December 18, 2014

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Excitement no problem with Johnny Manziel, but some wonder if QB’s game will thrive in NFL

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel eludes Alabama defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan last season. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel eludes Alabama defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan last season. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The guy you can’t take your eyes off, and can’t stop talking about, is set to do it again.

It’s second-and-7 from the Duke 19-yard line in the second half of the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve, and the impulsive quarterback thinks he has no one open.

He moves up in the pocket, leaps a would-be tackler, bumps into one of his linemen, turns and runs away from the line of scrimmage, rolls left, gathers himself and lofts a touchdown pass.

He celebrates like the 21-year-old he is. He jumps around with teammates and coaches, heads to the bench, stands on it and incites the Texas A&M crowd.

Johnny Manziel is impossible to fit into a nutshell, even if he’s only 5-foot-11¾, 207 pounds. The first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, in 2012, is way too complex a personality to fully describe in a sentence, paragraph or article.

But the snapshot from his final collegiate game — which the Aggies won 52-48 after deficits of 21-3, 28-10, 35-17 and 38-17 — sheds considerable light on what he is as a quarterback.

And why NFL teams are having such a difficult time projecting him into the league and deciding where he’s worth drafting.

“I’d catch myself every game just going, ‘wow,’” Texas A&M coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital told The Chronicle-Telegram. “He just goes out there and makes it happen. You can’t coach that.”

Spavital immediately acknowledged the headaches that come with such free-spirited artistry at the game’s most important position. An NFL coach who demands precision, sticking to the script and playing from the pocket would pull out his hair trying to break Manziel of his habits.

The juxtaposition is why Manziel could be rated in the top five on one team’s draft board and in the third round on another’s. He’s a possibility for the Texans with the top pick but could also slide into the second round.

Browns general manager Ray Farmer, coach Mike Pettine and coordinator Kyle Shanahan have spent tons of time in the last three months discussing Manziel. The Browns have the fourth pick and could be staring at Manziel at about 8:30 Thursday night.

Is he worth a top-five pick?

“It’s tough to say. I would take him. I’m biased,” Spavital said. “I try not to answer that question too much. He’s very talented. In the right situation he can have a very successful career.

“What you see with Johnny is what you’re going to get. He’s going to be a very entertaining kid to watch. Who knows what’s going to happen. He’s going to compete. It could look great, it could look awful, but he’s going to try to move the ball.”

Manziel was redshirted, then started two years before declaring for the draft. He completed 69 percent for 7,806 yards with 63 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. He also rushed 343 times for 2,162 yards, a 6.3 average and 30 touchdowns.

The “magic” of great instincts and quick feet is undeniable. But Manziel will ignore easy throws in search of the big play, can be too quick to abandon the pocket, doesn’t have an elite arm and is susceptible to injury with his frame and willingness to take on a defender.

“There’s going to be times where you need to take off and get outside the pocket and extend plays,” Manziel said at the scouting combine. “But at the same time I want to be a guy who can drop back and go through my progressions, go through my reads and really take what’s given to me by the defense.”

The Browns worked out Manziel privately and hosted him for a visit that included time with owner Jimmy Haslam. Shanahan is known for the versatility of his system, but he prefers a quarterback that can threaten the defense with his mobility, particularly on rollouts.

“It’s obvious how good of a player he is, how fun he is to watch,” Shanahan said. “I think it does translate to the NFL. If you can make those plays in college, you can do it in the NFL.

“The one thing about the NFL, there’s a lot of tape out there. You’ve got to be able to do everything. Whatever you do very good, they’re going to eventually be able to shut that down and you’re going to have to do something else. He’s going to be able to make plays in this league. Eventually when they try to contain him, he’s going to have to do everything he didn’t always have to do in college.”

Johnny Football is a great nickname for its simplicity. Johnny Fascinating, Johnny Fun, Johnny Polarizing would also work.

Even if a team can reconcile the reality that he doesn’t look like a typical Pro Bowler — in size nor style — it must answer multiple off-the-field questions.

Manziel, who comes from an oil family, was portrayed as spoiled and entitled as he traveled the country, hanging out with LeBron James, Drake and other stars. Even attending a Texas Rangers game last month drew attention because of the model that accompanied him.

“He’s under such a microscope,” Spavital said. “I laughed at that with him. People criticize everything about him.”

The list is long. Manziel reportedly was kicked out of a fraternity party at rival Texas, was asked to leave the Manning Passing Academy after missing an obligation, saw a counselor and was suspended for the first half of the opener last year for signing autographs for a memorabilia dealer.

“I was a kid who made some goofball decisions,” he told the Houston Chronicle and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “That’s been part of my journey. Maybe it’s part of the whole Johnny Football deal that I’m trying to get away from. I’m trying to show people I’ve grown up and I’ve learned from my experiences. I feel like you’re a stupid person if you continue to make the same wrong decisions.

“I don’t want to hear, ‘Oh, anybody in his situation would have been doing the same thing.’ I’m 100 percent responsible for my actions.”

Farmer and other GMs must decide for themselves if Manziel is a changed man or following great public relations lessons. He’s tried to reshape his image since the season ended, going through grueling workouts with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. and acting like a professional to prove his dedication to the sport.

“There is no entitlement,” Spavital said. “He’s just like one of the guys. His teammates like hanging out with him. Everybody does. They know Johnny has a little (stuff) to him, but when it comes down to Saturday they know he’s the guy you want on the field.”

Spavital said Manziel’s competitiveness makes him special.

“That’s what I love about him,” Spavital said. “He just competes. I’ve seen the kid hit home runs in batting practice in major league ballparks, shoot 79 at Pebble Beach, dunk a basketball.

“He’ll throw a club (on the golf course). In Xbox if he doesn’t win the game, he probably throws the controller through the wall. There’s no malicious intent. He just wants to win. He’s a very emotional player. If he doesn’t do well, he’s going to be (mad).”

If Houston, St. Louis and Jacksonville pass on Manziel, Farmer’s first draft will begin with a decision he could regret. Whether he takes Manziel or passes.

“If something happens, and it’s the Cleveland Browns, I’m going to pour my heart out for the Dawg Pound and try to win a Super Bowl for Cleveland,” Manziel told the Texas papers. “I don’t care if they’ve had 20 starting quarterbacks since 1999. I’m going to be the 21st and the guy that brought them the Super Bowl.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.

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