AFC North: Johnny Manziel's Rookie Season

Johnny Manziel had a rocky rookie season, but his jerseys sold well enough in the offseason that he ranks fifth in the NFL in jersey sales at Dick’s Sporting Goods.

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That information came in a jersey sale report posted by the store. The page includes all kinds of interesting ways to compare jersey sales, and see how they progressed during the season.

Manziel’s sales ranked overall behind Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Luke Kuechly.

However, Manziel’s sales dropped as the season progressed.

Around the time of the draft, a chart on the the sporting goods site (click on Manziel's name) shows that Manziel had 55 percent of the jersey sales. That number was at 5 percent around the time of the season opener and at zero percent by season’s end. By comparison, New England quarterback Tom Brady was at 3 percent in May and 24 percent by last week.

In July, the NFL reported that Manziel's jersey led all sales at NFLShop.com.

Manziel is the fourth-ranked offensive player in jersey sales at Dick's, and the top rookie. The Browns ranked fifth in the league in overall jersey sales, behind Seattle, Denver, Carolina and Chicago. Joe Haden was the Browns' top selling defensive jersey, third overall, with Donte Whitner 21st. Offensively, Brian Hoyer was the second-ranked Brown, 28th among players on that side of the ball.
The latest Johnny Manziel headline came from TMZ Monday afternoon, and read: "Drinks thrown at Browns QB ... at Houston Nightclub."

Manziel
The story relates that Manziel was at Dekan in Houston late Sunday night when words were exchanged between patrons and Manziel, and that Manziel had a drink thrown at him. A photo shows Manziel giving someone the finger, though it does not state who. There also are photos of Manziel in two different shirts on the same night, a reference to the fact Manziel had to change his shirt.

TMZ reported Manziel did little wrong except respond to hecklers, and it quoted a friend named "J.R." This actually is a man named Jay R, who answered the phone at Dekan late Monday afternoon. He said he works for Sticky Promotions, and said he is the man in the photos on TMZ with Manziel and he was with Manziel the night of the alleged drink tossing. Here is the transcript of that phone interview with ESPN's Browns reporter Pat McManamon, in which Jay R says a drink "splashed" on Manziel, who did nothing wrong in the club:

Q. What happened?

Jay R: "We showed up to the club and we go to our section and a couple people noticed [Manziel]. It was not a promoted event; nothing was put out there like he was going to be there. It's just that any time he comes to the city we always hang out. He's a good person, never causes problems. He's cool.

"We get to our section and people are trying to take pictures. They were asked not to; the bouncers were telling people to put their cameras down. I mean, they all had their flashes on and were taking pictures. The bouncers kept telling them no, to put their cameras down. They're telling Johnny they're sorry. And out of nowhere a drink splashed on him. We were like, oh (no), and we immediately just got up and left the section, went out to our car and left.

"When we got back to our place I called and made sure that party was removed and we ended up going back and moving to a new section."

Q: What about the photo of Johnny giving the finger?

Jay R: "I didn't see that. I don't know when that picture was taken. I don't remember him doing that. It all happened so quick. We weren't even there a couple minutes."

Q: If you're friends with Johnny do you worry about him being in these situations and portrayed the way he is?

Jay R: "The thing is, in the situation people are trying to make something out of nothing. That whole blowup happened, and Johnny Manziel had nothing to do with it. It was an angry fan or somebody who didn't like him. It was something, but nothing of the caliber it's being made to be. People are always attacking Johnny. We were there a couple minutes and it all happened real quick."

In the week since the season ended, Manziel has been photographed or videoed in Miami Beach and now Houston.
BEREA, Ohio -- Johnny Manziel walked out of the locker room for the last time and walked into the next eight months, whatever he wants those to be.

The player that once thrived in the spotlight knows the only way to survive with the Cleveland Browns is to thrive out of it.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneThe Browns are surely hoping that Johnny Manziel shows growth on and off the field this offseason
Manziel seemed deflated, defeated, clearly flustered with how a night out and tardiness to a treatment session the next morning punctuated his shaky rookie year. There was no optimism to sell during his exit news conference Monday, just an opening statement expressing how irate he was about the reports that he threw a party Friday night.

His words suddenly carried less weight and he knew it.

"It's about being accountable and doing what I'm gonna say instead of looking like a jackass,” Manziel said.

