It's hard enough for quarterbacks to succeed at the NFL level. It's even harder when they're not supposed to.
Can his game translate to the NFL level?
I hate that question. I mean, it's never been asked about me, obviously... but it's all you hear when you hear the name 'Johnny Manziel'. I don't hate the phrase because I think there's zero reason to ask it – and with a guy like Manziel, there certainly is. He's short, he runs way too much, and he seems to walk on water with the ongoing luck like Tony Danza did when he kept pitching in the final innings of Angels in the Outfield. Eventually, that luck's going to run out. Well, it should have already... and it hasn't. So there are questions and we need to ask them, so we toss them up in the air and hope the answer lands on green. But, basically, I understand the need to ask that question – because quarterbacks are prototypically Manning-esque in their height and mobility and basic-ness. Quarterbacks have the personality of a Hallmark card, and any slight deviation from the excruciatingly boring norm is about as far from the line as a Shoebox card is. Remember, it's a little division of Hallmark – and affiliate alternate that lets the rest of the suburban company experiment once or twice, like how a golf pro will have a shot of tequila and say, "No more for me, thanks!" or how BMW has Fiat.
So, it's not Manziel. It's the NFL.
Asking that question – can his game translate to the NFL level? – is the kind thing a reporter asks when he wants to tee himself up. He won't take a pitch and answer the real question he doesn't know the answer to it – which is a simple, Will he be a good NFL quarterback? or more directly for the point of tomorrow, Will he be worth a first-round pick? – so he tosses the ball to himself and plays catch.
When we ask whether a guy can translate to the NFL, what are we really asking? And who are we asking that of?
There seems to be some perception that players control their professional fate, but that's hardly true. Manziel is now being compared ot Russell Wilson or Drew Brees, but it should be noted that those two quarterbacks – the latter a sure-fire Hall of Famer and the former a Luke to Brees's Obi-Wan – fell into pleasant situations with the perfect coaches for them, eventually.
Brees had to flunk out of San Diego before he was rescued by New Orleans and Sean Payton. The team stopped its bleeding at about the same time the city stopped its own – remember, this is Katrina era – and Brees isn't leaving Louisiana any time soon. Just like BP's oil.
Wilson played at two colleges and excelled each time, only to earn himself a third-round selection, behind the obvious top two in Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, and even behind Ryan Tannehill (no shame there), Brandon Weeden (want some butterscotch, old man?) and Brock Osweiler (MIA behind Peyton Mannign in Denver). When he went to Seattle, he was expected to ride the pine behind Matt Flynn, but coach Pete Carroll took a flyer on Wilson, which is fitting because the Seahawks took a flyer on Carroll. Wilson struggled out of the gate and the Hawks slumped to a middle-of-the-road record. But then the pint-sized fan of Christ lit it up, taking the Seahawks to the second round of the NFL playoffs in his first year – singlehandedly triumphing over RGIII and the Redskins before his Achilles-like effort came up just short against Atlanta. In his second season, Wilson and the Seahawks went 13-3 and won the franchise's first Super Bowl, running over an impressive gamut of New Orleans (BREES), San Francisco, and Denver doing so.
But not everyone gets the same chance. Few will. And you know why?
Coaches control who plays well in the NFL. They control the roster, they control their rookies' first impressions, and they control the strategic fate of their team.
Reporters and columnists then control the conversation, and don't they love it when a titan falls apart? Or, they love it when they succeed according to plan. Or, even better, when they succeed and then fail and then return to the top of the food chain again. (Keep an eye on Robert Griffin this season to watch how that plays out.)
The league loves hyperbole. Passing the buck onto a quarterback like Manziel is more of the same.
THIS IS THE NFL. New York City. Broadway... THE APPLE.
The NFL Draft is a show – a show with three months of posturing, fake news, and empty headlines. Only 5% of the NFL is the Draft itself. And it's real easy to sh*t on a quarterback.
But how many of them ever get the shake they deserve or – and this is really important – the shake they need?
