Before the NFL Draft, Silence Is Golden for Johnny Manziel

Jason ColeNFL AnalystApril 29, 2014

Bleacher Report

Johnny Manziel has an answer to all the critics who worry about his freewheeling, celebrity-filled lifestyle getting in the way of being a successful NFL quarterback.

He’ll let his play on the field do the talking.

While Manziel has remained a darling of the media for his ability to stir reaction, that skill is primarily absent these days, and that's by design. Aside from an interview with two newspapers in mid-February, an obligatory interview later that month at the NFL Scouting Combine and an appearance on Jon Gruden's ESPN Quarterback Camp series (which has become practically mandatory for top quarterback draft prospects), Manziel has gone radio silent.

He made news when he signed with LeBron James' marketing agent and when his lawyer tried to copyright the phrase "The House That Johnny Built." But otherwise, could it be that Manziel is becoming, dare we say, judicious?

Has the guy who was doing everything from breaking NCAA rules to hanging out with Drake to partying at a University of Texas fraternity to being sent home early from the Manning Passing Academy matured?

George and Barbara Bush arrive for Johnny Manziel's pro day at Texas A&M.
George and Barbara Bush arrive for Johnny Manziel's pro day at Texas A&M.Patric Schneider

Or is he still some renegade who plays explicit music during his pro day workout as former President George Bush and his wife, Barbara, watch? Or the sort of guy who wears shoulder pads and a helmet at that same workout to cover his lack of size?

"If you really look at it, from the Manning Academy incident on, he has stayed out of the news for doing things wrong, and trust me, people have been looking for something," said former NFL personnel executive Phil Savage, who now runs the Senior Bowl and serves as a radio analyst for Alabama football.

If Manziel has matured, he isn't saying so, because he and his advisers think there's no reason to, as one person close to Manziel explained last week. First, Manziel is a newsmaker, no matter what the situation. Two weeks ago, ESPN reported that Manziel scored a 32 on the Wonderlic test (a good score, but hardly extraordinary). The network called that "big news," even though there is no correlation between Wonderlic scores and football success.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the only reason Manziel would have to talk would be to change perception. Again, Manziel and his advisers see no reason for that. He is completely comfortable with how he's perceived. Furthermore, most NFL teams have a pretty good understanding of him.

Former Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian.
Former Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian.Frederick Breedon

"Perception shouldn't and probably won't matter with the clubs," said former Indianapolis President Bill Polian, whose son was an assistant coach on the Texas A&M staff when Manziel was a freshman. "Hard data will matter, and they will have access to [former Texas A&M offensive coordinator] Kliff Kingsbury, [Texas A&M coach] Kevin Sumlin and anybody else who has coached Johnny in his career.

"I was there when he won the job in an [A&M] intra-squad scrimmage, and I know how the people there felt about him that year…he's all football when he's in the building."

So, based on what Polian had to say and the measured praise he gave to Manziel, teams at the top of the draft shouldn't worry about Manziel's love of a good road trip, his hobnobbing with rappers or rumors about his drinking habits.


"If he has a little success right away, he's going to be a nightmare," said an NFC scout who is prohibited by his team from commenting on the record about draft prospects. "He's going to think that his way of doing things works. … He could be really good. I love the kid. But he thinks the way he's doing things right now is perfectly OK, and he's going to learn some hard lessons at some point. You just hope it's sooner than later."

Aside from the standard concern about Manziel's size (he's 5'11" and 207 pounds after a heavy meal), there is his Brett Favre-ian habit of slinging the ball around as if defensive players don’t exist. At the college level, that has worked for Manziel, who followed up his Heisman season in 2012 with a better statistical season in 2013.

Still, some NFL personnel people think it's a matter of time before things go the wrong way.

"At this level, if the safety is sitting in coverage, you can't still throw the ball there," the same NFC scout said. "If the linebacker blitzes off the edge, you can't just keep running the play. If the corner is playing off and baiting you into throwing it, you can't just throw it there.

"Look, I love his guts and his makeup, and I think he has a chance to make it. But the way he works and the way he plays aren't good enough yet. If he realizes how hard this is, he'll work at it. He'll rise to the challenge. If he comes in and plays well for the first year or two, it's going to be a disaster in the long run."

Mike Zimmer at his introductory Vikings press conference.
Mike Zimmer at his introductory Vikings press conference.Ann Heisenfelt

Those remarks come after Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer publicly voiced his concerns about Manziel. The Vikings sat down with Manziel after his pro day workout at Texas A&M.

"We asked him all kinds of questions. We went to dinner with him the night after [his pro day]. We talked to him at the combine. There are some flags that come up," Zimmer said in a radio interview, referring to a tiny, non-speaking role Manziel had in a McDonald's commercial and the rumor of a pending deal with Nike.

"The position of quarterback in the NFL is such an important position, and the reason these guys need to be a totally football-minded guy is the pressure of the position and being the face of an NFL team and doing everything right.

"That's the thing you want to know about him: Will he be in to work early every single day? Will he be the last to leave? Will he be the guy that is working the hardest to get better?"

While Zimmer's comments raised concern, they also require perspective. Zimmer is known for his brutal honesty, even when it's meant to be constructive. He tends to fire first and pay compliments later. Furthermore, Zimmer has privately expressed to several people that he likes Manziel a lot.

Kliff Kingsbury, left, and Johnny Manziel at 2012 Heisman ceremony.
Kliff Kingsbury, left, and Johnny Manziel at 2012 Heisman ceremony.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

That doesn't mean that other people have the same perspective. ESPN's Colin Cowherd took Zimmer's remarks to another level, saying Manziel suffers from a "narcissistic personality disorder."

All of that amuses Kingsbury, who is now the head coach at Texas Tech.

"The people who wonder about his work ethic or desire to be great haven't talked to anybody involved in the program with him," Kingsbury said. "Yeah, did he generate unbelievable attention? Absolutely, I've never seen anything like what he went through [in 2012].

"After he went into Alabama and beat them, there must have been 10,000 people waiting for us when we got home. You don't understand, Johnny made it cool to go to Texas A&M."

That hadn't been the case, Kingsbury said, since John David Crow went there from 1955 to 1957.

"He understands exactly what it takes to be great and what he needs to do. He's completely focused," Kingsbury said. "Yeah, he's unconventional, and you think that it's not always going to work, but then you get him out there and nobody can knock him down."

Along those same lines, Savage pointed out two significant facts about Manziel. First, he is one of only two quarterbacks to ever play better the second time facing a Nick Saban-coached team at the college level. The other quarterback is Drew Brees. Second, in the four years before Manziel played for Texas A&M, the team was 26-25. In the two years with him, the team was 20-6.

"After everything he did as a freshman and all the stories you heard, I thought there was no way he was going to come back this season and be any good," Savage said. "But he didn't just come back and play well, he played better than the year before. He's a gamer, and he's going to figure it out. The game is not too big for him, and when you really look at it, he doesn't take a lot of those big shots you worry about because he'll tip-toe out of bounds or slide."

Johnny Manziel on the run in loss to Alabama.
Johnny Manziel on the run in loss to Alabama.David J. Phillip

Savage then went back to the Alabama game this season when the Crimson Tide outlasted Texas A&M, 49-42, after Manziel got the Aggies off to a 14-0 lead.

"Alabama had nine months to get ready for him, and it looked like they had never seen him before. The first two drives, it was like he was playing against air. He has a Houdini-like ability to make something happen.

"Alabama eventually got control of the game, but you just had the feeling that if he had gotten the ball just one more time, he would have tied it up. I know that's how everybody in the stadium felt…including Alabama.

"He makes you hold your breath."

On and off the field.


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