Manziel must know the late-night persona will follow him from Cleveland to Texas to Las Vegas. This is who he is, until he isn’t. Only time, on-field production and life in the shadows can change that now. The rope has shortened. The Browns have a practice field full of unforeseen distractions and can’t fit much more.

The thing that irks some Browns players isn’t just that Manziel didn’t show up for team activities on time. It’s that his lack of production compounds the mistakes. In other words, Manziel is talented but not enough to act up. Produce before you start missing team activities. And, really, if Manziel was 6-1 as a starter but missed a team meeting, would people care as much?

Call for the Browns to cut Johnny Manziel if you wish -- I don’t see it. Don’t see the Browns doing it. It makes no business sense, for one. He’s a quarterback with upside under a cheap rookie deal. Give him a full offseason. See what he does, how he responds. Blowing up a first-round quarterback pick after seven quarters would be a colossal blemish on Ray Farmer’s recently purchased watch.

But some fans have cut him in their minds. They’ve turned on him, or at least social media suggests that. The swing from love to hate has been severe. Fans are reactionary but Manziel seems to generate the love-hate by nature. All offseason, fans loved the guy -- until he played.

If a veteran starts Day 1 next year and Manziel’s on the bench, the cries for Manziel might soften. The new quarterback might not get the Brian Hoyer look-over-your-shoulder treatment because the Johnny Football bulb has dimmed a bit. That wouldn’t be a bad thing at all for Manziel -- for the Browns, really. Then the natural quarterback progression commences and Manziel can earn the job if and when he’s ready to do so.

Really, truly ready. The cameras are waiting. What will he do? Or maybe they won’t be waiting. Maybe he’ll step out and nobody will be there.

That’s the cue that it’s time to get back to work.
A few takeaways from the tumultuous end to the Cleveland Browns season, and from Mike Pettine and the Browns’ postseason wrap-up:
  • Haden
    Joe Haden has a unique view of the struggles of Josh Gordon, Johnny Manziel and Justin Gilbert because Haden went through his own struggles with a four-game suspension for using Adderall in 2012. “I don’t want to be the one to just beat them down,” Haden said. “I really like them as teammates. People make mistakes and I’m all about giving second chances.” Haden grew into a team leader the year after his suspension, and he’s been to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons. “The biggest thing for me was I didn’t want to have anybody looking at me like they couldn’t trust me,” Haden said. “Your word is everything.”
  • The quarterback position remains as jumbled as it’s ever been. Pettine admitted as much when he said the “quarterback picture is muddy at best.” That’s hardly encouraging for a team that did make strides this season, improving from four to seven wins. But when the most important position on the team is muddy, the rest of the team is muddy as well. It’s hard to believe that after 16 seasons, people are asking the same questions about the quarterback that they asked after the first season back in 1999.
  • Then again, there’s this take from Jordan Cameron on the constant quarterback question. “That’s a question that’s been asked the last 10 years. When you know that answer, let the Browns know.”
  • Do the Browns want Brian Hoyer back? Pettine said he will be considered as one of the options, but then he also said this: “I think Brian did some really good things for us. I don’t know where Brian is with Cleveland, and I’ll be very interested to hear where we are from an organizational standpoint. Personally, I have a very good relationship with Brian. He was a big part of our success this year, but it’s something that I just don’t know if the circumstances can come together for him to be back here next year.”
  • Regarding Gordon, who was suspended Sunday, Pettine said: “It’s not the ability, but at some point you get tired of using the word ‘potential.’ This offseason for him puts him squarely in a crossroads with us.” Even Thomas admitted that the Browns played better on offense before Gordon’s return.
  • One good thing about the offseason: The Browns do not have to worry about new offensive and defensive systems next season. Pettine said he expects the bulk of his coaching staff to be back.

The last word, from Thomas: “I think Bill Parcells was famous for saying, be on time, pay attention and work hard. Those are the only three things you need to have success in the NFL, but the first one is always be on time. Because it’s the most important.”
BEREA, Ohio — Johnny Manziel said some of the right things Tuesday about his future with the Cleveland Browns.

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It shouldn’t be surprising.

Manziel has been saying a lot of right things since he decided to leave Texas A&M and declare for the NFL draft, after which he wound up with the Browns.

Here’s a sampling:
"If you want to be the greatest, you have to prepare like it. That’s why I'm out here trying to be the best player possible. Whether it's in the film room or the weight room, there are days when it's hard, though, when it's a struggle."

