Feelings surrounding Cleveland Browns backup quarterback Johnny Manziel are certainly mixed. Ranging from Tony Grossi of ESPN Cleveland on Friday saying that the team “by all appearances” is “moving on” from Manziel, to Manziel’s teammate, left tackle Joe Thomas, believing that Manziel will someday be an NFL starter, prognostications about Manziel’s future are both fatalistic and optimistic as of late.
Whether or not Manziel will ever become the Browns’—or any team’s—starting quarterback is unknown. What we do know is that, at least for now, Cleveland’s starter is Josh McCown. McCown is entering his 13th season in the NFL and the Browns are his seventh team. A career journeyman, that journey has brought him to Cleveland to not only serve as a mentor to Manziel and fellow second-year passer Connor Shaw, but to also be the Browns’ starter in Week 1 and, in a perfect world, all 16 games. After all, he is making up to $14 million over three years and has $6.25 million in guaranteed money. This isn’t the kind of cash spent on a veteran benchwarmer.
And that’s fine. McCown’s presence in Cleveland might be the best thing for Manziel at this young point in his career. In fact, if you find yourself firmly in Manziel’s corner, then supporting McCown is not withholding support from Manziel. A vote for McCown in 2015 can be a vote for Manziel in the long term.
We all know what happened in Manziel’s rookie year. In a barely-there competition between himself and Brian Hoyer, Hoyer won out. It wasn’t until internal pressure collided with a increasingly struggling Hoyer late in the 2014 season that Manziel took the field. In two starts and five on-field appearances, Manziel completed only 51.4 percent of his passes, for zero touchdowns and two interceptions while being sacked three times. He also ran nine times for 29 yards and a score. He was not the “Johnny Football” of his collegiate days nor did he even seem vaguely capable of helming an offense as a rookie. He admitted, multiple times, to being unprepared, overwhelmed and unprofessional and ultimately spent two months in rehab in the 2015 offseason to try to correct these problems. Recommitted to football, Manziel’s coaches and teammates have seen the change in him. But on-field results—in a small sample size, given we’re not even in the mandatory minicamp portion of the offseason—have been mixed.
Our own Fred Greetham reported following Day 1 of OTAs that Manziel, working with the second team, started out rockily, being picked off by cornerback K’Waun Williams but then “bounced back and completed several passes to TE Gary Barnidge, WR Travis Benjamin with zip on the ball.” Kevin Jones of the Browns’ official website was even more generous, describing Manziel on Day 1 as “dialed in from the start, much like he’s been since he arrived back in Berea.” Grossi, in typical fashion, was far less forgiving, describing Manziel’s brief body of work thusly: “The only day media were allowed in to view one of the three OTA practices, Manziel looked unchanged from his rookie year. He was not assertive with knowing where to go with the ball and ran too much for an OTA practice.”
These reviews, though, are not byproducts of Manziel-related schizophrenia; instead, they are real-time updates about a quarterback who is thoroughly a work-in-progress. The making of an NFL quarterback is not always smooth—actually, it rarely is. The swift developments of Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson in recent years has in many ways spoiled us into thinking that a quarterback shouldn’t need time to come into his own. But the truth is, every quarterback is different, every situation is different and when it comes to Manziel, throwing him into the fire much as Luck and Wilson were would be the worst thing for his long-term chances in the NFL. Without McCown taking those first-team reps, the scrutiny on Manziel would be greater, the pressure that much higher and, right now, Manziel needs as little of either as possible.
Grossi may believe that there is, and will be, no competition between Manziel and McCown. But there’s no way he can know that—not when head coach Mike Pettine said himself that any would-be competition would not begin until July’s training camp. Pettine, in speaking to the assembled media after the team’s rookie minicamp in early May, said, “We're not going to start talking competition. Josh, like I said will more than likely be the starter going into camp and in the foreseeable future I don't see that changing.” He didn’t say that because Manziel lacks talent or because he never expects Manziel to be ready, but rather to allow Manziel to focus on himself before turning his attentions toward a battle with McCown: “To me it's what I've said on Johnny so far that to me we want him essentially with horseblinders on. Focus on his job, getting up every day, perfecting his craft, whatever it is, homework that the quarterbacks have or come out and working on his footwork, his releases, that he's much more concerned about himself than really anything else,” said Pettine.
For the second year in a row, Manziel is learning a new offensive system. He has a new coordinator and a new quarterbacks coach. Two of the Browns’ expected starting wideouts—Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline—are new to the team, as is tight end Rob Housler. Manziel also spent just two years learning—and only barely mastering—his collegiate system at Texas A&M before heading to the NFL and then struggled to learn Kyle Shanahan’s offense a year ago. Manziel has faced more changes than some quarterbacks experience in their entire professional careers, and changes equate to challenges when it comes to a deceptively complicated sport like football. Manziel is still trying to learn what it means to be a quarterback on the professional level, let alone what it means to be a quarterback in Cleveland, let alone what it means to be a starter. Manziel needs to take these baby steps in order to get where he eventually wants to be. McCown’s presence on the roster is a gift to Manziel’s development. In the situation he’s in now, he will never be asked to do too much, too soon.
Manziel’s collegiate career was a master class in myth-making. But that mythology has become an albatross hanging around his neck. The Myth of Manziel has carried with it unwarranted expectations on what his career should look like. These expectations, it should be noted, are all from the outside—you, me, Grossi, everyone has an opinion on what and who Manziel should be and when. We all want, so desperately, for Manziel to be the cure-all to the Browns’ longstanding woes that we have put more responsibility on his shoulders than even his actual coaches. But, really, what we are talking about here is a kid, a child, one who has admitted to making numerous mistakes along his path to where he is now and, as such, has a lot more work to put in to get where he—and I suspect, all of us—want him to be. By sitting behind McCown, he can focus on that work. Manziel being the Browns’ No. 2 quarterback for the foreseeable future is a way to protect him. He’s far too vulnerable right now to even be in competition with McCown, and that’s fine.
After all, it’s not like McCown is this monolithic quarterback, an unbeatable foe. McCown had one five-game stretch in 2013 filling in for Jay Cutler in which he looked as good as any of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. Otherwise, he’s a soon-to-be 36-year old quarterback who has a career completion percentage of 58.8 percent, one who has thrown just two more touchdowns to interceptions in 12 years in the league. While McCown knows how to move from one team to the next, one coach to the next, one group of receivers to the next and how to do so with confidence, that advantage could easily be negated by Manziel’s continued improvement. McCown is better suited to handle the situation the Browns are in, right now. But that doesn’t mean Manziel will never catch up.
For now, it’s better that Manziel is playing his catch-up with the second-team offense. McCown being the starter does not put pressure on Manziel—instead, it takes a lot of the pressure off of him. It buys Manziel time that he wouldn’t otherwise have. If Manziel succeeding is what you ultimately desire, then the best way to support him is to support McCown being Cleveland’s starter, for now, for Week 1 or for however long it takes. Take a cue from Manziel and embrace the process.
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