Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Coaching out of the box

Two thoughts regarding Paul Guenther’s recent remarks about Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel.

First, why would the defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals say anything publicly about the second-string quarterback of a division opponent?

“Honestly, I think the kid needs more time before anyone writes him off,” Guenther told ESPN recently. He meant Manziel, whose struggles in his rookie season have been well documented, needs more time to develop as a professional quarterback.

“Drew Brees did it,” he continued, referring to the New Orleans Saints quarterback who entered the National Football League in 2001 with the same height problem as Manziel. “I know Drew is a little bit thicker than Johnny, but about the same height.”

Truth is Manziel is a mere half-inch shorter than Brees and a few pounds heavier if we are to believe the stats put out by the teams. “I don’t see any reason why he can’t do it up there (in Cleveland),” Guenther said.

“He was such a high profile guy out of college and everyone expected what he did at Texas A&M, but it’s a man’s game. It’s a lot different (in the NFL) and it takes time. You have to take your lumps a little bit.”

Like the 30-0 embarrassment in Cleveland that was Manziel’s professional starting debut against the Bengals late last season. Two interceptions, three sacks and 80 yards through the air was as humbling a debut as any quarterback for the Browns since can’t remember when. Lumps from that game are just starting to disappear.

“I think he has good feet, is obviously a threat to run it and I think in the right system he can be a good player,” Guenther continued, obliquely suggesting he is not a fit in Cleveland because the Browns don’t run the right system.

“There was so much expected in his first game and maybe some of that was self-warranted, but it was so much from the fan base that you have to let him make mistakes.”

In no way, though, did the interview unlock the mystery as to why Guenther was talking about a rival quarterback. He’s got enough to worry about with his team to be concerned with someone like Manziel. It’s a head scratcher.

Now for the second thought. Guenther compared Manziel to Brees. Wrong quarterback. It should have been Seattle’s Russell Wilson.

Manziel is the anti-Brees quarterback for a number of reasons. First of all, the Saints’ quarterback has a terrific arm. Always did. Manziel’s is good, but not nearly as strong as Brees’.

He was a pocket-loving, gun-slinging quarterback coming out of Purdue and hasn’t stopped yet. Manziel, on the other hand, was not strictly a passer coming out of A&M. His game was predicated on making plays any way he could whether it was with his arm or feet. The ability to use his feet well was his greatest asset in college and he took full advantage.

Brees’ greatest asset? His arm and the ability to quickly find and then hit the open receiver. He scored only 15 touchdowns in his three-plus years at Purdue, but threw 90 touchdown passes with 45 interceptions (20 in his sophomore season). He ran for 900 yards, 521 as a senior.

Manziel in college ran instinctively when his first two receivers (often times only one) weren’t open. He compiled an amazing 1,410 yards on the ground (on 201 carries, many of them designed) in his first season with the Aggies, scoring 21 TDs.

He amassed 5,116 yards of total offense in his Heisman Trophy winning season with 47 total touchdowns and a comparatively low 22 interceptions in 595 throws.

He used his feet to bail himself out in college when he had trouble finding his target, which was too often. He gave up early on plays. In the limited time we have seen him with the Browns, he still bolts from the pocket way too soon.

Brees knew exactly what to do when that happened in college and did not bail prematurely. His patience and ability to sense the pass rush were rewarded. And it hasn’t changed in the NFL.

Now let’s turn to Wilson. Shorter than Manziel by nearly two inches, he is much more like the Cleveland quarterback than Brees insofar as to what he is capable of doing with one notable exception.

He often bails early, but his ability to escape pressure and buy time combined with his innate sense of knowing where that pressure is coming from and making the right play at the right time is what separates him from other NFL quarterbacks. Manziel failed miserably at that last season in his brief appearances.

If Guenther was using Brees as inspiration for Manziel, wrong again. Brees has carved out a solid career in 14 seasons, but has been to just one Super Bowl and won it. Wilson has been to two Super Bowls in his first three seasons and won one. If there is anyone for Manziel to aspire to, it should be Wilson.

Other than that, coach Guenther, carry on.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Nothing to lose with Pryor, but back off the excitement

So what’s to make of the Browns claiming Terrelle Pryor off National Football League waivers Monday?

Not sure what position to place in front of his first name. Quarterback? Wide receiver?

