July 31, 2014

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(UPDATED) Browns: Johnny Manziel practices at minicamp, says “I need to earn my keep”

Johnny Manziel talks to his teammates at rookie minicamp on Saturday morning. BRUCE BISHOP/CHRONICLE

Johnny Manziel talks to his teammates at rookie minicamp on Saturday morning. BRUCE BISHOP/CHRONICLE

BEREA — Johnny Manziel even looks cool stretching.

New quarterback Johnny Manziel stretches out during camp.

New quarterback Johnny Manziel stretches out during camp.

Manziel practiced in front of reporters Saturday morning for the first time as a member of the Cleveland Browns. During the 15 minutes of rookie minicamp open to the media — a large local pool of 40 — Manziel warmed up, handed off to running backs and even made three throws.

All completions to backs in the flat.

“We talked about the ‘it’ factor and he’s got it,” coach Mike Pettine said. “But we also think Brian (Hoyer) has it as well. I think all NFL quarterbacks have to have that swagger about them, that aura that it’s confidence and not cockiness. It’s a fine line. I think when he steps on the field based on what he’s done so far, and he’s earned it, that people look at him a little differently and expect a little bit more.”

Manziel walked the humble side of the line Saturday in a 10-minute interview following practice, the middle of three for the minicamp. That’s what owner Jimmy Haslam and Pettine wanted when they told him he’ll begin his career as a backup and to act like it.

“I took it in stride. I’m a rookie. I need to earn my place. I need to earn my keep,” Manziel said. “Nothing here needs to be handed to me. I don’t need to be treated based off what I’ve done in the past because that doesn’t mean a thing at this level. I was completely OK with hearing that from everybody. I don’t want to come in and have anything handed to me that I don’t deserve.”

Manziel, the No. 22 pick in the draft last week, played the part of run-of-the-mill rookie at perhaps the most anticipated rookie minicamp in history. He stretched between tight end Blake Jackson and kicker Trey Barrow – both in camp on tryouts – rotated with undrafted rookie Connor Shaw and tryout Corey Robinson during quarterback drills and exchanged a low-five after a routine handoff.

Manziel practices during rookie minicamp on Saturday.

Manziel practices during rookie minicamp on Saturday.

But the essence of Manziel, which has made him among the most popular athletes in the world, was obvious in the most mundane activities. His athleticism was apparent, as was his cool factor. During a stretch where the rest of the players raised their arms above their heads, he clasped his hands behind his neck as if he were relaxing by the pool.

“He’s a special guy,” said running back Terrance West, a third-round pick. “Johnny Manziel is special. He makes plays. That’s what you want on your team, you want somebody that’s going to make plays.”

The organization is trying to keep Manziel grounded and take away any sense of entitlement. Manziel, who won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman at Texas A&M, said humility isn’t a problem.

“I got passed up 21 times, so that says something,” he said. “Success came early (in college), but things never came easy, whether it seemed that way. I had to work extremely hard to get to where I was and overcome a lot.

“Getting passed up 21 times is never fun. It’s even humbling to be the second quarterback off the board. I don’t think I need to be humbled. I realize where I’m at in this organization and what I need to be doing, and that’s all I’m really focused on.”

Manziel said he’s been spending his time at the facility and the team hotel as he tries to learn the playbook and get acclimated to life in the NFL. He said he’s not spending much time on social media and downplayed the story of the draft-night text message he sent to Cleveland quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains that urged the Browns to trade up for him, which they did.

Wanting to play in Cleveland isn’t a given with professional athletes. What attracted Manziel?

“I think it’s a great opportunity for me. From Mr. Haslam to (GM) Ray Farmer to Coach Pettine to Coach Shanahan (Kyle, coordinator) to Coach Loggains all the way down, people wanted to win here and you got a sense of that,” he said. “They’re tired of losing. They’re tired of not having success.

“And I felt like for me, if I came here, the team had pieces. I watched the team last year. It was better than the year before. You had Pro Bowlers on the field. You have guys that are playing a lot better and a lot harder. I think they’re tired of losing as well, so if you get that attitude and you mix some live pieces in with the puzzle, you have a chance for success.”

Manziel was watched intently by the local media and Haslam, who stood in the middle of the field talking to Pettine. Missing were national media, who were barred by the Browns. ESPN set up a tent across the street from which to broadcast.

The Browns have been criticized nationally for not embracing the attention that comes with Manziel. But Pettine doesn’t want the Johnny Football persona to overshadow the team.

“It’s a concern. It’s something that we have to address,” he said. “We’re well aware of the persona. We’re well aware of what it brings. We’re excited about it. It’s something that we’re very willing to have come here, knowing that he has a chance to make us a better football team and a better franchise.

“It’s something that we weren’t going to turn away from, but as the head coach, it’s all about football for me and it’s all about the team. I know it already has and it probably continued to ruffle some feathers with how we handled some things — I’ll apologize in advance for that — but what we’re tasked as a staff to do is do what’s best for the football team. If there’s something that we feel that we can control that will limit the distractions that this will bring, then we’re going to go ahead and do it. It’s something that I know probably won’t be the most popular thing, especially on a national level, but we also feel that the credibility of the Browns, as far as what stock we have nationally, I don’t think we’re very highly thought of given the recent history of the team so it’s not really something we’re interested in playing into. We want to be in a situation where we want to kind of bunker in, build the best football team we can build and worry about winning football games in the fall.”

The Browns will have a hard time keeping a lid on the Manziel Mania. His jersey is the top seller among rookies, he’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week and he’s been headline news on ESPN and NFL Network for more than a week.

And the story is just getting started. A full-team OTA workout is open to media Wednesday, followed by mandatory minicamp in June and training camp in July. The hype will only grow.

At least outside the locker room.

“At first I was like, ‘Man, that’s Johnny Manziel.’ And then once you get to know him he’s a normal guy,” said guard Joel Bitonio, a second-round pick. “He’s fun to be around. He cracks some jokes. He works hard.

“He’s just a good teammate, that’s the Johnny Manziel I’ve known. I don’t think we’re worried about him being a crazy guy or anything like that.”

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

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