Johnny Manziel, in good times and in bad – WFNY Top 10 Cleveland Sports Stories: No 3

Cleveland Browns Johnny Manziel
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Compared to the craziness of 2014, Cleveland Sports in 2015 came off as uneventful. The Indians failed to make the postseason — again. The Browns are perpetually a disaster on and off of the field. Nevertheless, as the year comes to a close, just as we have done the last seven years, WFNY will take a look at what we view to be the ten biggest sports stories to grace our local sports scene over the last 12 months. Each day through the rest of the year, we will be counting down from ten to one. Do enjoy.

On December 7, during a quiet and pleasant Monday evening, a local TV sports-talk program received a call from an irate fan who complained angrily to the panel of commentators, accusing Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine and his assistants of intentionally subverting the career of Johnny Manziel with a series of treacherous acts, including calling plays for him “which they knew would not work.” The caller even claimed the team’s mistreatment of Manziel amounted to “torture” and that this abuse forced Manziel to turn to alcohol.

This morsel probably says all that needs to be said about the irrational, polarizing nature of Johnny Manziel as a member of the Cleveland Browns.

But I’ll go on anyway … probably ad nauseam.

WFNY’s Top 10
Stories of 2015

No. 10: LeBron Rests, Cavs Make Moves
No. 9: Tristan Contract Madness
No. 8: Carlos Carrasco’s emergence
No. 7: Cleveland Browns, still a disaster
No 6: Kevin Love Remains a Cavalier
No. 5: Delly Fever
No. 4: Francisco Lindor’s arrival
No. 3: All Things Johnny
No. 2: December 29
No. 1: December 30

This is not in the running for story of the year because it’s interesting sports. It is, however, a fascinating commentary on the culture, on our obsession with the vacuous world of celebrity, and on how the ingredients of the reality show sometimes get stirred into the saucepan of reality.

The story, of course, began in 2014 with the NFL draft, with Manziel already established as the kind of celebrity that draws feeding frenzies of media, celebrating self-promotion and hedonism via social media. Leading up to the pick, one faction of Browns fans cheered for Manziel’s selection like teenagers anticipating the arrival of rock stars on stage, while another group, undoubtedly older and somewhat jaded, waited suspiciously, wondering what creative, new twist the Browns would add to the squandering of a first-round pick. The announcement of the Browns’ selection of Johnny Football (a registered trademark by then) and his grand entrance (money sign included) were the prideful symbols preceding the proverbial fall. At this point it’s a close call as to whose money sign is more memorable, Johnny Football’s or Cincinnati’s Brandon Thompson’s after he chased down Manziel and sacked him during the Bengals’ 30-0 shellacking of the Browns in December last year.

Beginning with reports that came out right after the draft and continued throughout the 2014 season, a steady stream of embarrassing stories gave hints of why Browns coaches were reluctant to play Manziel, but when he finally did get his chance, it was a mostly disappointing performance. It was not simply that he made typical rookie mistakes on the field, which would have been entirely understandable, but rather that he hadn’t thoroughly prepared, he didn’t know the playbook.

Whatever progress and continuity Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine may have achieved in their first season together, the offseason did not begin well. Not only was Dowell Loggains fired and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan granted his request to be released, there, again, on the horizon was the seeming vacuum at the quarterback position.

On the surface, Shanahan had various grievances, but virtually every one of them circled back to the coaches’ perception that the front office was tone deaf to the coaches’ judgments and opinions about talent. And at the center of the swirling controversy were those ever-present doubts about the viability of Johnny Manziel.

Even as the 2014 season ended with stories circulating about Manziel’s lack of preparation and professionalism, it got worse in early 2015 when he checked himself into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Pennsylvania for a ten-week stay. Around that time, one radio personality, who spoke of Manziel immediately after the Browns drafted him as a sure-fire future all-pro, gave an on-air confession in the Spring of 2015 that he was breaking up with Johnny Manziel. He sounded like a bitter, jilted lover. It was an embarrassingly absurd moment. Enter Monte Python’s Graham Chapman, in full British Army colonel regalia, stepping forward, riding crop in hand, barking at the skit participants, “Right, that’s it, stop it, stop it, it’s gotten silly.”

It is a fascinating commentary on the culture, on our obsession with the vacuous world of celebrity, and on how the ingredients of the reality show sometimes get stirred into the saucepan of reality.

Sometime between last season and this, Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine seemed to settle on a course of action: Pettine told Farmer, “Get me a quarterback,” and Farmer got one. They had Brian Hoyer, of course, but apparently Hoyer was unwilling to concede the starter’s job to anyone, much less serve as mentor to Johnnie Manziel, whose rookie season was described by one Browns player as a “100 percent joke.” So the Browns signed a 36-year-old Josh McCown.

