- David Fleming, ESPN Senior Writer
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The first time many fans saw an Internet photo of Johnny Manziel, it was June 2012, an image that was seared into their collective memories: a shirtless, sneering mug shot, taken after an early-morning fight in College Station, Texas. A month later, on July 31, Manziel joined Instagram (jmanziel2) and fought the negative press with his first post: Bible verses. It was a snapshot of Proverbs 4:20-24, and the first line reads: "... turn your ear to my words ..." We did. We turned our ears, our eyes and especially our smartphones. And ever since the war over Manziel's image has raged on, culminating with judgment day: the 2014 NFL draft.
Over the next year, the mug shot would be followed by photos on Halloween featuring Manziel partying in a Scooby-Doo onesie, some candids from spring break in Cabo, a shot of him holding fistfuls of casino cash, a portrait with Rick Ross and, of course, a notorious shot of Manziel inside a Dallas club, celebrating Texas A&M's Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma with a lit sparkler in his mouth and a bottle of champagne in his hand. Whether they were posted to his own account or courtesy of TMZ Sports, Manziel couldn't escape the smartphones, even if he had wanted to.
And remember: These were just the photos. In June 2013, after he'd won the Heisman and we'd come to know him as Mr. Football, Manziel caused a stir when he tweeted about "bulls---" that made him eager to leave College Station, then told fans to "walk a mile" in his shoes -- a proverbial admonishment stemming from ... a parking ticket. A month later, after he was sent home from the Manning Passing Academy for sleeping late, the online chatter hit another peak when Manziel started the season on the bench, suspended for a half for violating NCAA rules (aka "autograph-gate").
Is Manziel's Internet persona proof that he is just another spoiled, out-of-touch jock? Or is he simply a victim of the popularity of football and the exponential influence of social media? Regardless of the answer, that's not a debate NFL GMs want to have when it comes to selecting a franchise quarterback. So in January, just five months before the first pick in the NFL draft and with millions on the line, Manziel took on the daunting and unique challenge now facing all 21st century "athletainers": to repair his image by channeling the same social media platforms that nearly devoured him over the past two years.
"Johnny Manziel shows the good and bad of social media," says Marcus Messner, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's school of media and culture. "It can be a clear danger to people in the spotlight, especially athletes that can be caught in unfavorable situations and then have the pictures go viral. But on the other hand, it can also be used for very effective PR and image rebranding."
By far the draft prospect with the most online clout (his 760,000-plus Instagram followers through May 4 are more than 15 times that of the Jaguars' team account), Manziel will be something of a virtual pioneer. At 21, he'll be the first budding NFL star to attempt to navigate the treacherous intersection of our culture's two most powerful and perilous touchstones: social media and football. But will the image makeover eventually wreck him, or catapult him to a level of social media fame not seen in the league? To find out, we asked social media and PR experts, as well as agents and NFL executives, to help analyze the maturation of Johnny Football as it has played out in real time on his Instagram account.
Final party boy sighting
Posted: Jan. 9
Likes (through May 4): 43,500
Besides Manziel's mismatched outfit -- a black throwback Brett Favre Falcons jersey and a Cubs trucker hat -- this post barely sticks out. Except for one little detail: It's the last Instagram post you'll see featuring the former party boy holding a drink. If you're looking for the glassy-eyed candids from Bourbon Street or El Squid Roe that once made him an Internet sensation (and a fairly typical college student), you're out of luck.
The image cleanup -- while possibly overblown and a tad puritanical -- is a critical step, according to former uber-agent Leigh Steinberg, who has represented eight No. 1 overall NFL draft picks and, during the past several years, has been through his own very public struggles with alcoholism and image repair. "No one could survive under the kind of microscope Manziel was under," says Steinberg, "but it still creates an impression. And image is a critical factor in how high up the draft Manziel will go. People couldn't care less about the leadership abilities of a defensive lineman. This is the quarterback. He's the face of the franchise. The consequences of that player failing behaviorally is devastating. But I think Manziel has done an excellent job of [fixing his image] even though he was unfairly maligned in the first place."
