BEREA, Ohio -- That was a different Johnny Manziel on Friday. Playful. Grinning. Not all walled off.
To be fair, Manziel's audience was groups of pre-pubescent children, not a horde of reporters asking the same tiresome questions about his socializing habits over and over -- and over -- again. The kids were bussed into the Browns' facility for a circuit of drills with the drafted rookies of all 16 AFC teams, and so they caught passes from Manziel, juked Browns rookie running back Terrance West and maybe, just maybe, helped remind us all there's more to this lightning rod-slash-quarterback.
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Manziel has been under siege since his drafting, first for a doctored photo morphing water into beer (think of his draw if he could indeed do that!) and then for a series of ostensibly real photos of him, well, having fun. Nothing illegal or offensive but, clearly, silly enough to set off the puritanical crowd that is football moralists.
And so, for weeks, Manziel has been defiant. He's insisted he hasn't hurt anyone by going to Vegas or being rapper Drake's friend. He's defended his dedication and said he's going to enjoy life. And so far, the Browns have backed him up. Safety Donte Whitner, as focused a worker as veterans come, said there's a difference between OTA time and the regular season. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said Manziel works as hard as anyone he's been around and colored in similarities between the rookie and Robert Griffin III. Joe Haden called Manziel a great teammate.
Until Friday. Manziel ran around with the kids, he thought about the first-year NFL players who spoke to him at the week's Rookie Symposium and who reiterated that football is a game. He proved he's just as smart as all that predraft testing showed: He retook some control over the conversation surrounding him.
Yes, he was still mostly unapologetic about what he does when he's not working, and he repeatedly said he's going to enjoy his down time. But he also said that to be the teammate Haden declared him to be, he has to free his teammates from answering questions about his off-the-field life.
"My teammates are getting tired of getting asked about me because I'm low man on the totem pole," he said. "I think they're tired of that. They're tired of the hype, which I am as well."
He said, "I'm growing up," and he voiced what Warren Moon suggested: that he doesn't need to have his fun time always be in the paparazzi's path.
"I want to wake up with a week and not have my name going through something," he said. "I'm working on that."
Manziel has tried to pass himself off as an everyman. He mingled with his fellow rookies at the Symposium, sitting with Blake Bortles and Aaron Murray by the pool, saying later that of course there are commonalities. But he also finally acknowledged that, "my situation is unique and different." Wherever he goes, he allowed, "people want to record what I'm doing because they think it's a story."
And as he said that, it was clear he's done having that be the story. If he wants to be a good teammate, if he wants to be a legitimate contender for the Browns' starting quarterback job, the story has to be about his actions and his demeanor on the field, not off. And maybe, when the questions are all football-related, he'll be free to pull down some of his carefully constructed walls.
It might not matter. People will continue to read his words under the prism they've already set. On Friday, he was asked if he expects to start Week 1. He said "absolutely." Who wants a quarterback who says no, he doesn't expect to succeed, he doesn't expect to win? But there was still a legion pronouncing him arrogant.
There was no guile when Manziel said, "I have a lot of ground to catch up on."
There was a sweetness when he said he wants to spend time with his little sister this next month before she goes back to school.
There was sincerity when he said one of the most lasting things he heard during the Symposium was advice to follow his team's veterans. He married that to his plans with the Browns' named starter, Brian Hoyer. He listed the years Hoyer apprenticed under Tom Brady and so it didn't sound like some lip service when he talked about "what I can learn from him, from a routine standpoint, from a knowledge standpoint, and where I need to get to."
Hoyer is the antagonist in this Johnny Football drama, one who easily contrasts what drives those sanctimonious batty about Manziel. Hoyer is the first-one-in-last-one-out cliché, the grinder who revels in outworking all comers. He is a family man, a father and husband, and he's waited his turn through stints in New England, Pittsburgh and Arizona. When he got his opportunity, he ran with it, showing the moxie Browns head coach Mike Pettine has repeatedly said he wants in his quarterback. And where Manziel incites the two poles, the love-him-or-hate-him fervor, everyone likes Hoyer. Even the Steelers' legendary defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, called Hoyer one of the nicest young men he's been around.
On Friday, as Manziel called out to the kids who dropped his passes, "Pick it up, pick it up," and as he serenaded them all with "good job," he was charming, too. And he was real. Here's to hoping we get the chance to see that come training camp.