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Johnny Manziel shows he's ready, if his coach will have him

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- With a hostile crowd buzzing and the Internet breaking around him, Johnny Manziel rose from the bench and walked to the sideline, folded his hands behind his back and watched as his defense gave the Browns one more chance by holding the Buffalo Bills to a field goal.

If this moment was overwhelming him, the NFL's most famous backup had a funny way of showing it.

And that's just it. This wasn't too big for Manziel, about to go back into the game with five minutes left, five NFL snaps under his belt before Sunday and a comeback to lead for a playoff-contending team.

As much as is made of Manziel's trips to Vegas, the nightowl hours and the celebrities among his friends, this is Johnny's element. Big stakes. Raucous atmosphere. Game on the line. Ball in his hands.

An hour after the final gun, I walked to the team bus with Browns coach Mike Pettine, who arrived in Western New York on Saturday with an entrenched starting quarterback in Brian Hoyer, and left on Sunday with a decision to make after Manziel briefly electrified a flagging offense. It's a complicated one, to be sure, which is why Pettine simplified it as best he could when I asked how he'd make it.

"It's all things football," Pettine said. "You look at the matchup (the Browns host the Colts next Sunday), you look where we are, what we're playing with, who the opponent is. You look at confidence -- confidence the player has in himself, and confidence the other guys on the team would have. We'll hit the reset button. Where are we? It's important for us to do it that way, and we will as a staff. It's a football decision. Nothing else will factor into it, just pure football."

On that note, it's probably important to mention here that the Browns lost on Sunday. Manziel did lead a spine-tingling, eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive on his first full possession as a pro, but failed to get a first down when Cleveland got the ball back (after forcing that field goal), and the Browns left with a 26-10 loss that dropped them into a three-way, last-place tie in the uber-competitive AFC North.

Still, what he did accomplish on that one possession was enough to re-open a long closed quarterback competition. Before he entered with 12:01 left, the Browns had amassed just 208 yards on 53 plays (3.92 yards per play), and a single field goal against an increasingly fearsome Bills defense. This wasn't isolated, either. The offense's inconsistencies stretch back to the start of November, with only the Thursday nighter in Cincinnati standing as a great wire-to-wire showing.

Over that period, and into the fourth quarter Sunday, Hoyer posted a 3-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and this was his third straight game with a passer rating under 65.

That's not to say it's all on the quarterback here. Hoyer's done a fantastic job on balance in 2014.

But the Browns' offense clearly needed a spark. And Manziel gave them that.

"He wasn't really out there very much, but I've known Johnny for a while, being from Texas and everything," said Bills safety Aaron Williams. "He's a playmaker. As much as most people wanna hate him for what he does outside of football, I mean, the guy can make plays."

He did that, for sure. The Browns didn't face so much as a single third down on the 80-yard drive. Manziel completed three of four throws for 54 yards and scored on the kind of daredevil, split-the-D run he was known for in college.

But as much of this looked improvisational, it really wasn't. According to a host of coaches and players in the organization, Manziel has made an impression when few are paying attention: In the building between Monday and Saturday. He's shown an intelligence and an aptitude for football, and has fit into the framework of the team well with a "guy's guy" personality.

That doesn't mean he's going to be a franchise quarterback, just that he's giving himself the best shot to become one.

"I like him, man," corner Joe Haden said, in an emptied out locker room. "I like him a lot. He has a really good work ethic. He's a good kid to be around in the locker room, he's positive, and he knows his role, and he's known his role on the team. He wasn't trying to be all out there. He's just learning."

Now, what we saw Sunday incorporated the element of surprise -- the Bills worked all week to play against Hoyer, and not Manziel, and that's why when I asked Buffalo defensive lineman Marcell Dareus if he was impressed, the visceral response was "Not really. ... We weren't really prepared for it and the guy is an athlete, he can make plays and extend plays."

But it is, at the very least, something to build on. The question then is if the Browns let Manziel build on it next week against the Colts, or shuttle him back to his apprenticeship.

To that end, there are two things at this point I feel confident saying. First, internally, the Browns were awfully impressed with how Manziel handled the spot he was put in Sunday. And second, they feel like he's ready to start, if need be.

"He's been ready to play all year," Pettine told me flatly. "He's prepared like a starter all year, and he certainly showed today he was ready when he came in."

So that leads you to another question: For a playoff-contending team, and not one building toward 2015, is Manziel or Hoyer the best option?

We'll get our answer soon enough. But that it's even up for debate at this point speaks well on how far Johnny Football has come.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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