What's next for Johnny Manziel? A season of professional football … somewhere
AUSTIN, Texas — The wind was howling, with gusts up to 30 miles per hour. The temperature had fallen to 39 degrees, which is unconscionably bone-chilling for these parts. About 500 fans remained in the stands of a high school stadium, hoping that Johnny Manziel could spin the kind of magic he was known for as a high school and college player in central Texas.
Manziel sprinted onto the field, eager to lead his Spring League team to a final scoring drive that would cap his first game in 832 days. Then a teammate jumped offsides. Two players dropped his passes and then, on fourth down, came a defensive jailbreak he could not elude.
This is where Manziel found himself on a Saturday night in April, not in an NFL offseason program, but instead in a minor league game surrounded by long shots and never-will-bes. And with it came the realization that whatever attributes he can demonstrate to NFL scouts here in two Spring League games, it won’t be his best, and it certainly won’t be enough to sway a skeptical team to make him an offer. Those decisions will rest in an evaluation of his off-field behavior and maturity, not whether he is leading game-winning drives in April.
Speaking emotionally afterward, Manziel acknowledged his own mistakes in the game — including a fumble — and said his most important achievement Saturday night was simply being on the field.
“I would hope that people know that football nonetheless is a team game,” he said. “It takes all 11 of us in sync with the snap count, with the blocking, with the routes, with everything.
“I don’t think I have to play perfect. I just have to play.”
So where does that leave the NFL — or the Canadian Football League, for that matter — as offseason rosters are being finalized? From what I can tell, the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats covet Manziel while NFL teams know they will get limited insight at best from a two-week stint in a developmental league.
Regardless, I spent some time in Austin this week seeking the same answers as pro scouts from both leagues. I was told that Manziel has been attentive and interactive during twice-a-day meetings, which is a notable contrast to his admittedly poor work habits when he was with the Cleveland Browns. Terry Shea, a longtime NFL quarterbacks coach who leads the Spring League’s football operations, said Manziel has peppered him with questions.
“And they’re not elementary questions, either,” Shea said. “We’ll introduce him to, say, a play where a quarterback can go to the line of scrimmage and have a ‘check with me’ to one run or another. And then he’ll say, ‘Coach, I understand doing it that way, but would you ever consider it this way instead, and here’s why?’ He’s not challenging. He’s inquiring, and that shows me an active and engaged mind.”
To be clear, we award no prizes when professional athletes act professionally. But Manziel’s past shortcomings in that area are probably the biggest concern NFL teams have. So for the past 10 days at least, we can say that Manziel has put his full attention on his job.
Fellow Spring League quarterback Cody Keith, who played at East Carolina and UNC-Charlotte, said Manziel has called him daily to discuss play installation and options.
“He’s taking it very, very seriously,” Keith said. “I promise you, he knows his past has creeped up and he is taking this very, very seriously. He wants another shot.”
What should NFL executives know about Manziel’s performance in Austin? Shea, for one, has no doubts about the review he would give.
“My bottom line is that there is no doubt in my mind that someone should sign him,” Shea said. “I’ve seen enough of the quarterback skill. His endurance has not been an issue.
“I’ve never been around Johnny Manziel until this moment in time, but I see a very quick arm. I see very active eyes. He sees things and particularly when he’s on the move, those classic Johnny Manziel plays, I’ve seen those come up here.”
Three more days of practice and one final game await Manziel in the Spring League, after which he’ll hit an important leverage point in his comeback. He has a standing offer from the Tiger-Cats, which according to league rules would require a two-year commitment.
Two of the Tiger-Cats’ top scouts — general manager Eric Tillman and assistant general manager Shawn Burke — were in Austin for Saturday’s game. Camps open in mid-May, giving Manziel roughly a month to wait out any NFL interest before the CFL clock starts ticking.
Speaking Saturday night, Manziel said he would either sign with an NFL team this spring or “work until I get back there.”
No one is going to anoint Johnny Manziel a changed man just yet. But if he has turned a corner in his professional comportment, he’ll be able to point back to this time in Austin as a pivotal moment. In his own words, he has demonstrated “everyday behavior” befitting a professional athlete. It still might not be enough to merit an immediate NFL roster spot, but its continued manifestation means he’ll be playing — somewhere, quite possibly in Canada — in 2018.