HE WAS THE man that day, for 20 minutes at least, and in the bowels of Arrowhead Stadium, a crowd of Kansas City workers gathered around a TV mouthing, GET HIM. Johnny Manziel slipped through tackles, dashed for 108 yards, more than any quarterback in Browns history. He drove the Cleveland Browns to Kansas City's 18-yard-line in the closing seconds, ran out of time and dropped an F-bomb as he slammed his helmet to the ground. But in two locker rooms, he was all the buzz. One of the linebackers who tried to chase him down, Dee Ford, used to play against Manziel back in college. Ford said it was like the old days of Johnny Football.
Cleveland safety Donte Whitner proclaimed, "I think we have a starting quarterback for next year."
What the Browns didn't know was that Manziel had made at least two visits to Bar Louie in the days leading up to the game, lingering one night until at least 11 p.m. Or that in a few hours, a video would surface showing him rapping while holding a flavored malt beverage called Four Loko. Or that within a week, Manziel would be ruled out for the season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers because of a concussion. He would then show up for a meeting on Dec. 30 looking disheveled and unkempt, according to a team source. He would get a ticket for driving with expired plates. He would skip out on his team-mandated concussion treatment, around the same time rumors would begin to surface about his whereabouts, every alleged trip taking on legendary status worthy of a custom T-shirt.
But for a second, let's hold on to that hopeful day in Kansas City. Manziel was so dejected and passionate that he made people believe maybe he could handle all of this after all. Coach Mike Pettine, who would be fired at season's end, said he could see the fire in Manziel. "I think he took a step forward," he said after the game.
Just a few weeks earlier, Pettine had announced that Manziel would start the final four games of the season. Pettine didn't bill it as such, but it would be an audition for the embattled young quarterback who was placed in a timeout of sorts for lying about a party video shot in Austin, Texas, during the Browns' bye week, leading to another Austin taking his spot on the field.
But if Manziel could step up in these four weeks, showing maturity and leadership, perhaps he could assert himself as Cleveland's future. Perhaps people would stop questioning his commitment and behavior. At the very least, maybe he'd put together some film that could drum up interest from another team.
"I personally think the Browns won't keep him," one NFL source said in December, before Manziel's latest exploits. "Which should scare everybody because they know him better than anybody. They know the extent of how severe his problems are.
"They've been burned too many times to trust him."
Before he went AWOL, the plan was to follow Manziel, one of the most electrifying and flawed young players in the NFL, on his great audition. Could he prove in four weeks that he belonged as a starting quarterback in the NFL? The answers were supposed to come by watching him on the sidelines, on the field, with his team.
Instead, what emerged was a maddening picture of a 23-year-old who should've aced the test but couldn't hold it together.
MAYBE CLEVELAND'S POWERS that be, i.e. billionaire owner Jimmy Haslam, already knew how all of this was going to go down. The Browns' final four games featured three teams that would make the playoffs -- Seattle, Kansas City and Pittsburgh. With that schedule, and a battered supporting cast, it was unlikely Manziel was going to set the world on fire.
But there was hope in a place that could be considered the most depressing quarterback city in the NFL. Since 2002, the Browns have had 21 different starting quarterbacks. Think about that. That's the year Tom Brady started his first full season for New England. Cleveland desperately wanted to believe in Manziel. His teammates wanted to believe. When Manziel is on the field, he brings a different energy and excitement.
"You never know what he's going to do," veteran left tackle Joe Thomas says.
At the start of his four weeks, Manziel's publicist, Denise Michaels, says he won't be doing any one-on-one interviews. Manziel has kept her busy this season. In October, he was pulled over on the interstate after an argument with his girlfriend, Colleen Elizabeth Crowley, who said he'd been hitting her. (Crowley didn't press charges, and the NFL didn't punish Manziel). A month later, Manziel promised the Browns he'd behave himself in the bye week and wound up on that party video in Austin.
So no, Manziel will not be doing any soul-baring interviews. Numerous loyal people in his circle decline interviews, too. Manziel will only talk in his group sessions, Michaels says, because he wants his play to do the talking.
The great audition starts on the second weekend of December, on an unseasonably warm day in Cleveland. The Browns are on a seven-game losing streak and haven't won in more than two months. The good news is that San Francisco and its porous defense is in town; the bad news is the Browns looked atrocious the week before against Cincinnati.
Brady Quinn, another failed first-round quarterback pick back in 2007, is on the pregame broadcast. He predicts that the insertion of Manziel will boost the worn-down team. Quinn, by the way, was picked No. 22 overall in the draft, just like Manziel.
