Thursday, May 8, 2014

Waking a sleeping giant

At approximately 10:40 on Thursday night, the city of Cleveland exploded onto the national sports landscape with one simple pronouncement.

“With the 22nd pick in the 2014 National Football League draft,” intoned NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, “the Cleveland Browns select Johnny Manziel, quarterback, Texas A&M.” And just like that, the Browns were reborn.

It was mindful of that night in late May of 2003 at the National Basketball Association’s lottery draft when the Cavaliers bucked all the odds and wound up with the No. 1 choice, which turned out to be LeBron James.

The unbridled joy the Cleveland sports fans felt that night 11 years ago hadn’t been experienced again until Thursday night when Manziel dropped into the Browns’ lap. The most talked about player in the draft, the most exciting player in the draft, the most polarizing player in the draft is now a member of the Browns.

The franchise that had become the laughingstock of the NFL for the last 15 years instantly took on a whole new aura. Johnny Football is coming to town with revival on his mind. He gives the Browns instant relevance.

And you can bet his arrival and subsequent journey with the Browns will be watched closely by the national media. It means they no longer will be an afterthought. The spotlight will shine brightly on Cleveland in the coming season and for many seasons beyond that.

Manziel is a magnet for that type of attention. Evidence of that was apparent as ESPN and the NFL Network, on almost a pick-by-pick basis, chronicled his precipitous fall to the Browns.

Camera cuts to him sitting with his family, looking alternately hopeful and forlorn, were plentiful. It was like a drama being played out episodically and in slow motion. The longer he sat at that table, the tighter the close-ups.

When the Browns’ third trade of the evening in the draft was announced, it was though the city was jolted awake. It was an immediate attention getter.

When it became apparent Manziel might fall to Kansas City at No. 23, Browns General Manager Ray Farmer, sitting at No. 26, swung a trade with Philadelphia at No. 22 and leapfrogged the Chiefs. All it cost him was the club’s second pick in the third round.

That’s when the fans just knew Manziel was going to be the choice. And they responded in raucous, almost delirious fashion at the club’s draft party. The anticipation of a Manziel announcement was so great, the actual announcement seemed almost anticlimactic.

The initial reaction was quite the opposite of when the Browns grabbed cornerback Justin Gilbert with the eighth overall pick after a couple of trades, one of which secured Buffalo’s top pick next year, along with a fourth-rounder.

In that one, the puzzled fans sort of looked at one another and seemed to ask, “Who’s that?” Just a smattering of quiet applause. Yes, Gilbert was the highest-rated corner on the board, but didn’t the Browns bypass better players at other positions? Why does it feel like a disappointment?

Gilbert should fit in nicely opposite Joe Haden in the secondary. He will be a starter, His size and cover skills are what shot him up the board. The only chink in his armor is his supposed reluctance to play the run physically.

When Gilbert was announced, it appeared as though all that pre-draft talk by the Browns was nothing more than lip service. If his name was ever mentioned, it might have been once and obliquely at that.

That’s when Farmer dropped his bomb.

Along came Manziel, who will affect Browns Nation as no other player since Bernie Kosar arrived 30 years ago. Kosar was a savior for the franchise. Manziel, whose on-field magic at Texas A&M thrilled an entire nation for the last two years, now has a chance to duplicate what Kosar brought to Cleveland.

Even though the beginning of the 2014 season is still 18 weeks away, there is a renewed feeling, a renewed hope, an energized fan base. Training camp can’t come soon enough. And you can bet attendance in Berea will threaten records.

Does Manziel bring a media circus to Cleveland? Of course he does. So what. He’s used do that kind of circus. Didn’t seem to bother him at Texas A&M. A change of venue shouldn’t affect him at all. He’s used to this kind of treatment. He knows how to handle it. If anything, he seems to crave the spotlight.

He knows he arrives in Cleveland under a lot of pressure. Adapting to the pro style of play won’t be easy. But offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who helped Robert Griffin III assimilate smoothly to the NFL, should have no trouble working his same magic with Manziel.

Fans watching in television were quickly reminded that 22nd slot in the first round of the draft has not been lucky for the Browns in recent years. Brady Quinn was taken there in the 2007 lottery and Brandon Weeden fell to the Browns at No. 22 in 2012. Third time a charm?

The big question now is how patient will Browns fans be with Manziel? Will he be able to live up to their expectations? And will those expectations be so high and so demanding that practically nothing he does can match them?

First, let’s see if he can beat out Brian Hoyer for the starting job. It should be an interesting competition. Both men are overachievers. At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hoyer doesn’t take Manziel under his wing and help him assimilate to the NFL.

If Hoyer wins the stating job, and that’s a big if right now, the selection of Manziel should not be considered a mistake. There is no question he will win the job one day. Count on it. It’s just a matter of time.

As it turned out, day one of the draft has to be considered a huge success. The Browns landed a starting cornerback, who is also very good at returning kicks, and a quarterback whose mere appearance has energized a slumbering fan base.

Nicely done.

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