Browns

Browns ABC’s: Anticipating Brett (Favre) Comparisons, Week 13

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Do you think there was much national attention paid to Johnny Manziel returning to a starting role on Sunday against the 49ers?

One of my wife’s favorite writers is New York Times Food Editor, Sam Sifton, who is also the editor of the fabulous (and free) treasure trove of recipes, cooking.nytimes.com. In his Sunday morning “What to Cook” column Mr. Sifton wrote, “Football is on the docket for the afternoon, as Johnny Manziel returns to the quarterback slot for the Cleveland Browns in a matchup against San Francisco, his first start since being benched for his off-field antics after passing for a career-high 372 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 15. We’ll be frying chicken for that …”

Sifton’s pedigree and curriculum vitae have the ring of an exceptional talent. So, no surprise he’s a terrific writer, but weighing in on the Browns? On Johnny Manziel?

His opinion for a Sunday menu at game time is an “awesome” fried chicken recipe paired with a “crusty mac and cheese” dish. His opinion on the Browns? “Second chances are for professionals. In high school, that kid would still be benched.”

Attention Earthlings: Is there anyone among your species without an opinion about the one you call Johnny Manziel?

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Brett Favre was born on October 10, 1969 in Gulfport, Mississippi. He was a multi-sport star athlete in high school and went on to play football at Southern Mississippi which was the only school to offer Favre a scholarship—they wanted him to play defensive back. So you think demotion to third-string QB is a come-down? Favre started his freshman year as USM’s seventh-string quarterback, but by midway through the third game of the season against Tulane, Favre, despite having arrived at the game with a hangover and vomiting on the field during warmups, got his chance. He led his team to a come-from-behind victory with two touchdown passes.

In July 1990, before his senior season, Favre was involved in a near-fatal, one-car accident when he flipped his car going at high speed around a curve. Due to the internal injuries he suffered, doctors had to remove 30 inches of his small intestine. Only six weeks after the accident, on Sept 8, Favre quarterbacked Southern Miss to another come-from-behind victory, this time over Alabama. Gene Stallings, Alabama’s coach, said of the game, “You can call it a miracle or a legend or whatever you want to. I just know that on that day, Brett Favre was larger than life.”

In his four years at Southern Miss, he completed 613 of 1,169 passes (52.4%) with 52 touchdowns and 34 interceptions (that’s a lot of interceptions) and a college-career rating of 116.4. Many of Favre’s USM career passing records stood for twenty years until a quarterback named Austin Davis broke them.

The first NFL team to give Favre a workout prior to the 1991 draft asked him to run a 40-yard dash, at the conclusion of which, Favre knelt over and got sick on the field, the predictable symptom of his previous night’s heavy drinking. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to notice a pattern here.

After Atlanta drafted him in the second round, Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville (apparently not on board with Favre’s selection) declared it would take a plane crash for Favre to get into a real game, and after the 1991 season the Falcons traded him.

Favre went on to a career spanning 20 years, most of it with the Green Bay Packers. The parts of his game that were spectacular on the one hand, and hair-pullingly frustrating for his coaches on the other, are reflected by the many NFL records he holds: Most career pass attempts and completions, most career interceptions, most career starts by a player, most sacked, most career victories as a starting quarterback, most fumbles.

And then there’s this: In 1996, Favre was temporarily banned by the NFL from drinking alcohol after he admitted his addiction to Vicodin. Favre spent 46 days at a drug rehab clinic before the start of the 1996 season. Given his proclivity for hard living, it’s the longevity-related records that seem most unfathomable.

Favre completed 6,300 of his 10,169 career passes (62%), with 508 touchdowns, 336 interceptions (an NFL record), 166 fumbles (also an NFL record), and a career quarterback rating of 86.0. In today’s NFL, that rating would rank him at No. 25, between Matt Ryan of Atlanta and Jameis Winston of Tampa Bay. Favre, however, whose nickname became “The Gunslinger,” had that competitive, fearless quality that one of his coaches referred to as “magic.”

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The coach, Tom Rossley, spent a lifetime coaching at the college and professional levels and was the Packers offensive coordinator from 2000-2006. Rossley felt Favre had the strongest arm he’d ever seen, maybe the strongest arm that ever played in the NFL. But practically everything Favre did in the way of mechanics was wrong by conventional standards. And yet he had this ingredient Rossley called magic, an incredible sixth sense of knowing what was happening on the field, an uncanny sense of where the defenders were when he was in the pocket and how to avoid them, the ability to throw on the run, to throw across his body. And yet, even casual fans, surfing the channels looking for a game to watch and happening upon a Packers game, would be just as likely to see Favre throw a boneheaded interception in the red zone or lose a crucial fumble as to see him rally his team back from the abyss.

It was the same Tom Rossley who perhaps had more influence than anyone with Johnny Manziel playing at Texas A&M. Rossley, the quarterbacks coach under head coach Mike Sherman, scouted him, got close to his parents, and convinced the Manziel family that his initial commitment to play for Oregon was not in Manziel’s best interest, that he was a Texas high school legend and should play in his home state. Size be damned, Rossley convinced Sherman that Manziel was their guy.