And:
“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.”

And:
“People can call me crazy, and it's not cockiness, [but] I'm going to put myself in [position] to win the Super Bowl every single year.”

And:
“Football and family will always be the most important things in my life. The main thing for me is to play the game with a certain type of passion and a certain type of respect that football deserves. It's a humbling game. It can come and go at the drop of a hat."

Those comments were made by Manziel this past February. He said them as he prepared for the draft with quarterback guru George Whitfield in San Diego, where he lobbied reporters John McLain of the Houston Chronicle and Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to be the first pick of the Houston Texans.

If they sound similar to the comments Manziel made in Berea on Tuesday … well, it’s because they are.

Manziel is very adept with the media. He says many right things.

The problem he’s had in Cleveland is doing them. This is not to say Manziel was a problem off the field in Cleveland. He hasn’t been. He’s been a likable guy who’s gone about his business.

But when he got on the field for his opportunity, he was not prepared. He did not prepare like he was the greatest, and he more or less admitted that Tuesday, when he said he wasn’t ready for the transition to the pros.

It’s to Manziel’s credit that he stood up and took some accountability for what has turned into a lost rookie season.

But he didn’t really take entire credit because he also said he wouldn’t change a thing he’s done since he was drafted. How’d that work out again?

At this point, it’ll be more to Manziel’s credit if he does something about it.

The words have been coming for almost an entire year.

It’s time for actions to follow.

CLEVELAND -- So he's "more hungry"?

So he wants to be "the guy"?

Yeah, these next eight months are crucial.

Johnny Manziel threw up one money sign to celebrate a touchdown in 15 offensive drives then closed the register with a news conference in Carolina that seemed to acknowledge the obvious: There wasn't enough done on the field to take immediate ownership of the Cleveland Browns' quarterback job, but that process should start now.

Listen to coach Mike Pettine carefully when he describes in general terms what he wants in a quarterback to fit his "play like a Brown" mold. There's not a lot of talk about throwing mechanics or third-down conversions.
  • "It's the leadership part, not just vocally but leading by example."
  • "An encyclopedic knowledge of what we're doing ... in lockstep with the offensive coordinator."
  • "Every time he steps on to the field, he has to elevate the play of the players around him."
  • "Find a way to make plays. ... We want to find the winningest quarterback."
[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonShould Johnny Manziel compete for the Browns' starting quarterback job again next year, there are a few lessons he could learn in the offseason.
There's your blueprint, Manziel. Who knows, maybe there's a "no swan-floating" somewhere in there. Must be in another transcript.

Manziel and others around him (offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, for one) have said Manziel is misunderstood, that the party-with-Bieber-and-Drake image is a far-fetched one. This offseason can punctuate that point if that's how Manziel really feels. He can remold his image. He was able to start that process during the season, it seems. Coaches said he worked hard. Manziel said he learned to be a pro.

This offseason, Manziel can check off the first two items on Pettine's wish list -- and the quotes appear in the order he said them, by the way. Let the struggles of your two NFL starts drive you, an offseason fueled by the "absolutely" humbling experience you mentioned last week.

Spend some time in Cleveland outside the mandatory hours. Organize throwing sessions with receivers. Lean on veterans and coaches for advice.

That last part is crucial, Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby said. He's seen a lot of high draft picks fizzle out because they didn't evolve with the game.

"Johnny's got a lot of growing to do. He's a rookie. What do you want me to say?" Dansby said. "Johnny's making strides. He's getting better every week."

Dansby was speaking about rookies in general, but the point is clear: Now is the time to start winning the job.

Browns draft another quarterback? Who cares, start winning the job.

Browns sign a veteran free agent? Who cares, start winning the job.

The more competitors, the better.

It was fair to question whether Manziel was ready this season, but it seems reactionary to label him anything -- bust, hero, journeyman -- based on 35 throws. That's an absurdly small sample size for a rookie quarterback.

But Manziel could have created offseason momentum with a few more plays made on the field. Maybe he would have done that in Baltimore. That's why his injury is unfortunate for the Browns. That was a chance for Manziel to redirect the ugly statistics from the past six quarters.

Right now, that's all people remember. Manziel will need time -- and examples -- to change that.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After huddling with team spokespersons, Johnny Manziel approached the podium for a news conference that barely lasted four minutes.

