Johnny Manziel has swagger needed for a tough quarterback town

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 20, 2014 at 7:07 am •  Published: April 20, 2014
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Johnny Manziel seems to possess the chutzpah needed to overcome the inherent pressure he would face if the Cleveland Browns drafted him fourth overall on May 8.

Cleveland mercilessly chews up quarterbacks, boos them when they hit rock bottom and then practically discards them to the depths of Lake Erie. It takes a special type of mental toughness and fortitude for a player to believe he could become the face of the Browns and halt their pathetic streak of 20 starting quarterbacks since 1999.

Of the 256 prospects on the verge of being drafted next month, perhaps none is more polarizing than Manziel, a projected top-10 pick whose “Johnny Football” nickname was ingrained into pop culture during the 2012 season, when he became a star at Texas A&M and the first freshman in NCAA history to win the Heisman Trophy.

Concerns about his size, playing style and character cause many analysts to question whether he’ll be able to succeed in the NFL. On the other hand, the playmaking ability he displayed during his two collegiate seasons is undeniable, and his attitude proved to drive his success.

Former Massillon, Ohio, quarterback George Whitfield Jr. has developed an intimate knowledge of Manziel’s determination while serving as his private coach the past two years. Whitfield has seen similar competitive streaks in notable students and former No. 1 overall draft picks Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.

“They have an over-my-dead-body mentality that, ‘This is going to go down today, I am not coming off the field today and losing, over my dead body,”‘ Whitfield said in late February at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. “Sometimes I hear people say, ‘Well, everybody’s competitive. Well, everybody plays hard.’ Yeah, but there’s a difference.”

Whitfield loves analogies almost as much as good footwork from his pupils, so he draws a distinction between competitive guys and their ultra-competitive counterparts in these terms: Competitive guys will play hard in a game of pickup basketball, but they’ll usually admit when they commit a foul and generally display good sportsmanship. Ultra-competitive guys will wipe the floor with their opponents and sincerely ask, “You want to get your (butt) kicked again?”

Manziel reminded everyone which category he falls into when he finished 30-of-38 passing for 382 yards and four touchdowns along with 73 rushing yards and another touchdown to help Texas A&M rally from a 21-point halftime deficit and stun Duke, 52-48, in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

“I play the game with a lot of heart and a lot of passion that really is unrivaled,” Manziel, who grew up in Kerrville, Texas, said at the combine. “It’s the way I was brought up.”

Perhaps Manziel’s cockiness intrigues the Browns.

One had to wonder whether coach Mike Pettine had Manziel in mind while he talked about which characteristics he seeks in quarterbacks last month at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla.

“I’m looking for a guy that’s got that ‘it factor,’ not necessarily starting with the physical talent first,” Pettine said. “We are going to work out to see how they are physically, but at the same time do a lot of homework from a background standpoint, talking to guys, people they’ve played with, coaches, just trying to see who has that ‘it factor.’ You see a lot of guys that have the physical talent to play, and there’s just something missing. I think you’ve seen a lot of guys that have overcome not having a huge arm, not being the fastest. They’ve overcome it with the intangibles.”

Questions loom

The challenge in evaluating Manziel lies in trying to gauge his chances of triumphing without fitting the mold of a prototypical NFL quarterback. He measured 5 feet, 11 ¾ inches and weighed 207 pounds at the combine.

Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is among those in the league who view Manziel with skepticism.

“Evaluation is a comparison business,” Arians, a former Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator, said at the owners meetings. “If you’re 6-5, 230, run a certain time, there’s like 35 guys I can compare you to that have been successful in this league. If you’re 5-11, there’s two, unless you go back to Fran Tarkenton: Doug Flutie and Russell Wilson. That’s not real good odds to me. You still might make it, but history says no.

“Just because you’re 5-11 doesn’t mean you can’t be successful. Johnny has magic. . . . Playing against Flutie in college, that wasn’t fun. He had that magic, too. But it took him a long time to be successful in the National Football League.”

Size seems to be even more valuable in the AFC North, where games are played in cold-weather cities and dominant defenses often lurk. What Manziel lacks in height and weight, he might actually be able to compensate for, at least to some degree, with 9 7/8-inch hands.

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