If it’s quarterback, he automatically becomes the second-best at that position on the team. If it’s wide receiver, don't get too excited.

The ex-Buckeye quarterback sure knows how to play the former position. Did it very well at Ohio State. Struggled to translate his game to the NFL, though.

After crashing and burning with four teams (Oakland, Seattle, Kansas City and Cincinnati), Pryor had decided that switching to wide receiver is his last chance to prolong his professional career.

The Browns have made it clear that Pryor will begin training camp next month as a wide receiver. He will be like a baby just out of the womb when it comes to catching footballs.

After spending his entire life throwing the prolate spheroid, seeing the opposite end heading his way will be somewhat like culture shock to the nearly 6-5, 235-pounder.

So when he tweets that “I will make a great WR” after making the switch upon his release from the Bengals, he has no idea what life is like away from lining up either under or behind the center.

Unless he’s the greatest athlete since Jim Brown ever to pull on a Browns jersey, he will encounter all kinds of problems as he learns a position so radically different  than the one he’s used to.

Instead of watching his receivers run routes, he will run them himself. It takes many years to learn the nuances of the position and he will have to be a sensationally quick study to come even close in camp.

Receivers run much more than quarterbacks. They must run precise routes. They are called on to block. That’s the mental part of the game Pryor might find difficult.

About the only area Pryor will find simpler is learning the playbook. Far less to absorb. Quarterbacks are charged with the most responsibility of any player on the team on either side of the ball.

Route discipline, especially in the Browns’ conservative move-the-ball–slowly offense this season, is essential. It is not learned overnight. Recognition of what the opposition is doing on defense also will be new to Pryor.

Catching the ball while on the move with someone headed in your general direction can play havoc with your concentration. The kind of hits wideouts absorb is significantly different than those taken by quarterbacks. A plus are his large hands.

It is going to be a long, uphill climb for the desperate Pryor. There have been a few quarterbacks who made a successful switch from quarterback to wide receiver, the most notable being Hines Ward, who quarterbacked at Georgia.

Some like Matt Jones and Brad Smith failed. Others like Joshua Cribbs, Antwaan Randle El, Marlin Briscoe, Freddie Solomon and Gene Washington found moderate success.

But none of the above ever made the switch this late in their careers. That’s what is facing Pryor, who it would appear is going to have to learn to play the game all over again from a much different perspective.

So while the move by the Browns is probably being met with some excitement in some quarters of Browns Nation, cautious optimism is about the best they can hope for with the ex-quarterback, especially since the club's weak receivers corps can't get any worse.

Friday, June 19, 2015

RIP Johnny Football?

So Johnny Football is gone. Dead and buried. Never to be heard from again.

So, too, is the money sign. You know that stupid little thing when Johnny Football – oops, sorry – make that Johnny Manziel rubs the thumb on his hands together with his index and middle fingers after a touchdown he produces.

Gone. Dead and buried. Never to be seen again.

Why? Because that’s what Manziel declared the other day to the Cleveland media. And then, like most of what Manziel says or does these days, it went viral. The declaration went world wide.

Yep. The days of Johnny Football are now just a small slice of football history. Rest in peace.

Do you buy that?

Sure, Manziel confessed the image he established and then nurtured at Texas A&M proved a massive distraction once he entered the world of professional football. He said as much to the media.

“I feel bad about that today,” he said with a straight face. “I feel bad about that throughout the last months of my life really thinking back and seeing how much of my life outside of this field and outside of this locker room was documented.”

He further admitted he could not handle the persona that accompanied him to the National Football League. “It just overtook who I was as a person,” he said. “I think at times Johnny Football probably took over me a little bit, too, and I bought into that.”

Continuing his self-analysis, Manziel said, “I think I didn’t do my best to hush things down, push down the hype. I think at times I welcomed it with immaturity and just accepted that a little bit. And that’s my fault.”

It sure is easy to look back and second-guess your behavior and label it immature while issuing what amounts to a giant mea culpa.

It never occurred to Manziel that he was a sideshow as the 2014 season unfolded? It never occurred to him he was living under a microscope? And it never occurred to him he was a polarizing figure? Really?

It began with the “hurry up and draft me because I want to be there; I want to wreck this league together” text he sent then Browns quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains on college draft night last year.