Nearly half the segment was Manziel stumping for the right to quarterback the Browns’ future, sounding like a guy who whose season just ended after 35 throws because of a hamstring injury. Manziel was making a case. He took direct questions – did you feel more comfortable this week – and, 90-plus seconds later, had covered why this year made him “more hungry” to work in the offseason and sustaining success and building on a talented roster.

“I want to be the guy,” Manziel said. “That’s what I want to do and that’s what I want to be for this organization, so for me, if anything, this has motivated me more to head into this offseason.”

Manziel probably said more in the news conference about his future than he did on the field. If the hamstring injury persists and Brian Hoyer starts in the finale against Baltimore, Manziel’s seven full quarters of rookie quarterback play didn’t resolve much of anything.

Starting from the Buffalo game, Manziel’s body of work is brief, mostly uninspired football that’s far too small a sample to define him as anything – a bust, an elite quarterback, a money sign.

This is what you got:
[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Mike McCarnIf a hamstring injury keeps Johnny Manziel from playing in the Browns' season finale, there were just seven quarters in which to judge the team's first-round quarterback.

  • 34 throws (35 if you count his one attempt early in the season in the Johnny Package)
  • 15 full drives
  • 18 completions
  • 68 plays
  • 10 three-play drives (nine three-and-outs, one resulting in an interception)
  • Two scoring drives
  • 12 first downs (three by penalty)
  • Two interceptions
  • One touchdown run
  • One field goal
  • And 175 passing yards

That’s 0.66 points and 0.8 first downs per drive. The Heisman Trophy-winning Manziel was hard to defend, but these numbers are just that.

The most important facts, however, are the first two listed above – drives and throws. There’s not enough information to make any sort of long-term determination. If going by the eye test, which many will do, Manziel needed to clean up his footwork and decision-making last week against Cincinnati and seemed to be doing some of that in Carolina, playing better despite missing on a few throws.

The Browns need to see whether Manziel can catch fire as a passer, and what he does when defenses douse that flame. They need to see how he handles a full offseason as the incumbent. They’ll need to see how he leads. They’ll need to see…everything.

What you can argue is this: Was he ready? That’s a fair question. After training camp and 14 NFL weeks, was he ready to be a starter or did he need the proverbial redshirt year?

Manziel’s four-week stretch complicates that answer. Either he wasn’t ready or he didn’t get enough reps to show he was.

“We’ve seen Johnny every day, all year; we know what Johnny’s capable of,” said wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who caught Manziel’s best pass of the day, a 28-yarder over the middle that Manziel delivered from the pocket. “He’s a great talent and can be a great quarterback in this league.”

The Buffalo game was the only glimpse into what Hawkins is saying. That’s why Manziel should stump for something else – the right to start against Baltimore. Rehab that hamstring and get back. There’s risk involved if Manziel struggles again, but ending with a good performance might quell some concerns within a reactionary fan base.

The stand-alone numbers won’t do that. The "Johnny Football" mystique is gone, and the only way to get it back is to answer the question those numbers present.

Is this who you are?
The Cleveland Browns have acknowledged that Sunday did not go well for Johnny Manziel, but their public plan for addressing Manziel questions this week seems to be a strategic one.

Opt for a confidence boost over tough love.

Manziel
This week's company line has been the entire offense must improve; that Manziel, despite struggling, didn't get the necessary help. This is coming from coach Mike Pettine, players and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who on Thursday said Manziel's a "real dude" who has the mental makeup to respond.

They've acknowledged Manziel looked indecisive at times, but that usually comes with the follow-up that the offense had similar problems.

Perhaps the tough love comes behind the scenes, but the Browns seem to recognize that now is the time for building Manziel up, not tearing him down.

This feels like a sound strategy -- the Browns had better hope it works.

Either Shanahan is an eternal optimist or he saw enough encouragement from Manziel through the nuances of studying the 38 offensive plays Sunday to suggest Manziel's problems are fixable.

Stepping into throws with conviction was Manziel's biggest issue, and Manziel has been earnest about improving in that area this week.

I said this three weeks ago and I'll say it again: It doesn't matter whether Manziel or Brian Hoyer are the quarterback if the Browns can't run the ball. Cleveland has hit its second run-game dry spell of the year, averaging 3.2 yards per carry in the last three weeks (242 yards on 75 tries).

That number is survivable if your offense is built on the pass. The Browns' offense is not.

