We Still Have No Idea How Good Johnny Manziel Can Be in the NFL

By Jason McIntyre
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Johnny Manziel is now 1-2 as an NFL starting QB after the beat-up Browns got run over in the 2nd half on Thursday night football, losing to the undefeated Bengals on the road, 31-10.

Manziel, 22, started one game as a rookie that he finished – also against the Bengals; he started against Carolina but was knocked out – and this was his 2nd start in 2015 for the injured Josh McCown. Against the Bengals, Manziel showed glimpses of his potential as a pro quarterback, mostly in the first half: Scrambling a few times for 1st downs, zipping in a touchdown pass on the run to Duke Johnson, and unloading a couple quick slants under duress. The Bengals defensive line made adjustments in the second half to remove his scrambling lanes, and simply overpowered the Browns offensive line.

Here are some important things to remember for the “he’s not a pro QB” crowd:

  • Manziel turns 23 next month. Russell Wilson, who is similar in size to Manziel, had started 49 games in college and 11 in the pros by his 23rd birthday. Manziel’s starts: 26/4.
  • Manziel’s starting wide receivers Thursday night: Dwyane Bowe (0 catches entering the game), Travis Benjamin and Taylor Gabriel. The two would-be starters, Brian Hartline (injured) and Josh Gordon (suspended) did not play.

We don’t know if Johnny Manziel is capable of being a pro QB. We just don’t know. A year and a half into his career, there are understandably grave doubts about whether or not he can succeed in the NFL for a variety of reasons. But opportunity and fit are extremely important. To everyone.

Sixth round draft pick Tom Brady was forced onto the field by injury over a decade ago, and teamed with Bill Belichick – who had failed as a coach in Cleveland, remember? – and the two are the most successful QB/coach tandem in NFL history.

Wilson fell to the 3rd round in Seattle, and he and Pete Carroll – who won at USC but failed previously in the NFL with the Patriots – have been to back-to-back Super Bowls.

In 2011, Matthew Stafford threw for over 5,000 yards, tossed 41 TDs, and was tied for 9th in the NFL in “QBR,” ahead of Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. Now Stafford is struggling behind the 31st-rated offensive line, they still don’t have a running back, and the front office has been gutted (the coaching staff is next). Now Stafford is a bum and his $17 million salary is an albatross and he should be traded, they say.

Colin Kaepernick was, as ESPN’s Ron Jaworski said a few years ago, on his way to being one of the greatest QBs in NFL history. Kapernick beat the Packers twice in the playoffs, once at home, once on the road. He came within yards of a Super Bowl win. And now he’s been benched for Blaine Gabbert, one of the biggest NFL draft busts in the last decade. Kaepernick’s offensive line is gone, his rabbi left for Michigan, and the franchise is in disarray.

Would circumstances be different for Manziel if, say, he were traded to … the Arizona Cardinals? Capable running backs. A trio of wide receivers who are all better than what he has in Cleveland. Carson Palmer had a terrific run in Cincinnati, then it looked like his career was going to die in Oakland, but he’s joined forces with Bruce Arians and Palmer is again one of the top QBs in the NFL.

You can make this circular argument for almost anyone, but eventually, the QB has to show something. Manziel hasn’t shown enough yet. But he’s only played in parts of 10 NFL games and thrown 118 passes.

Yes, Josh McCown is one of the top-rated QBs in the NFL behind the 2nd best offensive line (according to Pro Football Focus) and same weak receivers that Manziel played with. He’s also 36 years old and has played on nine teams over the last 12 years (many as a clipboard-holding backup). Unlike Manziel, he possesses the ability to read a defense and make quick decisions.

Can Manziel read a defense? Not yet. He’s still tucking and running almost everytime his first option is taken away. He’s working with a 1st year offensive coordinator in John DeFilippo, and to judge Manziel on a game in which he had one day of practice to travel for a Thursday night game against a top-tier defense would be silly.

Manziel has off-the-field demons to wrestle with, too. He’s got to grow up. But he’s 22. Were you grown up at 22? The problem for everyone who wasn’t – you’re not under the microscope to do so quickly. Time might be running out for Manziel. Perhaps foolishly, I’m not ready to write him off just yet.

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