Johnny Manziel giving Browns' Mike Pettine reason to hope

BEREA, Ohio -- The reason that Johnny Manziel became such a big deal in the first place -- and why it's a big deal he'll starton Thursday in Cincinnati -- is his penchant for the spectacular.

As Mike Pettine sees it, the second-year pro's ability to harness that will determine his next step.

And, at least for now, the Cleveland Browns coach is seeing encouraging signs Manziel will be able to do just that as he takes the field against the 7-0 Bengals. No, Pettine is not completely sold that Manziel is going to make it as a pro. It's hard to be certain with any quarterback, let alone one who's endured -- and, in some respects, subjected himself to -- the 18-month start to a career that Johnny Football has.

But with his work over the last six months, the former Heisman Trophy winner has given himself a chance, which is why Pettine's feeling on whether JFF can be a QB1 in the NFL has changed drastically.

"He's got some stuff to be cleaned up, but if you'd asked me this a year ago, I would've been like, 'It's a great mystery; I have no idea where this guy is gonna be.' And if I were to handicap it, I'd maybe be at 50-50 with this guy, and that'd be generous," Pettine said just before practice on Tuesday night. "This year, I'm a lot more confident that if you surround him with the right people, he can be successful."

Pettine is careful to qualify that, adding, "There are very few quarterbacks in this league -- in the history of this league -- where, no matter who you put around them, they'll be successful. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees. There's a handful. That next tier of quarterbacks will be very supporting cast-dependent."

And for right now, that's what the Browns are hoping Manziel can be: a piece to a bigger puzzle.

That might be hard to reconcile, given the Heisman Trophy he won at Texas A&M in 2012, his first-round draft status and the fame that's come with all that. But really, it illustrates best where the Browns have asked Manziel to make his biggest strides, and where their newfound confidence in him is coming from.

Pettine said that, for him, "It always came back to [Manziel's] feet." New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and quarterbacks coach Kevin O'Connell -- hired to replace Kyle Shanahan and Dowell Loggains, who parted ways with the team in January -- drilled Manziel on footwork in the spring. More notably, the new, quieter lower body showed up when the red (non-contact) jersey came off, first for the team's August intrasquad scrimmage in Columbus, then for the preseason games.

"He learned, 'I don't have to turn every play into a punt return,' " Pettine said. "That was a function of two things. One, that was what he was used to doing. And two, when you don't know what a defense is in and you're not sure where the ball should go, extend the play until you do know. Now, if I'm confident and I know and I can process quick and get the ball out, then that's what you want."

The other key here, in Pettine's mind, was creating the right environment for Manziel to grow in. The Browns feel like that's been accomplished, too.

Last season, the staff became disjointed late in the year, and Manziel was competing with another 20-something in Brian Hoyer for the starting job. "Not that it was Brian Hoyer's fault, it was just very different, two young guys competing for a starting job," Pettine said, implicitly explaining why Josh McCown -- a native Texan who turned 36 in July -- was an attractive piece for Cleveland to pursue as starter/tutor in the offseason.

The hiring of O'Connell, who helped prep Manziel for the draft two springs ago, added another layer to that, as did the presence of Pettine in offensive meetings with DeFilippo -- the head coach spent that time with the defense in 2014. So the quarterback had all this waiting for him when he got out of rehab in April. Even better, it was a different guy stepping into that environment.

"He was just a lot less consistent last year; there were good days and there were bad days," Pettine said. "This year, he's into it. I think he knows. He said all the right things when he got out of rehab and talked about it, how he felt like he let everybody down. He knows he has a long way to go and it's a process, but he said that. That was always our thing with Johnny: He said the right things, but then he didn't necessarily do them. Now, that's different."

The expectation is that the resulting progress will show up Thursday, largely because it did when McCown got hurt in September, and because Manziel has taken steps forward since then. Pettine recalls that on opening day against the New York Jets, when Manziel had to pinch hit for McCown following the veteran's concussion, " 'Flip' didn't have to say, 'Oh, give me the black pen, I gotta cross out these 50 plays.' He called from the same call sheet."

That Jets game wasn't perfect; Manziel completed 13 of 24 passes for 182 yards and one touchdown (against one pick) in a 31-10 loss. Neither was Manziel's startagainst the Titans in Week 2, though Cleveland did win that one.

He hasn't been spotless off the field, either. Pettine's always careful to say what he sees has been good, because the Browns aren't monitoring Manziel like a high school kid. They try to treat him like an adult and hope he'll act like one. And that made last month's run-in with the police involving his girlfriend disappointing, at the very least.

"What happened off the field is unfortunate," Pettine said. "It's still lingering; we're waiting to hear from the league. But from the standpoint where I can evaluate him, from the moment he steps in the building to the moment he leaves, he's very professional. He's all about football."

Maybe he wasn't last year, when the Bengals ate him alive in his first professional start. (Manziel went 10 for 18 for 80 yards with zero touchdowns, two picks, three sacks and a 27.3 passer rating in a 30-0 loss.)

But the Browns swear Cincinnati won't see the same guy this time around, as a person -- or as a player.

"Last year, when he went out there, he was seeing 13, 14 guys on defense," Pettine said. "He's so much calmer this year, because I think he gets it. 'Flip' can start to call a play, and he can finish it -- he knows the call sheet that well. He knows, this certain route, 'Hey, if I get Cover 1, I'm gonna work this side, and if I get quarters, I'm gonna work here.' And a lot of that is how he's being coached and how that room pulls each other along. He's benefitted from that. We've been very pleased."

Now Manziel gets the chance to put that to work where he was once so accustomed to shining: under the lights. And maybe, just maybe, remind all of us why he was such a big deal in the first place.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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