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Johnny Manziel: A Fabulous, Flawed And Familiar Talent

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Former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel appears to be a high-risk, but potentially a high-reward type of player for those teams will to take a chance on him. Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel appears to be a high-risk, but potentially a high-reward type of player for those teams will to take a chance on him. Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Houston, Jacksonville, Oakland, Cleveland and anyone else flirting with the 2014 quarterback class, you have a problem. Well, maybe … or you could be weeks away from striking gold. Such is life for quarterback-deficient NFL general managers on draft day, but 2014 promises to be particularly wild.

Why? Johnny Manziel.

Opinions vary widely on the Texas A&M product, from him being the first overall to a day-two talent. But as Tim Tebow would attest, one itchy trigger finger and, justified or not, a first-round pick is made and a franchise quarterback is born. Manziel will come off the board early, he will be the story of the NFL Draft and, by dawn on May 9, 2014, a head coach and a front office’s fate will be tied to his success.

Whether Manziel deserves such trust, draft-day love and the crown of an NFL franchise is up for debate. But then again, the merits of every elite quarterback prospect can be argued until all the beer’s been consumed and the sun is peeking over the horizon. There are no can’t-miss quarterbacks. Draft-day franchise pigskin slingers have the success rate of marriages. Heads it’s happily ever after; tails, you’re doomed. 

Beyond all the game tape, combine numbers, private workouts, conversation with Jon Gruden and the Wonderlic test, there’s another piece of (to this point) lightly considered evidence of Manziel’s NFL future: Robert Griffin III. The similarities are difficult to ignore. Griffin and Manziel both won the Heisman Trophy and played major college football at Texas schools. Both have body types that scream “durability issues,” and their playing style — scramblers with a daredevil’s nerve — does nothing to temper “availability anxiety.” While in the pocket, the place where NFL titles are allegedly won, neither Manziel nor Griffin bother to remove their coats because they have no intention of staying long. The offensive script is swell, but improvisation invites the spectacular … or the disastrous, particularly when messing with NFL defenses.  

And then there’s the off the field. What’s the word I’m looking for … “stuff.” Manziel and Griffin are bright, charismatic young men who seek attention like high school girls with eyes on the homecoming court. They aren’t just Johnny and Robert — they are (and perhaps more comfortably) Johnny Football and RGIII.

Griffin hasn’t met an endorsement he didn’t like and is constantly in the news (even if his headlines have to be passive-aggressively manufactured). While Johnny Football has been busy trade-marking slogans before playing a single down in the NFL, Griffin (or Prince?) has been unveiling a personal logo — a bold (or ridiculous?) move for an embattled quarterback coming off a rotten 3-13 campaign where his play was consistently horrendous and facing a huge, make-or-break season. Did I mention humility is a trait neither quarterback possesses in any detectable level?

Does the RGIII comparison assist those facing “The Manziel Dilemma?” Does it add some clarity to the franchise-altering decision, help general managers sleep at night, or have coaches opting out of rental agreements and buying long-term abodes? It shouldn’t.

RGIII is flawed, maybe fatally, and so is Johnny Football. Manziel will create a circus, and if the tent isn’t big enough for his liking, the quarterback himself will enhance the act. Like Griffin, Manziel will make amazing, jaw-dropping plays. However, his whirling-dervish style will also flirt heavily with catastrophic accidents. Bone crunching, quarterback-breaking plays will happen — eventually. In the NFL, 11 mean, athletic dudes with really bad intentions line up every play with the opposing quarterback in their crosshairs. Venture across the line of scrimmage and into their realm enough, and consequences will be realized. The savvy scramblers get this. They understand the limitations and the value of being present for the next play. But Griffin and Manziel? Their hero complexes override rational thought in competitive moments. Their control panels lack an abort option. Choosing abort would mean quitting on a play, and players like these Texas quarterbacks have a hard time discerning when the play is beyond their super powers. There’s no burning building they can’t escape, no force of evil they can’t defeat — it’s genetic wiring that is both a blessing and a curse.   

So, if I’m a team hurting at the most important position in team sports, I pass on Manziel? Not necessarily. Washington paid a heavy price to acquire Griffin, but his presence has unquestionably been a positive force on an organization beaten down by mostly two decades of bad football. He provided hope for the hopeless. Griffin has made impossible plays and broken his body trying to make others. He won a division in 2012 then, coming off a serious injury, prematurely forced himself back behind center in 2013 to the detriment of his team. His ego contributed to his first NFL coach being fired, but his talent and potential helped convince another coach (Jay Gruden) and a star wide receiver (DeSean Jackson) to choose D.C. over other suitors. In all, the ‘Skins are better for No. 10’s presence. 

Will Manziel’s offer much of the same? Will he, too, create a highlight reel and sustain injuries trying to add to it? Will he throw spectacular touchdowns and dubious interceptions? Will he create distractions for and add legitimacy to his franchise? Might he make or break a coaching staff? Will Johnny Football sell jerseys, be corporate America’s latest golden boy, and make anything possible on Sundays? The confounding answer is yes on all accounts. It’s a reality experienced by Washington during the last two seasons; it will be reality for whoever drafts Manziel.

Knowing this, would you stake your NFL future and burn a high draft pick on Johnny Football? It matters little. Someone will. The NFL is divided between teams with and those without elite — or potentially elite — quarterbacks. Manziel and Griffin possess the talent to convert an NFL “have not” to a “have.” That means something, and it’s why teams are so consistently willing to gamble on quarterbacks high in the NFL Draft. It’s why the ‘Skins paid a king’s ransom for Griffin, and it’s why someone will slap their cap on Manziel’s head and send him to the podium for a grip and grin with Roger Goodell. Teams need hope; teams need quarterbacks. On May 8, 2014, Manziel’s name will be called early, as Hunter S. Thompson would say, “for good or ill.”