manziel for the rest of the season. That's as it should be. But the clock is now ticking, and Cleveland brass faces one burning question: Does Manziel have any chance of developing into a real pro quarterback?
Because Manziel was such a good improvisational quarterback in college, there's a temptation to spread out the offense now and "let Johnny be Johnny." You could certainly do that -- the Browns are essentially out of the playoff hunt, and Manziel can be an exciting player. But when he was running circles around college football opponents, he wasn't being chased by guys like Luke Kuechly and Terrell Suggs. So that approach is likely to get Johnny Football maimed, and it also wouldn't tell you much about his potential to pilot a pro offense over the long haul.
What Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan need to do is structure an offense that will give them some clue as to whether Manziel has any hope of growing into an NFL signal-caller. While he's capable of doing some exciting things outside the design of the offense, the question remains: Can he develop those skills that actually give his team a chance of winning in this league?
Manziel proponents will say he could be another Russell Wilson. It is my guess that this was the evaluation made when the Browns traded up into the 22nd pick of the 2014 NFL Draft (giving up the 26th and 83rd picks to do so). Pettine, who was on my staff in Baltimore, might have envisioned developing a league-leading defense (like Wilson has in Seattle), committing to the run game and having a quarterback who could deliver a 20-touchdown/10-interception season.
Manziel reminds me more of Troy Smith than Wilson. In Baltimore, we drafted Smith out of Ohio State in 2007. Smith won the Heisman Trophy, like Manziel, and possessed a similar skill set when he entered the draft process. The difference is, we took Smith in the fifth round, not the first, viewing him as a multi-tooled project who could do a lot of different things. Like Manziel, Smith had terrific athletic ability and eye-popping collegiate production, but he lacked the skills necessary to succeed in the NFL.
Now, Pettine and his staff face an unenviable task: They have just two games to determine whether or not to put the offense -- and likely, their jobs -- in the hands of Manziel going forward in 2015. And if not, they'll have to tell Browns fans, once again, that their answer at the quarterback position -- and consequently, the key to organizational success -- lies elsewhere, perhaps in yet another first-round pick.
Personally, I am looking for just that one thing that will give me some hope. I am not overly ambitious. I would be happy with Manziel showing enough respect for the game -- and his teammates -- to not make the silly, self-serving "money" sign with his fingers after he scores a touchdown. That would give me a sign, for the first time, that there's a chance he can actually become a legitimate pro quarterback.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.