Tom Brady ascended to the Hall of Fame as the 199th pick and then an injury replacement for the once-great Drew Bledsoe. Now, he's TOM BRADY. And what about Vince Young? Didn't he field the same questions about whether he was an NFL quarterback in 2006, before he was drafted in the first round by the Tennessee Titans? Now, Young has been bounced around and basically bounced out of the league, clinging to tryout contracts and roles waxed down the depth chart. He's not seen as an NFL quarterback anymore. Well, he never was. But Young's win-loss record is 31-19. Maybe that's not the most important or telling stat for a quarterback, but isn't it also fair to say that Young never was able to turn around the clearly negative and oppressive reputation he came into the league with?
What about Doug Flutie? All he did in 1999 was go 10-5 with the Buffalo Bills, leading them a playoff spot they – all things considered – never deserved. You know what happened next. The Bills inexplicably started Rob Johnson in their opening round elimination game against the Titans, and they lost on the last play of the game, the Music City Miracle.
Flutie never got his shake because he, like Manziel, was small. He was undersized. He was a miracle worker, not a mill worker.
Manziel suffers from the same cancer, only he's not the one who's sick.
The NFL and the culture its amoeba upholds has always treated its players like cards about to be folded. And when it comes to the NFL Draft, it's like Roger Goodell and everyone else on the tall side is opening up their home to three days of the biggest, glitziest, most glamorous affair you've ever seen, welcoming you with open arms only to sit you down and ask you, "Now, do you really think you deserve this?"
Did you ever have your Dad buy you something, and then he takes it away from you and calls you spoiled? You were confused, right? And he got to hold it over you the whole time... because he's your Dad and he owns you, at least then.
Leave it to the National Football League to show itself off like it's Gatsby walking Nick Carraway and his gardens, only the NFL patronizes you the entire time... it gives you a treat so it can't give you a second. What did Buster Bluth say about Lucille in Arrested Development? "It's like she gets off on being withholding." Voila.
There are lots of people out there who would love to see Manziel fail, even though he's done everything he's been asked so far. He was the first-ever Freshman to win the Heisman in 2012. His season that year included a shocking toppling of then-No. 1 Alabama. He followed his first campaign up with another thrilla' for A&M. He's been called the most exciting player in college football, by far, but he's also been called one of the worst decision makers in the history of the draft. Yes, a poor decision maker, but he's looked damn good doing it. And he wins. Has won.
And he's confident. There have been a lot of high-profile pivots who came flying out of the NFL Draft and imploded upon their arrival in the bigs. Ryan Leaf in San Diego, sure. David Carr? I don't think I've ever heard him speak. Joey Harrington and Tim Couch and (recently) Jimmy Clausen. Listen, if you want to doubt everyone, you'll have no trouble assembling examples to do so.
But listen to Manziel talk… This is him when asked if teams will regret not picking him, tonight:
"I believe they will, personally... I know in my heart how good I want to be and how committed I am to this game... (Teams) have been getting to know me on a more personal level, and I've answered every question, anything they've wanted to hear from me – so there's nothing for me to hide."
This a year removed from his Heisman and summer that saw him clubbing, cuffing, and livin' big in Texas. He answered his critics – who were focusing their tritons on his personal level and not his on-the-field work, because they needed something to affirm their preconceptions about a guy who was just too damn exciting for their Puritanical tastes – by winning big in his first game back, and then showering the field with invisible dollar bills.
If there's anything that screams N–F–L, it's a cocky, childish touchdown celebration that vilifies you in the hearts of every American not wearing your sweater.
What more do you need? Should he stand in the middle of a Roman colosseum, surrounded by slayed humans and tigers he just killed himself and yelling, "Are you not entertained?"
Well, of course you are. That's why you love taking about him, even if you'd bet the house against him. That's why plays like this one are somehow treated like a goofy hobby...
… Whereas this one deserves its own section in Canton.
Of course he could fail. Anyone could. The draft may be a science, but it's certainly not math.
Manziel deserves the questions. He deserves the criticism.
But if you're wondering whether he's ready for the NFL... hell, he's already been there for a year now.