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During the Browns 24-10 win over the San Francisco 49er’s on Sunday, Johnny Manziel’s Favre-style magic was on display as well as some of the stuff that causes a coach, if he has any, to pull his hair: Moving around in the pocket to find a passing lane and throwing with quick releases and an assortment of arm-angles; scrambling to keep a play alive, keeping his eyes downfield, finding open receivers, and throwing accurately on the run. On the other side of the ledger were those moments when perhaps he believed a little too strongly in the magic, holding the ball too long and getting sacked, or trying to hit a target that was in the defender’s pocket.

On the interception Manziel threw toward the end of the first half, Fox analyst Brady Quinn said that Manziel committed the “cardinal sin of throwing across his body,” a curious statement because a sizable percentage of Manziel’s passes are thrown across his body. The throw that was intercepted was a bad decision, but mechanics? With his improvisational mechanics (off the wrong foot, or with improper body positioning) Manziel will squander a scoring opportunity in the red zone with an inaccurate throw on one play, and thread the needle for a touchdown on the next.

Manziel’s scrambling (including what he did on Sunday against the 49er’s) has been described in almost identical terms as that of Favre — having an uncanny ability to sense where the defenders are, even without seeing them, pirouetting to avoid direct hits by defenders. While these descriptions are accurate, it’s also true that Brett Favre suffered a significant number of concussions. He also holds the record for most interceptions and fumbles.

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At this juncture it’s fair to ask: What is to be made of some of the obvious similarities of the 20-year career of No. 4, Brett Favre, to the fledgling career of No. 2, Johnny Manziel? Favre played at 6-foot-2-inches, 222 pounds. Manziel is at 6-0, 210, but both have been noted for having big hands, strong arms and a quick release, although Favre had, by all accounts, an exceptionally strong arm. Both achieved success with unorthodox mechanics and the ability to scramble, extend plays, throw on the run, and, yes, across the body. Both have made their mark on the game with that “magic” ingredient Tom Rossley is so fond of citing, a fearless, highly competitive brand of the game, and the ability to come up big in the clutch. And yet, despite their success and fame, both have displayed a certain self-destructiveness, both on the field and in the comportment of their private lives.

Any conclusions we reach will inevitably be influenced by our own frame of reference, but it must be acknowledged that Johnny Manziel’s career began a full generation after Favre’s did, and some behavior that players “got away with” in the past, simply will not pass muster in today’s world.

On the purely football side of the equation, however, there is an interesting parallel in the career of Aaron Rodgers with the efforts now being made by Mike Pettine and the Cleveland Browns with respect to Johnny Manziel’s development. Rodgers came to the Packers in 2005 but hardly played at all in his first three seasons, only 59 pass attempts in seven games until he was named the starter in 2008. Rodgers was an astute student of the game and was fully aware of what an extraordinary talent Brett Favre was, although he was also aware of the fact that much of what Favre did on the field was quite different from what Rodgers had learned.

In his three-year apprenticeship, Rodgers got to watch Favre up close. Of that experience, he said, “For me, it was absorbing a lot of information from Brett, watching him, listening in the meetings, listening to him in the huddle, watching him in practice, and trying to figure out what I wanted to absorb into my game and what I wanted to change and do differently.”

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It was football genius, really. Rodgers was not only smart enough to notice the unique assets of Favre’s game, he was also able to describe them with enough detail so as to systematize his learning process. Favre may have worked his magic by pure instinct or muscle memory, but Rodgers discovered the principles behind the magic. In his words: “The one thing I really learned is, you have to have a real, innate sense about how each throw affects your body and really harness that instantaneous feeling/reaction about how each throw feels. So when you’re making a throw on the run to the left, eventually you learn you have to aim a little bit inside, because your  body is moving hard to the left, and then you compensate. Well, it’s the same thing in the pocket, when you throw a ball off your back foot or throw a ball moving hard to your left or up in the pocket — you really want to capture that feeling. I think that is what Brett did so well. He was really able to harness that feeling in his mind about how to put the ball in a spot he wanted based on what his body was doing and disconnecting often from his upper body and his lower body. He was able to harness those feelings and then could recall them in a split second to make a proper throw. As incredible as that might’ve looked sometimes, to Brett I don’t think it was that difficult, because he knew what that felt like, and he had that muscle ingrained in his mind so he could repeat that on multiple occasions, and that’s what gave him his advantages.”1

As regards Johnny Manziel, on the field or off the field, the Browns have been unwilling to “just let Johnny play.” The Browns seem to understand that would amount to coaching malpractice. They expect much more than a free-wheeling pickup game. The obvious question any responsible coach would ask of Manziel’s style of play is: In trying to take advantage of this unique skill set, why should we simply accept the preventable interceptions and fumbles, the unnecessary risks, sacks and injuries? Whether on the field, behind the wheel, or out in public, why should self-discipline be thought of as incompatible with the rest of his unique talents? These questions are not unlike the ones we ask about the seemingly self-combustive artists among us. Why should survivability and sanity be considered incompatible with creativity?

Against a better team, Manziel’s mistakes on Sunday, the errant throws, the interception, the safety called back because of the the facemask penalty, could have sent the outcome of the game in a different direction. Those kinds of mistakes are understandable given that he’s still in his apprenticeship, but this is not a very patient football town. Its eyes are not on the calendar. They’re watching the clock.

  1. From The QB, The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, by Bruce Feldman. []