Commentary

Can Browns handle Johnny Football?

Early issues appear minor but could indicate team is unprepared for Manziel-mania

Updated: May 21, 2014, 4:25 PM ET
By Dan Graziano | ESPN.com

It has the feel of NFL offseason white noise, all the fuss of the past week in the life of the Cleveland Browns and Johnny Manziel. It would be easy to wave each individual bit of controversy off as something that ultimately won't matter or wouldn't be as big a deal if it happened in September:

They limited media access to rookie minicamp! (Gasp!)

The owner said he needs to act like a backup! (The nerve of some owners!)

The quarterbacks coach went on Arkansas radio, said the kid texted him to tell the Browns to draft him and basically contradicted every story the GM and the owner have told publicly about the way the draft went down! (OK, that one's actually kind of insane. I mean, Arkansas radio? The QB coach???)

I'm as down on the NFL offseason as anyone. I think it's excruciating and eternal, and I think stories that aren't stories become stories all the time because the public's appetite for the NFL is outsized and insatiable. But I wouldn't be so quick to write off this Browns/Manziel stuff, because I think it's a major red flag for the team's ability to handle its young star quarterback, and for his chances to succeed in Cleveland.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/John ReidThe Browns limited media access to Johnny Manziel during the team's rookie minicamp.

The Browns' sloppy messaging on Manziel absolutely matters, because it reveals potential flaws in a leadership structure that's going to be essential to the management of Manziel's career. It's not surprising that there would be potential flaws in a leadership structure that changes every year. And it's not necessarily the fault of GM Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine if they're not smooth messengers. They are new in their positions, having been elevated there when owner Jimmy Haslam booted their predecessors out after a single season on the job. They are inexperienced, and that inexperience is showing in the way they've handled things in the wake of drafting Manziel.

Haslam isn't helping matters. He's hands-on, he's hands-off; we don't know from one minute to the next. What we do know about Haslam tells us he's not the sort of owner who sticks to the plan and trusts his football people to execute it.

Inexperienced writers and plumbers and accountants make mistakes, just as inexperienced owners, GMs and coaches do. But because owners, GMs and coaches occupy positions of leadership, it's important that they not be -- or even appear -- overwhelmed by their circumstances or responsibilities. The extent to which the Browns have already let the circumstances of Manziel's arrival overwhelm them is absolutely worthy of their fans' concern.

Look for contrast at the manner in which the St. Louis Rams have handled all the post-draft attention they've received over Michael Sam. Yes, a seventh-round pick. No, not a quarterback. But Sam is a major national story that will receive more attention in many ways than Manziel will. Jeff Fisher has 19 years' worth of experience as an NFL head coach, and it has shown in the way he and the organization have handled media requests, the mini-controversy over the Oprah series ... everything related to Sam's situation as it relates to the team's business.

In Cleveland, where Manziel's arrival as a first-round quarterback could be a major transitional moment in franchise history, the people who made the decision to draft him appear to be blindsided by the whole thing. And if this is the way they handle offseason white noise, how can they be expected to behave when real problems start during the season?

The attention around Manziel isn't going to fade. Training camp will bring daily questions about when and how much he'll play, whether he'll start, what he's up to off the field. Once he does play, every throw, every scramble will be scrutinized and parsed by the same media and fan base whose expectations the team is now trying to tamp down. There will be no controlling the attention, and the people running the Browns could be faced with tough lessons about how hard it is to control things on the inside when you've been trying too hard to control things on the outside.

The Browns need to get their own leadership house in order, internally, or Manziel will have no chance in Cleveland. We need only look to the Washington Redskins of 2013 for an example of how cracks at the top of an organization can adversely affect the growth and development of a young quarterback. It's important that any young quarterback, no matter how big a star he already is, finds himself in an environment that's conducive to helping him develop. Because if he's not, then he won't.

I am of the opinion that Manziel can be a superstar in the NFL. I think his talent and skill set are unique and that he can have an instant impact for the Browns, who have enough pieces in place that they may be one supremely gifted quarterback away from playoff contention. And I think Manziel is a special talent who can be that quarterback, maybe even this year.

But no quarterback can do it himself, and if the structure around him is not sound, he has no chance to succeed. The manner in which the Browns have handled Manziel since they drafted him just two weeks ago is worrisome, because it leads you to wonder whether the organization has the necessary internal fortitude to nurture a young quarterback and get the most out of him. Maybe it all turns out to be nothing, but at this point the alarm bells are legitimate. If the sloppy start to Manziel-mania in Cleveland is making Browns fans worry about his chances to succeed with their team, I think they're on to something.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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