The missed details in the running game are all around left guard Joel Bitonio. He sees guard-center double teams when it should be tackle-guard. He sees failure to account for a safety creeping up or "not quite making it to the linebacker" up the middle, he says.

This has been life for the Browns' offensive line, which Bitonio said actually graded out well Sunday. But when they missed assignments, they missed big.

"One play, one guy gets beat and it's a tackle for a loss, Then he does his job great and another guy gets beat -- it just looks terrible," Bitonio said. "We need to be on the same page every day...That’s the whole goal so Johnny has more time to be back there to throw the ball. We don’t want defenses teeing off."

For the factors Bitonio described, Pettine is right when he says it's "unfair" to judge Manziel on one game. But considering all the circumstances -- the timing, the Browns' chances at a winning season unraveling, the critics quick to bash -- now is the perfect time for the blocks to be tight, the tailbacks to be instinctive and Manziel's decisions to be crisp.
BEREA, Ohio -- Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan explained one of the more intriguing Cleveland Browns offensive plays in Johnny Manziel's first start on Sunday, that 30-0 loss to Cincinnati.

The play symbolized the approach from the coaching staff, and the way the day went for the players, as the Bengals clearly came prepared for what the Browns wanted to do.

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On the team’s first third down, it faced third-and-2 at the Cleveland 25, down 7-0.

The Browns brought a formation out of mothballs, lining up four receivers to the far right in a diamond arrangement and one split left.

Shanahan said the play was a triple-option.

"Depending on how they lined up -- I can’t give you all the secrets -- there were a bunch of different things he could do with (the ball) spreading them out,” Shanahan said. "It ended up being a draw."

The options were not hard to see on the tape of the game, given the play was third-and-2. If the Bengals don't have enough with the bunch, the Browns have an advantage. If the defense puts four people with the diamond, then the quarterback looks left. The Bengals did put four, so Manziel looked left.

That receiver was Josh Gordon, who ran a slant. But safety Reggie Nelson read the slant and jumped the route. That, plus the up-the-field action from the defensive end, meant Manziel had no throw.

So he ran. And Nelson recovered to make the tackle. The Bengals basically abandoned the middle of the field -- one safety was with the bunch, Nelson jumped the slant -- to take away what the Browns wanted to do.

What does all this say?

It says that teams have a decent idea what to expect with Manziel at quarterback, and they have the ability to match his movements.

It says that the Browns weren’t exactly trying a lot on offense with Manziel in the game -- Shanahan also said he called just two roll-outs because he didn’t want to put Manziel in a "knockout" play.

It probably says that Carolina will watch the film and take the same approach as the Bengals -- muddle the middle, keep ends wide and pressure the throw.

Carolina has the advantage that it’s used to defending the read-option and bootleg. They see it all the time with Cam Newton in practice.

Manziel has another opportunity to prove himself.

But it doesn’t figure to be a whole lot easier.
CLEVELAND -- Random thoughts following the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-0 drubbing of the Cleveland Browns on Sunday:

