Hey, Johnny Manziel Critics: Lighten Up, Francis
By Steven King
All Johnny Manziel, all the time.
And that’s just the way it should be concerning the Cleveland Browns and their high-profile rookie quarterback.
History is on the side of that opinion – in more ways than one.
Indeed, all this angst – all these former party boys turned choir boys, do-gooders and holier-than-thous voicing their sentiment that Manziel needs to calm way down and be more professional, whatever that means – is nothing short of nauseating and, at the same time, comical and puzzling. And when it comes from people on the Browns, fans of the team and/or people living in Cleveland, it makes it even more so.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Paul Brown, the coach who put those first great Browns teams together from 1946-55, was as conservative and low-key as anyone can be. But he understood what Manziel has emphasized in his short stay in Cleveland – that is, football is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to make you smile. It’s supposed to be entertainment. We’re not splitting the atom here, attaining world peace, curing cancer, feeding the hungry or housing the homeless. This is sports – the candy store of life – for goodness sakes.
In 1938, when he was coaching the Massillon Tigers into the preeminent high school football program in the country, Brown had the school hire George Bird as its band director. Brown wanted to jazz up the band so that it was more appealing to the fans. Bird did just that, turning it into a swing band that was so good and so popular – almost as much as Brown’s football teams – that fans began coming just to watch the band. The rousing, upbeat style remains to this day, and so does the popularity of the Tiger Swing Band.
Bird followed Brown to Cleveland and put together something unheard of, the Musical Majorettes – an all-female band that played at Browns games – and, because it was so good and so much fun to watch, was also invited to perform at various events throughout the region.
Manziel is also very good and very much fun to watch.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, then-coach Sam Rutigliano built the “Kardiac Kids”. What transpired was the most spellbinding, entertaining and fun era in team history. These guys were characters – with character – with the way they played and won, most times right at the end of games. It wasn’t really football. It was theatre on a football field. Old-time Browns fans get goosebumps just thinking about those teams now.
And Rutigliano was leading the parade. The most quotable coach – by far – in team history, he conducted his press conferences as if they were stand-up routines and treated media members – and the fans – as if they were his audience.
In both 1978 and 1979, the Houston Oilers lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. After the second defeat, Oilers coach Bum Phillips said for his team to “kick in the door to the Super Bowl,”; they had to beat the Steelers.
But in 1980, it was the Browns who hopped over both the Oilers and Steelers and won the AFC Central title, clinching it in the regular-season finale with a 27-24 victory at Cincinnati that went down to the last play.
In the jubilant Cleveland locker room afterward, the quippy Rutigliano stepped into the middle of the party and quieted everyone down. “Guys, I’ve got my best line of the season: Bum Phillips kicked in the wrong door!”
His players loved it. The fans loved it. And they still do. It was the football in the fun, happy way that it should be played. Manziel would have fit right in with that team.
It’s like in the 1981 movie, “Stripes”, when a very serious U.S. Army soldier named Francis “Psycho” Soyer warns all of the men in his platoon at boot camp that if they do this or that or touch his “stuff,” he will kill them. Finally, at the end of the long, emotional speech, a subdued and dismissive Sgt. Hulka looks at Psycho and says, “Lighten up, Francis.”
They are a lot of people acting like Francis with their way-too-sobering comments about Manziel. So lighten up, all of you Francis types. The Browns, who haven’t experienced much fun and haven’t generated much fun for their fans in this expansion era, now have a player who likes to have fun. Instead of criticizing him, people – at least those in Cleveland – ought to be hugging him. Manziel gets it, just like Rutigliano got it and, even better, just like Paul Brown got it.
If only today’s team could duplicate the success of those early Browns and/or it could replicate the excitement of the “Kardiac Kids”, what a fun ride that would be. And if Manziel would end up playing a big role, then the ride would be just that much more fun.