There is no question Johnny Manziel has his legion of fans who firmly believe he is never going to make it as a National Football League quarterback.
They point to his lack of height, what they perceive as an average arm and his inability to make big plays. He is not, they argue, ever going to make it in the NFL, let alone make it big.
What they fail to see, at least based on his performance since returning from Mike Pettine’s doghouse, is a decidedly different Johnny Manziel. On the field, that is. He is, so far, better than he was last season and, to a large degree, earlier this season as well.
If you watch closely enough, you can see him backing up his head coach’s words that his improvement this season alone is somewhat remarkable considering where he was at the beginning of the season.
Manziel is a work in progress. His preparation for games is evidenced by the confident manner in which he manages the huddle. He is clearly in command and winning over the other 10 guys.
The one area that seems to have improved more than any other is preparation in the quarterbacks room, in the film room. His ability to better read defenses through that study is evident.
Along with his new leadership qualities, he no longer enters games guessing what opposing defenses are planning. Having injured starter Josh McCown on the sideline to advise doesn’t hurt. His learning curve is definitely heading in the right direction.
But it was his performance in the Kansas City loss Sunday that added another notch to his NFL belt. The grit and determination with which he played in a game that was very winnable once and for all dispelled the notion that he wasn’t tough enough to be an NFL quarterback.
He took some big hits from the Chiefs, whether it was after throwing a pass or scrambling, and bounced up from every one. There was also a glint in his eye that showed he was truly enjoying himself.
More creative playcalling by offensive coordinator John DeFilippo can bring out what Manziel does best and that doesn’t necessarily mean staying in the pocket on every pass play. He needs to move, sometimes by design, as he showed against the Chiefs.
He is young enough, smart enough, quick enough and certainly fast enough to put different kinds of pressure on opposing defenses. His quick feet more often than not get him out of more trouble than less mobile quarterbacks.
At the same time, Manziel is becoming a very good ball handler, a talent DeFilippo doesn’t take enough advantage of. His excellent play fake of a pitchout froze the Kansas City defense early in the second quarter and resulted in an 18-yard pass to tight end Jim Dray down the seam on a third-and-one at the KC 47.
That’s just one small example of how much he has improved. The biggest hurdles he must overcome are his inconsistency on the field and behavior off the field. But it seems the more he plays, the more opportunities he gets to cut down on his mistakes. Rarely does he repeat them.
Off the field is where he must make the greatest adjustment. Now that he’s the starter, he has a greater responsibility to not only his teammates, but his owner and the fans. If he can harness the non-football part of his life, he embellishes all he accomplishes on the field.
All of which presents somewhat of a conundrum for the Browns. They must answer the following questions: Is Manziel the future quarterback for this franchise, which has been seeking the so-called franchise quarterback since, well, since they returned in 1999?
Has what he has accomplished in the last few games given the club pause with regard to his future in Cleveland? Is that enough of a template to accurately gauge that future? Is he a late NFL bloomer? Or is this the best they are going to see out of him? Is he the kind of a quarterback around whom you confidently build a team?
He seems to have convinced some teammates – the most notable being perennial Pro Bowl offensive tackle Joe Thomas, whose endorsement he picked up recently – that we are watching a different Johnny Manziel now.
He also impressed Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson, who lives in the Kansas City area. Asked after the game if he thought Manziel is the Browns’ quarterback of the future, the Alliance, Ohio, native pointed to several players in the Chiefs’ locker room.
“Why don’t you go around here and ask the Chiefs’ defensive players who had to run him down all day,” Dawson told the media. “Ask them, ‘Do you think he’s a starter?’ I think he is. He makes plays and most of them are good. That’s what you are looking for in this league, guys who make plays.”
Manziel has one more game at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season finale Sunday to convince most of the doubters that his immediate future is in Cleveland. The last time he faced the Steelers in mid-November, he threw for 373 yards in a 30-9 loss.
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There were only two turnovers in the Kansas City game and both were achieved in a three-play span. Browns linebackers Nate Orchard and Craig Robertson wrestled for an interception of an Alex Smith pass with less than seven minutes left in the second quarter.
Orchard ripped the ball out of Robertson’s hands and returned it 46 yards to the Kansas City 41-yard line. A couple of Chiefs thought Robertson had the ball and tackled him. It was only the fifth pick for Smith this season and the first Cleveland takeaway in four games. Orchard later recorded the Browns’ only sack of the game.
Two plays later after Orchard’s theft, Chiefs rookie cornerback Marcus Peters picked off Manziel for his eighth interception of the season on a poorly thrown ball. It prolonged a Kansas City takeaway streak that reached 11 games.
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The Cleveland running game has come alive in the last three games. After compiling just 254 yards on the ground in a five-game span leading up to the San Francisco victory on Dec. 13, the Browns have reeled off 556 yards in the last three games. Of course, 108 of those yards in Sunday’s game belonged to Manziel, establishing a club record for quarterbacks.
Included are games of 230 yards (San Francisco), 94 (Seattle) and 232 (Kansas City). What makes the Chiefs’ total remarkable is the offensive line played with backups at both guards. Austin Pasztor and rookie Cameron Erving played strong games.
It was a Pasztor trap block that sprung Isaiah Crowell loose on a 28-yard romp over right guard on the first play of the Brown’ second possession of the game. And Erving was solid in his pass protection. The Chiefs got close to Manziel, but never sacked him.
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Notebook: Dwayne Bowe was shut out in his return to Kansas City, The former Chiefs wide receiver was targeted just once by Manziel. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. watch: The rookie running back touched the ball 11 times for 41 yards. . . . Tight end Gary Barnidge continues to be Manziel’s favorite receiver with eight targets against the Chiefs. They connected just three times, Manziel twice missing a wide open Barnidge. . . . The Chiefs ran 19 plays in the first quarter. The Browns ran only seven. After the first three series of the second half, the Browns had run 30 plays and the Chiefs only six. . . . Too bad we had to wait until game 15 to see some bold, inventive coaching by the Browns’ staff. When you are 3-11, there’s not much to lose by gambling. The fake punt was long overdue and well executed.