  • Coach Mike Pettine said he chose Johnny Manziel because it gave the Browns the best chance to win. He added that Manziel had been getting better in practice, which is not open to the media. The last time anyone other than the team saw Manziel was late in preseason. What the coaching staff saw that led them to believe the Browns' best chance to win was Manziel will remain a great mystery of 2014.
  • [+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
    Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsDespite not facing many Bengals blitzes, Johnny Manziel was on the run for much of Sunday's game.
    Manziel, in the words of his coach, looked and played like a rookie. No argument on that one. He looked like every other Browns rookie who had struggled since 1999. Worse than some, better than a few, but like a rookie.
  • Read the words without the name and Manziel in his postgame news conference sounded a lot like Brian Hoyer after losses. “It’s going to take time. It’s a process for sure.” … “I never felt overwhelmed or that it was too much for me.” … “It’s an all-around team thing.” … “It’s tough for a young guy to come in and get accustomed to this league.” … “Even the guys who play their best every week come out and struggle at times.”
  • This was not a struggle, though. It was a diplodocus egg in the middle of FirstEnergy Stadium. Manziel said he never felt the game was too difficult for him. Hate to see a game that is truly difficult.
  • The Browns' run defense was as disappointing as Manziel. Cincinnati ran through and over the Browns' defense, totaling 244 yards. Nine teams since 1999 have run for more on the Browns. Only 29 teams have topped that mark since the Browns joined the NFL in 1950.
  • Would the Browns have been better off had Pettine simply stated after the Atlanta game that Hoyer was the quarterback the rest of the season? The benefit: It would have removed doubt and allowed the team to concentrate on winning and the playoffs. With the situation lingering, doubt crept in, which affected Hoyer. The negative: Hoyer had to play better. Still, it’s hard to imagine a 30-0 loss with Hoyer playing.
  • ESPN Stats & Information produced a wealth of insight into Manziel’s game. Among the analytics: Manziel left the pocket on 10 of his 24 dropbacks (41.6 percent). The NFL average is 10 percent. He was 2-of-7 with an interception out of the pocket, and is 3-for-11 for the season.
  • The Stats folks also pointed out that the Bengals blitzed twice on 24 passes. Only eight times did teams have a lower blitz percentage this season. So … it’s not as if the Bengals were throwing the house at Manziel.
  • They also got one one-handed sack, which came from observation, not analysis.
  • The Browns had five first downs, two by penalty. Which means the offense generated three. Any time a quarterback is used in the same sentence with Spergon Wynn on a comparison level, it’s not good.
  • Manziel’s 27.3 rating was the 23rd lowest by a Browns quarterback since the team returned in 1999. That’s in 254 games. It’s also the lowest since Ken Dorsey posted a 27.2 rating in a shutout loss to the Bengals in 2008.
  • The Browns have been shut out 13 times since 1999. This was the first since a November 2009 loss to the Ravens.
  • If nothing else, Manziel’s experience in his first start shows how difficult it is to win games in the NFL. Talent and hype and hope amount to nothing when there’s a bunch of professional defenders on the other side of the ball.
  • The Browns had been playing to win games. Judgments were made on what would give the team the best chance to win. With the playoff chances now miniscule, the judgment no longer is about winning. It’s about evaluating the quarterback position.
  • Wake me if you’ve heard this story before.
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CLEVELAND -- The day was supposed to be about hope and playmaking and Cleveland Browns fans thinking their 21st starting quarterback since 1999 might be the last change the team will need to make for a while.

The fans left FirstEnergy Stadium with their heads down -- just like Johnny Manziel after every stalled drive -- and with more questions than when they arrived.

After this Cincinnati Bengals mugging of money Manziel -- and the Bengals flashed dollar signs to prove it -- the Browns are left scrounging for loose change on the floor of the AFC North.

Nobody expected this. Rookie mistakes, sure. But not this. Not 30-0 in the home finale. Not the head coach talking about sample sizes after the game, suggesting Manziel is now on a two-game audition to remain in the 2015 plans. Not a noticeably deflated locker room. Not bad footwork, missed zone-read chances and indecisiveness leading to poor throws.

Manziel got no help from teammates, minimal chances to play like LeBron James’ favorite free-wheeling quarterback.

But the Johnny letdown was a reminder of how harsh the NFL can be. The Bengals didn’t just strip the Browns of already-slim postseason hopes. They taunted Manziel, reduced him, tried to disrespect him just like their head coach days earlier. Three different Bengals flashed Manziel’s signature money signs in his face or his vicinity, either after a sack or a big play, because “he kind of brought that on himself,” defensive end Wallace Gilberry said.

“Just to show him this ain’t college,” said Cincinnati defensive tackle Domata Peko, whose Bengals saw the money signs from fans while driving in on the bus. “This is the NFL. You have grown men that are going to be chasing after you, not college kids. ... We’ve got some grown men who have kids that are out here trying to feed their families.”

It would be wrong to make a whole determination about Manziel’s future based on his 10-of-18 passing performance for 80 yards, two interceptions and a 27.3 rating. But there was little on this day to suggest Manziel was ready.

Pettine says Manziel’s limited 2014 performance – Sunday's game, the final two games and his relief work in Buffalo -- is a “decent sample.” That doesn't seem like enough time to evaluate a quarterback, but the statement turns games at Carolina and Baltimore into raw auditions.

“It’s going to take time and reps,” Manziel said. “The best quarterbacks to ever play this game have struggled early.”

A cringe-worthy rookie performance doesn't pair well with the reasons Browns players gave for struggling. Wide receiver Josh Gordon admitted the Browns were getting beaten off the ball. Left tackle Joe Thomas said plays were not run correctly. Penalties stalled drives. How do you “get whupped,” as right guard John Greco said, when the division crown is still possible?