Still, truth be told, most NFL execs don't want choirboys under center, either. "There are quarterbacks who are too clean," says one NFC executive. "You need your quarterback to go out for beers with the guys, to go out and blow off steam." Safe to say, Manziel has that part of the job description locked up. He just has to tone down the frat boy routine. During the 2008 offseason, former Heisman winner and then-Cardinals QB Matt Leinart was photographed in a hot tub surrounded by females and never lived down the perception that he didn't take the job seriously. (His poor play didn't help, either.) "Any time a quarterback leaves his home he's subject to public scrutiny," says Steinberg. "Pro quarterbacks are kings. They are role models; that's what America is looking for."
Posted: Feb. 13
In early January, Manziel hired Select Sports Group in Houston to be his agent and LRMR, the company run by LeBron James' business partner Maverick Carter, to handle his marketing. Almost overnight the tone and message of Manziel's Instagram account seemed to change and mature. In fact, of the 20 pics posted to Manziel's account in February, four show him working out and five associate the Johnny Football brand with other athletic icons and world champions like James, Richard Sherman and David Ortiz. There's also a shot of him on Feb. 5 with his buddy, 6-year-old Charlie Dina, a cancer survivor from Houston. Most of the remaining posts are like this one, featuring a young fan dressed in a white No. 2 "Football" shirt, stretching out to get a high-five from his hero.
You've got mere months to change the public perception of your client and he stands to gain upward of $25 million in salary and endorsements -- what do you do? Pose him next to a kid. Click. Post. Repeat.
Call it distasteful and cynical if you want. But it's PR 101, according to Marcia DiStaso, a Penn State assistant professor and social media expert. NFL coaches, scouts and GMs are not necessarily on Instagram or going to be directly swayed by social media, but the mainstream media certainly is (case in point: this story), and that's how Manziel has been able to so quickly and effectively improve his image.
"You want to get your different audiences to like you, and when you're talking football, one of the core audiences is kids," says DiStaso. "Get the kids and adult males behind you and you've got the country. There's also the aspect of, if you're liked by kids, then everyone should like you, because kids don't innately distrust people. It helps soften him quite a bit, to mix in a few pictures with kids along with the rappers."
On the grind
Posted: Feb. 14
One of the big questions regarding Manziel, or any other potential franchise quarterback, is his work ethic: Just how committed is he to the endless, mundane and superhuman workload, on and off the field? For example: On Fridays during the preseason, Drew Brees doesn't just watch film until he's the last person in the Saints' facility -- he seems to actually love doing it. "It's one thing to have confidence and another to have humility," Jags coach Gus Bradley said at the NFL combine, referring to Manziel. "If you have humility, you can talk about your weaknesses and that's how you improve. The confidence is great and all that, but are you willing to get better and challenge yourself like Peyton Manning and all the great quarterbacks? Can he challenge himself in a way that he's open to being coached and self-evaluate the areas he needs to improve?"
This montage with QB guru George Whitfield Jr. in San Diego seems to be Manziel's online response -- on Valentine's Day, no less. There's a large shot straight out of "The Karate Kid" of Manziel taking a blindfolded drop on a beach, along with a photo of Manziel -- chin in hand, pen at the ready, laser focus in his eyes -- contemplating a pass diagram on a dry-erase board. "When I decided to make this decision to turn professional, it was time to really put my college years in the past," Manziel said at the combine. "This is a job now. There's guys' families, coaches' families and jobs and all kinds of things on the line. For me it's nothing; it won't be a hard thing to kick or a hard deal to not do. I'm extremely focused on whatever organization I'll be at and really pouring my heart out trying to be football 24/7 with that team."
The montage is a powerful message and the perfect visual complement to the leaked news that Manziel scored an impressive 32 on his Wonderlic test. So much so that you barely notice in the Instagram photo that the play Johnny Football is studying so intently has already been fully diagrammed -- seemingly just like his Instagram image campaign.
Posted: March 13
Manziel celebrated his multiyear deal with Nike -- a big step in his virtual vindication tour -- by plastering the brand on his Instagram feed seven times during the month of March, starting with a giant swoosh splashed across an action shot of him scrambling in college. "Just Do It," he wrote in the photo caption. "So incredibly thankful to be a part of the Nike family. Watching the greats wear this equipment as a kid and to now be a part of this unbelievable company still blows my mind #StriveForGreatness."