Manziel makes headlines before the game begins when a fan asks him to sign a $100 bill near the tunnel leading to the locker room. The quarterback scribbles something that appears to say, "Money Manziel," his nickname back at A&M. In various comments sections, fans immediately question his focus. Some even suggest he should be arrested for defacing money.
But Manziel is locked in. He completes passes of 8 yards, 9 yards, 23 yards to start the game. He slaps his hands together in frustration when he misfires on third-and-9. The Browns are up 10-3 in the second quarter when he's chased toward the sideline. Manziel throws across his body, is intercepted by Jaquiski Tartt and is so angry at himself that he slams a blue Microsoft Surface tablet against his head repeatedly.
It was a play the Browns had talked about during the week, and it went down exactly how they expected, minus the interception. Browns quarterbacks coach Kevin O'Connell, sensing his frustration, calls down to Manziel. "How's your head feel?" O'Connell asks.
"It hurts," Manziel replies.
O'Connell will later say that the incident was actually a sign of growth. Manziel recognized his mistake and learned from it. He throws for 270 yards, and the team seems energized. A defense that has put up only 17 sacks in the first 12 games collects nine against San Francisco, and the Browns win 24-10.
The people who work with him in the quarterbacks room, including veteran Josh McCown, a 36-year-old QB who has played on seven different NFL teams, are encouraged by the performance. McCown, who probably would have started if he wasn't out because of a broken collarbone, has been mentoring him. He says he has begun to understand his brain, at least on the field.
"He wants to win, and he's going to play hard, and he's going to lay it out there for his guys," McCown says. "You bang your head against the Surface because you put in so much time during the week. It bothers him because he cares."
After the game, Manziel puts on a white dress shirt and a dark suit. "Good game, Johnny!" a fan shouts as Manziel exits the locker room, clutching a football. "Merry Christmas!"
Manziel stops to sign every autograph before disappearing down a hallway. A few hours later, at a Marriott downtown, a group of fans sits at the bar, hesitant to get too excited. One of them says he misses Brian Hoyer, last year's starter who's now in Houston. They talk about Manziel's transgressions and wonder what's coming next. "Twenty-three years old and he's got the world by the butt," one fan says. "How sad."
NOBODY IN HIS or her right mind believes Manziel will lead his team to a victory in Week 2 of the audition. The Browns are in Seattle, possibly the loudest venue in the NFL and home to the NFC's two-time champion and a ferocious pass rush.
Manziel stuns the crowd by marching Cleveland 80 yards down the field on the opening possession. He hits six of eight passes and is poised and confident. On third-and-goal, with a wall of humanity closing in on him, Manziel escapes the pocket, and everyone is sure he's going to run. He zips a 7-yard touchdown pass to Gary Barnidge instead.
For the second straight game, Manziel looks as if he belongs as a starting quarterback in the NFL, even if the Browns eventually are routed 30-13.
All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman finds Manziel on the field after the game. Sherman tells him to keep his head up. "Don't let them affect who you are," Sherman says.
In the happy Seattle locker room, Sherman almost sounds as if he feels sorry for Manziel. He's scrutinized for his every movement, Sherman says. "It's not like he's a drug dealer and out there killing people or something crazy like that," Sherman says. "He's being young."
Sherman thinks it's a little unfair to judge him on these four weeks. For starters, he says, Manziel has played only a handful of games. Plus, the Browns are 3-11, so it's not as if his team is playing with as much motivation as it was at the beginning of the season.
"He's got a lot of expectations on him," Sherman continues. "And obviously he hasn't had the best little run in his time in the league. But I think he's coming into his own. He's starting to finally figure out who he is as a person, and once you figure that out, you'll be fine. In two games, he's played pretty good football. This one was [against] a pretty tough team in a pretty tough environment. He did enough to give his team a chance."
In the Browns' locker room, a gaggle of media is gathered around defensive back Tramon Williams. Manziel walks in and looks as if he wants to use the showers, but when he sees the scrum, he heads in the opposite direction. He's solemn in his postgame news conference. One longtime Cleveland reporter says it's the most dejected he's ever seen him.
A few days pass, and Manziel does a conference call with Kansas City media in preparation for the Chiefs game. He says he's taking his job seriously now.
"I can't really change everything I have done in the past," he says, "but I can try and change everything moving forward. I'm just trying to do the right things and stack up some good weeks and do some good things and finish out the season."
KANSAS CITY, IT turns out, was Manziel's final game on film. Earlier that week, Chris Assenheimer, a writer who covers baseball for the Chronicle-Telegram in Elyria, Ohio, spotted Manziel at Bar Louie and introduced himself. Assenheimer said he was cordial and signed everything, even a plate for a server. But when his friend asked for a picture, Manziel told him he couldn't take pictures in a bar. Clearly, Manziel was aware of the ramifications of another bar photo on social media.