“The kid can make plays,” said Greco when asked about whether Manziel showed him enough encouragement for the future. “We didn’t do enough to help him.”

Perhaps the two-week quarterback haze -- Brian Hoyer’s benching in Buffalo that led to Manziel’s eventual first start -- affected team momentum, though players say no. Hoyer was struggling, but he was the trusted veteran. Pettine had two bad options: Stick with Hoyer and perpetuate the struggles, or play the rookie and risk sending the locker room message, fair or not, that the Browns are playing for next year.

With the lift Manziel could have provided inside and outside the stadium, Sunday was the wrong day for Manziel and the Browns' game plan to be figured out so early. The blueprint was clear-cut: Stop the run, set the edge and force Manziel to play from the pocket.

The Bengals blitzed on two of Manziel’s 24 dropbacks, or 8.3 percent. Eight NFL games had a lower blitz percentage this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Browns didn’t try a bootleg until the third quarter. The Browns ran a few zone-read plays. But on a first-quarter attempt, Manziel kept the ball for a sack instead of handing off to Isaiah Crowell for what appeared to be a sizable gain.

The offensive game plan looked like the Browns couldn’t decide whether to tailor it around Manziel’s skill set or keep it the same as if Hoyer were still running it.

Manziel admits getting the game plan right for him and the offense will be a “growing process.” Manziel was 0-for-4 with two interceptions on passes longer than 15 yards, including an across-the-body pass that was intercepted at the goal line, a pass that Manziel admitted a Pop Warner quarterback shouldn’t attempt.

“I never felt overwhelmed out there,” Manziel said. “Things happen fast and you see certain things that all flash around really fast, but when it came down to it, we just didn’t make enough plays.”

This performance resembled the preseason Manziel. The Browns said he has improved. Manziel said he has improved. They all said he was ready.

Maybe he will be. Manziel and the offense were “on point” in practice this week, Gordon said.

You know Allen Iverson’s words well. We’re talking about making game-day throws, which Manziel looked ready to do when firing the ball around the field before the game. But on a pass to Andrew Hawkins toward the sideline, the arm strength wasn’t there and Dre Kirkpatrick undercut the route for an interception. Maybe indecisiveness, which Pettine said he noticed a few times Sunday, was a factor on that throw.

A less conservative game plan might help Manziel, who needs to find a way to get open space on the perimeter.

For now, with the "Johnny Football" mystique replaced by tough NFL love, Manziel won’t have any more time to learn how to become an NFL quarterback.

He has to be one now.

“You wish the circumstances were better for him, but it’s good for him to learn how rough this league really is,” Gordon said. “It’s really tough and you really have to earn your wins.”
BEREA, Ohio — Marvin Lewis’ apology for a very poor choice of words when talking about Johnny Manziel does not change this reality: Lewis is a veteran coach who seemed to show the feelings of many in the NFL toward a celebrated rookie who has yet to accomplish anything in the pros.

Though he apologized for using the word “midget,” when Lewis referred to Manziel’s height, it was not stated as a compliment.

It was almost dismissive, as if to say: You think we’re going to re-do our entire defensive approach for a guy who can’t see over the tackle?

Lewis has had his verbal gaffes this season, but he’s not exactly a coach known for stirring controversy.

Browns coach Mike Pettine admitted that taunts and barbs are something Manziel should expect. It comes from being the guy whose nickname is the sport he plays. And it comes from a guy giving his signature celebration on the stage after he was the 22nd pick in the draft.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel has a lot to prove in the NFL, and he'll have to develop a think skin because of the hype surrounding him.
Not the first, not the second … the 22nd.

The Washington Redskins gave Manziel a face-full of money-sign in preseason and an earful of verbal abuse. He responded with an obscene gesture caught on national TV that drew the ire of his coach.

Two things seem to be taking place. First is the hype and hoopla that Manziel takes wherever he goes. He is somewhat responsible for that — he doesn’t exactly hide from Instagram — but so is a culture that is obsessed with celebrity.

Pettine admits that Manziel has to deal with what he’s created, and what has been created around him. Other players and other teams are well aware he’s in headline after headline and that he was the only backup quarterback to hold a weekly gathering with the media.

It can breed resentment.

That is reality for Manziel.