Established franchise QBs can make from $6 million to $12 million a year in endorsements, and the fact that a major corporation like Nike vetted Manziel and was willing to invest millions in the Johnny Football brand might help convince NFL teams to do the same. Manziel is certainly not the first quarterback to manipulate his image through sponsorships and ad campaigns. By using a series of lighthearted and self-deprecating commercials, Peyton Manning has helped soften the public perception that he's a boring, supercilious robot. For Manziel, there could be an even bigger payoff. Because of the rookie salary cap and depending on where Manziel is drafted, he could potentially make more money off the field in the early part of his career than on it.
"The next issue will be his commitment as a football player, and that's why there's always a risk with taking pre-draft rookie marketing deals," says Steinberg. "The team will be looking to see if he's totally committed. The owner will watch that. The coaches will watch that. The other players will watch that. He's in a learning process and there will be interceptions and struggles, and if, at the same time, he's on every billboard, fairly or unfairly, it puts the question in people's minds: Is he more concerned with being a matinee idol or with being our quarterback?"
Head of state
Posted: March 26
A year ago, a typical post on Manziel's Instagram account was a shot of him at a Super Bowl party with Patriots wild man Rob Gronkowski. Now? It's a grown-up, Sears-style family portrait, taken just before his pro day, of Manziel and his parents with an American flag on one side and President George H.W. Bush (holding an Aggies helmet) and wife Barbara on the other.
"Those original images of Manziel will never go away," says Messner. "But there's a strategy at work here. You have no way of erasing the bad or embarrassing content about you on search engines, so the only way is to fight it with more good content. As time passes, these things move into the background as other photos and content become more popular."
But even this strategy can backfire. With 75 officials from 30 NFL teams in attendance, Manziel was magnificent, by all accounts, at his March 27 pro day. ESPN's Jon Gruden later compared him with Hall of Famer Steve Young. But despite Manziel's nearly flawless mechanics while completing 63 of 65 passes to six receivers, some NFL execs were taken aback by the atmosphere -- the president, his wife and their two dogs, a DJ blaring music by Manziel's new bestest bud, Drake, and the QB himself decked out in a black Nike jersey and camouflage shorts. New Vikings coach Mike Zimmer described the scene to The Houston Chronicle as a "sideshow."
"It's all about hitting your target audience, and at times he's not connecting," says DiStaso. "With the draft coming up, it's a greater challenge for him to identify who it is that teams will be most interested in. Is it that hotshot kid? Or a professional?"
Johnny Jet Ski
Posted: April 19
When trying to establish or improve a brand through social media, the most effective tool by far is video, industry experts like DiStaso say. Because it connects to more senses -- both visual and aural -- the retention rate is much higher among followers.
Almost three weeks before the draft, Manziel dropped his second video on Instagram: The first was of him dunking a basketball, and this one was also a testament to his athleticism, showing him making an amazing, one-handed catch. Only he did it while driving a Jet Ski. The video instantly went viral, which was both good and bad for Team Johnny Football.
The good: Swarmed on by traditional media, the lighthearted and highly entertaining viral video pushed all other analysis of Manziel out of the spotlight for that news cycle. So instead of reading about character concerns and other criticisms of Manziel voiced by Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, the narrative was about Manziel's remarkable athleticism.
The bad: Look at the video through the eyes of a fuddy-duddy, middle-aged GM (or worse, an owner) who has probably never been on a Jet Ski and is locked in his windowless war room trying to decide if he should invest millions in Manziel and tie his future and the fate of his entire franchise to Johnny Football. "His peers will watch this and see him as a cool guy," says DiStaso. "But the other folks who are looking at him and trying to figure out if he's going to be a risk worth taking, I would think that video would send a red flag."
For starters, there appears to be an empty beer can in the flower bed by the dock in the video. Then there's the fact that just a few years after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was seriously injured on a motorcycle, Manziel is racing at high speeds not far from another boater and near a thick concrete dock.
"It's him on a Jet Ski," says DiStaso. "Not him doing something great in the community. Not him playing football. Right now, given how soon the draft is, I don't think that was appropriate. It was poorly timed. It was a big risk."
Of course, so is drafting Johnny Football.
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