On the second night, when the crush of the autograph-seekers became too much, Manziel slipped out a back door.
In the grand scheme of things, the Kansas City game meant nothing for the Browns, who wound up tied for the worst record in football. But it meant everything to Manziel. Or at least it should have.
Many of his teammates, and at least one of his coaches, believed he'd turned a corner. Manziel had gone to rehab for unspecified reasons last spring and moved out of his swanky apartment downtown to a house on a golf course in the suburbs. O'Connell, the quarterbacks coach who once backed up Brady and Matt Cassel, thought McCown would be the influence Manziel needed. He instructed Manziel last spring to follow McCown around. Do what he does today, O'Connell told Manziel. Watch the film he watches. Do the work he does.
Even Joe Thomas, one of Manziel's biggest critics during his disastrous rookie season in 2014, said Manziel had made big strides in '15. He saw a different commitment and energy from him, and believed he truly wanted to be a better quarterback.
"His dedication was never questioned between the stripes on the football field," Thomas said. "But when you're in the NFL, winning doesn't just happen when you cross the white stripe coming out of the tunnel. Winning happens during the week when you're watching film, when you're studying your playbook, when you're practicing a certain way. And at times last year, he didn't show that commitment to winning and the competitiveness you see on the field, off the field. But this year he is."
WEEK 4 IS, simply put, a buzzkill. On Wednesday, after it becomes clear Manziel isn't playing, talk-radio lines light up with angry people. They wonder why Manziel didn't report his concussion symptoms until Wednesday. At least one radio host suggests he play with the head injury.
They are disappointed Manziel isn't starting. He represented the only intriguing element in a season finale with a 3-12 team.
Thomas, who occasionally rolls his eyes over the media's fixation with Manziel, stands at his locker and reflects on Manziel's celebrity. Thomas figures some of the obsession comes from the people who watched him play in college, electrifying and cocky, flashing his money sign. Then Manziel started hanging out with Drake and Justin Bieber and various Hollywood types, elevating him to an even bigger sports celebrity.
"That's the path he's chosen and what he's going to have to live with," Thomas says.
One person familiar with his lifestyle is a guy named Gareth Kirk. He's an old buddy from Texas who lived with Manziel last year in Cleveland, worked on his marketing team and is just about the only person in Manziel's circle who'll talk. The roommates had a lot of fun together during Manziel's rookie season. Too much fun.
In a past life, Kirk was one of the guys Manziel would call to go on a quick vacation. But he didn't call this time. Kirk, like the Browns, doesn't know where Manziel was Saturday night. He says his friend is talented and smart enough to do anything if he walks the right path. Like so many others, he can't understand why a man who can be so competitive on the field is doing so many things to jeopardize his career off of it. And Manziel isn't commenting -- all interview requests were declined.
"It's a question that everybody can't figure out," Kirk says, "and it's so frustrating for all of those people who love him and care about him. I wish I had the answer, but I don't."
With No. 3 quarterback Austin Davis at the helm, the Browns lose to Pittsburgh 28-12. As the game winds down, one of the TVs in the press box shows Brian Hoyer and Houston celebrating a playoff berth.
In the Browns' locker room, Manziel's teammates aren't in the mood to talk about why he's not there. If the Vegas report is true, Thomas says, then it's something that needs to be addressed in the offseason. "I just want to know the Cleveland Browns are the most important thing in that person's life," he says.
As Thomas speaks, equipment workers in Browns hoodies and closely cropped hair begin to pack up the remains of a season they'd all like to forget. Quarterback Pat Devlin stands near Manziel's locker, taking in the scene. Devlin received a call earlier in the week after Manziel's concussion symptoms emerged. He was at his home in the Philadelphia area and got in his car and drove to Cleveland. He jumped at the chance for another week in which he could play football.
The only signs of Manziel are some shower clogs under a folding chair and a uniform dangling from a hanger in his locker. No, he didn't have to be at the stadium Sunday. But that's what quarterbacks and leaders do. They stick with their team. When McCown sat out because of a concussion earlier this season, he watched the game from a suite.
It is unclear what team Manziel will be with next year. Dallas is rumored to be an option -- owner Jerry Jones has long been fixated on Manziel, and he told 105.3 The Fan this week that he is open to taking a young quarterback who might be a risk. But there will be no decisions on Manziel's future yet, mainly because the decision-makers have been fired.
As the players scatter and try to forget this miserable season Sunday, Devlin asks an equipment employee if he can keep his jersey. He wants it as a souvenir. He doesn't know if he'll get another chance. Manziel, on the other hand, will, leaving the people closest to him to wonder: Will he wake up before the chances disappear?
Pat McManamon contributed to this story.