Another reality is the NFL culture that does not exactly look favorably on those who garner publicity before achievement. The league will respect Manziel if he does well, but until he does, he’s another rookie quarterback who has to prove himself.

That is true for all rookies — but especially true for rookies who are hyped the way Manziel is.

The knock on Manziel when he was drafted was that he was a college quarterback whose style would not translate to the pros. The NFL’s best passers are largely tall, stand-in-the-pocket guys; those are not Manziel’s perceived strengths.

He could be the one to break the mold, but until he does, he’s just another hyped rookie trying to make a living.

When Manziel has been around the team, he acts like any other teammate. He laughs, jokes and interacts like a normal player, which makes all the “what is he like with the team” questions kind of silly.

But on the periphery, Manziel was caught laughing on the sidelines with the Browns way down against Tennessee, was involved in a brouhaha in the lobby of his condominium in the wee hours the day the team flew to an away game, was seated courtside at a Cavs game when the Browns were deciding on a quarterback starter and gave the money sign after his first NFL touchdown, with the Browns losing.

None is a big deal. Taken together, though, other teams and players could look and use it as fodder to remind Manziel he’s a rookie making his first start.

He has the chance to answer all the criticism on Sunday.

But it seems pretty clear that within the league, there is a healthy amount of cynicism about Mr. Football.

BEREA, Ohio -- From questions about his 5-foot-11, frame (thanks, Marvin) to his relationship with Brian Hoyer (more fruitful than you think), Johnny Manziel covered several topics in his first interview as an NFL starter.

Some things Manziel has said before -- learning how to be a pro the last three months, putting in the time in the facility, trying to earn the trust of the coaches and players.

But one issue he addressed in particular will serve as a crucial barometer for success over the next three games and long term -- how he blends the Johnny Football persona with the sound football the Cleveland Browns need behind a playoff-caliber defense.

His identity in Cleveland must lie somewhere in between.

Here’s what Manziel said on that topic:

“There are going to be times when I try to make a play that you guys have been accustomed to seeing over the last couple of years,” Manziel said. “It’s not going to be exactly the same, it may not look exactly the same, but at the same time when we need to make plays as an offense I’ll try to provide a spark and be smart while doing it.”

It’s not just on Manziel to find that sweet spot. The onus falls on the Browns' offense and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to straddle the fence between game-manager and game-breaker.

The Browns are playing Manziel because the offense needs a lift. Stripping him of his playmaking ability, his improv -- what makes him him -- would contradict the point of having him on the field.

But the defense is playing too well to get too risky. As several Browns offensive linemen have said, it doesn’t matter who the quarterback is if Cleveland can’t run the ball. The offense is built around pounding the ball 30 to 40 times a game. Or maybe it was built that way for Hoyer and needs to be tweaked because of Manziel's threat to run.

Either way, expect the run to set up the pass for Manziel, who must look pass-first from the pocket.

“On every dropback pass, he can’t look to turn it into a punt return,” coach Mike Pettine said.

None of this seems too big for Manziel, who must validate that feeling when on the field Sunday. He’ll run a pro-style offense with some wrinkles to utilize his athleticism. The Browns would be smart to give Manziel at least a few deep-ball chances. My guess is he’ll connect on one. Go deep early. First down, maybe. Rollout and boom.

“Go out, execute offense and move the ball down the field and don’t get caught up in all the clutter and try to go out there with a free mind," Manziel said.
Well ... this didn't take long.

That infamous jersey that lists all the Cleveland Browns starting quarterbacks since the team returned to play in 1999 has been updated to include Johnny Manziel's name -- and is hanging in a window in downtown Cleveland. It has a Santa hat, too.

Several folks tweeted a photo of the jersey. Here is one:



For the record, when Manziel takes the Browns' first snap this Sunday, he will become their 21st different starter since Art Modell took his team to Baltimore -- the most in the NFL in that time, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

It is also the 13th consecutive season the Browns will use at least two different starting quarterbacks in a season.

Finally, it is the seventh time in 16 seasons they will have started a rookie: Manziel, Brandon Weeden, Colt McCoy, Charlie Frye, Luke McCown, Spergon Wynn and Tim Couch.

None of the previous six rookies who started won their start.

Things also have come full circle, as the first Browns rookie to start was Couch, who wore No. 2. The most recent is Manziel, also No. 2. In addition, Manziel was the 22nd pick in the draft, and he just turned ... 22.

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