McCown’s signing was another tripwire, triggering an ongoing war of words among fans and members of the media, but after McCown proved convincingly he wasn’t the bum he was accused of being, the new battlecry of the Quarterback Controversy Obsessives became, “He’s not the long term answer.” This growing sentiment, that McCown is not the long term answer, didn’t stop some fans and members of the media from suggesting during the off-season that the Browns trade for someone like Drew Brees. Never mind that Drew Brees, is six months older than McCown. Never mind that 38-year old Tom Brady is not the long term answer at quarterback for the New England Patriots, nor is 36-year old Carson Palmer the long term answer for the Arizona Cardinals. Never mind, especially, that no quarterback succeeds without a solid supporting cast.

After Manziel’s discharge from the treatment facility, he returned to the team and, by several accounts, he said the right things and got serious about learning his playbook and studying his craft. And, indeed, when eventually given the opportunity to play in 2015, the improvement was apparent. He showed progress and performed like a promising rookie. Of course, he wasn’t a rookie, but some fans seemed entirely willing to forgive his actual rookie year, wasted though it was.

Making 2015’s overheated edition of the Cleveland quarterback controversy even more of a red herring than usual has been the fact that of all the afflictions that have produced a team of near-historic on-field ineptitude, Browns’ quarterbacks have been the least of their problems. Josh McCown clearly won the starter’s job and played well, even while under unrelenting pressure from opposing defenses. Manziel, when he subbed for the injured McCown, has shown improvement. Even third-stringer Austin Davis held his own. Nevertheless, a vocal faction of fans and media, local and national, seem convinced that a different quarterback, namely Johnny Manziel, could very possibly turn this franchise around.

During the Browns’ bye week—prior to the rematch with the Baltimore Ravens, and perhaps against his own better judgment—Mike Pettine decided to hand the starting quarterback job to Manziel. But quicker than you can say, “The Johnny Manziel era has begun,” Manziel handed it right back with another display of video-recorded public boozing—and subsequent obfuscation of the facts. Following Manziel’s choice of how to celebrate his promotion to starter, a frustrated and weary Mike Pettine benched him, demoted him to third-string, and re-named Josh McCown the starter.

Against the Ravens on November 30, the plot thickened, as McCown’s season ended with a broken collarbone. Austin Davis replaced him in the loss to the Ravens and then played the entire game the following week against the Bengals.

Undaunted by his history, fans of Johnny Manziel, and undoubtedly some in the Browns organization still hopeful about his reclamation, continued to call for his reinstatement to starting quarterback. The new mantra: We have to see what we have in him. And so it was, on December 8, that the Browns announced Manziel would start the remainder of the season, beginning in San Francisco on December 13.

In the 24-10 Browns win over the lowly 49ers, Manziel had a quarterback rating of 92.1. In the Browns 30-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, his rating was 69.6. In the 17-13 loss against the hot and surging Kansas City Chiefs on December 27, he had a rating of 40.6. That leaves the season finale on January 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Will the questions about Manziel’s talent and potential get answered by his performance in these final four games of 2015? More importantly, will they ever get answered? His ardent fans (Manzealots, as some observers call them) are already hedging their bets, saying it won’t be a fair test because the Browns will not have surrounded him with supportive talent. Such arguments, used preemptively in Manziel’s defense—while derided when cited on behalf of the other two dozen Browns quarterbacks who have tried to succeed on lousy Cleveland teams—make this much less a question about the football team and a great deal more about one player.

As for the team’s success, a sizable percentage of fans simply don’t wish to be distracted by the facts. The fact, for instance, that quarterbacks on poor teams generally perform poorly and those on solid teams generally play well. Or the fact that some of the best quarterbacks in NFL history never won a thing because of the teams they played for: Baltimore Colts’ Bert Jones, New Orleans Saints’ Archie Manning.

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Josh McCown’s 2015 season ended with very respectable stats, a rating of 93.3. There were absolutely no doubts about his leadership, preparedness, reliability or toughness. In one very critical stat, his QB rating on third downs, McCown was at or near the top of the entire league, and this with a less than stellar offensive line and an average stable of receivers. Nevertheless, because McCown is 36 years old, and because he has played most of his career on bad teams, he has been labeled nothing better than the leftovers from a three-day-old supper.

The most important part of this story (and the least silly) is the idea of reform and redemption. It seems entirely within the American spirit to give the wayward son another chance, to resist the temptation to permanently write him off. The journey home for the prodigal, however, began with a profound recognition of the deplorable mess he had made of his wealth of opportunity, and a humble commitment to make amends. Whether Johnny Manziel has reached that stage in his journey back is still an open question. Perhaps he’s more disciplined on the field, but is he more disciplined off it? And even if more disciplined, is he good enough?

For almost two years a vocal faction of fans and media (local and national) has directed a steady stream of criticism at any Browns quarterback not named Johnny Manziel, almost as if Manziel shouldn’t have to endure the evaluation of his coaches or the competition of his teammates, as if the usual rules shouldn’t apply to celebrities. The demons of addiction are entirely content to have events unfold in this way, the willful denial of the obvious, deflecting blame toward others, downplaying the damage.

The saga will continue to play out … probably ad nauseam … and we’ll keep watching. The Browns and Johnny Manziel? Not exactly a match made in heaven, but for the moment, they remain together … for better or for worse. As for the team’s success, hey, let’s not get distracted. We have smaller fish to fry.