It then spiraled out of control from there and wound up with two awful performances as a starter when he replaced an ineffective Brian Hoyer toward the tail end of last season.

So it’s good to know Johnny Football and the money signs are gone from the Cleveland sports scene. (But the cynic in me says they will reappear somewhere down the line when Manziel eventually moves on to another NFL team.)

All it took was one season of reckless behavior as an NFL rookie to come to the conclusion that one year was all that was needed for Manziel to grow up. No more outside distractions. It’s all about football now.

“I just want to be a another player on this team who is in here trying to get better and just trying to be successful,” he said. “My focus is on football. It’s what I’m here to do. It’s what I love to do and that’s what I’m here to talk about.”

Referring to his 10-week stay this past spring at a rehab center in Pennsylvania for what was reportedly a drinking problem, he later added, ”I’m trying to close a chapter of my life and move forward and continue to build on things I’ve done throughout this offseason.”

All the right words uttered with an appearance of sincerity. But for some reason, they come off as disingenuous. Manziel has enjoyed the glory and the attention for too long to shut it off just like that.

We are being led to believe he will be just one of the guys from now on. No outside distractions. No nonsense. Just football.

So . . . do you buy the notion that the Browns quarterback who wears No. 2 this season is a changed young man?

I’ll cast the first vote: No.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Good luck, coach

Mike Pettine has declared the latest Johnny Manziel escapade a non-story. The Browns’ head coach is absolutely correct. But that does not eliminate a problem.

When Manziel tossed a partially loaded water bottle in the direction of a heckler at a professional golf tournament last weekend in Dallas, it became international news.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But it took on a much larger meaning than it should have because it involved one of the stars of the TMZ World who happens to play quarterback for the Browns.

What it should not be is one of the items on Pettine’s agenda. He has much more to worry about than Manziel. Much, much, much more. And yet, there it is.

Yes, it is a non-story that has become a story in spite of being a non-story. And it joins the list of other Manziel off-the-field exploits that were much more newsworthy than this.

Taking time out to talk about his quarterback’s off-the-field life is nothing more than annoyance for Pettine. He, of course, would much rather discuss the positives about the changed Manziel. He can and does, but it is overshadowed by incidents such as the latest one.

Unfortunately, that will continue to be the case because Manziel is a human magnet when it comes to trouble. It seeks – and usually finds – him rather than the other way around.

It will remain that way as long as he pursues a career in professional football. Whether it’s with the Browns or some other National Football League team, he will be the focus regardless of his status with the team.

Whether or not he did it deliberately, he built and nurtured the Manziel brand. He has made himself a target. He’s Johnny Football. A former Heisman Trophy winner. He cannot escape the world he created. He brought it on himself.

Practically every move he makes is scrutinized. Not fair and yet a reality of life. He has no private life. When he steps out in public, the world becomes one gigantic camera. He is a lightning rod. He can’t get out of his own way.

There are a lot of crazy people lurking out there to make life miserable for him. It’s as though he walks around with an enormous bull’s-eye on his back that beckons trouble.

While at Texas A&M, Manziel enjoyed wearing that target. He was a star there. It’s a whole lot different now. Now, he is discovering that unless you translate collegiate success into pro football success, all that glitz and glamour is nothing more than a distraction, an impediment to the ultimate goal.

There’s an excellent chance we’ll never know how good Manziel can be as a pro. His non-football adventures have become a mitigating factor.

Coaches have enough to do without outside interference. It is something with which Pettine has to deal as long as he and Manziel are employed by the Browns.

Manziel needs to keep the lowest of low profiles from now on if he is serious about his job. Moving to a golf community from his downtown Cleveland digs was a step in the right direction.

But he’s still only 22 years old and likes to have a good time. That, of course, flies in the face of the low profile the club probably wishes he would keep.

Is there a solution? Probably not. Will the media pester Pettine again this season about his backup quarterback’s behavior? Count on it. Comes with the territory.

Pettine’s biggest challenge will be to make certain the rest of his locker room is not distracted by whatever trouble in which Manziel eventually finds himself embroiled.  His team will have enough trouble maintaining focus in what is certain to be a pivotal season with regard to the coach’s future employment.

As for Manziel, his situation is one he’s going to have to live with for the rest of his professional football career. Once that stops, his TMZ World comes crashing down. Where and when that stops, though, is anyone’s guess.