AKRON — “Johnny Football” made a much anticipated appearance Saturday at the Family Day scrimmage.
Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel, who was off his game during the first week of training camp, flashed some of his Heisman Trophy-winning playmaking ability in front of 20,673 at the University of Akron’s InfoCision Stadium.
Manziel went 3-for-7 for 14 yards passing and didn’t put up any points in his two possessions (not including red zone drills), but he ran twice for 14, was the victim of a drop in the end zone, excited the crowd and reminded everyone why he was the No. 22 pick in the draft.
“If he was a regular quarterback in this league, you’d be licking your chops,” linebacker Barkevious Mingo of seeing a quarterback leave the pocket. “But it’s Johnny Manziel.
“He can plant. He can take it the other way. We can’t hit him, but you just never know what he’s going to do. I love it unless it’s Johnny Manziel.”
Incumbent Brian Hoyer continued to take all the first-team snaps and compiled better numbers than his flashier counterpart, going 7-for-11 for 56. He had three possessions, ending with two punts against the starting defense and a 53-yard Billy Cundiff field goal against the second-team defense.
“I thought Brian, especially in that first series, converted some third downs and was poised in the pocket,” coach Mike Pettine said. “He stepped up and made some throws.”
Hoyer has been more consistent than Manziel but underwhelming through a week-plus of camp. He doesn’t appear to have a stranglehold on the starting job, and Pettine reiterated Manziel will soon see time with the starters.
“When camp began Brian was the one because we had to put somebody out there with the ones, but they were truly competing against each other and at some point we will mix the units,” Pettine said. “I think that it’s all part of our evaluation process.
“I think it was pretty clear they both did some really good things and they both did some things they would want to take back. I think the completion percentages might be affected because they were forced to throw the ball away a couple times.”
The star of the day, as it has been all camp, was the defense. It held the offense to two field goals – one on a drive led by third-stringer Tyler Thigpen – while getting into the end zone twice on interceptions of undrafted rookie Connor Shaw.
“We’ve got to remember how good our defense is,” Hoyer said. “It can be frustrating at times, but in the back of your mind you’ve got to know it’s good to have them on your side.”
Manziel has admitted his confusion with the complexity of coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s playbook and he’s been hamstrung by the restrictions of the scripted practices. Saturday was unscripted – Shanahan called the plays on the run like he would in a game – and Manziel’s improvisational and athletic skills were on display.
He rebounded from an ugly three-and-out to start his day by manufacturing a 17-play drive. He ran twice for 14 yards, including a 9-yarder on an option to pick up a first down. He also avoided a sack, extending the play long enough to draw a defensive holding penalty downfield.
It wasn’t all about his feet.
Manziel connected with undrafted rookie receiver Willie Snead for 14 yards to convert a fourth-and-4. He rolled right, stayed inbounds and fit in a 6-yard pass to undrafted rookie Jonathan Krause along the sideline. He threw a sidearm dart to receiver Charles Johnson at the goal line, but it was dropped. He lofted a beautiful ball into the corner of the end zone, but the official ruled tight end Gary Barnidge was out of bounds.
“He made a couple nice runs, made some nice throws,” Pettine said. “Where most quarterbacks would step out of bounds, he got two completions there.
“It’s clear to see we had some runs in for him and you could see that’s going to be a strength of his and some completions on the run. That’s certainly playing to his skill set.”
With a storm approaching, Pettine started the scrimmage about 20 minutes early and ended it more than an hour early. At least the crowd got to witness Manziel in his natural habitat.
“Kyle calls the plays to try to get on the edge and take those second-and-shorts and just try to move the chains,” said Manziel, who spent much of his time in the shotgun and pistol formations he used at Texas A&M. “It felt good to run, and I think the plays we executed on those worked really well.
“I was proud of my group, proud of the way that the O-line and the receivers and the running backs played. It was nice.”
Nice enough to close the gap on Hoyer in the competition that has captivated Browns fans?
“There’s no gap that I’m looking at right now,” Manziel said. “It’s know the playbook, know everything. There’s still so many little things here and there that can throw a play and change a play and a defensive look, and that’s stuff that I wasn’t used to. Now I’m seeing it, adjusting, learning. That’s what I’m doing is learning.”
For the Browns to have their best shot at winning during the season, the offense must improve in the red zone. Manziel couldn’t convert fourth downs from the 1 and 3, and Hoyer was intercepted by Mingo off a tipped ball on fourth down in his trip inside the red zone.
“That’s the one thing the offense has to learn, we have to convert when we get into the red zone,” Pettine said. “The field gets tight there, the defense can take some chances, and they did, and that’s something we’re going to get a lot of work on. That’s a four-point swing, we can’t get in the business of just settling.
“It’s something we’ll probably put an added emphasis on and we’ll get some more work. But other than that, I think we got a good rack of plays to watch, some good coaching moments. I thought our guys competed and still they took care of each other and hopefully we’ll be better coming out.”