The debut of Johnny Manziel as a bona fide NFL starting quarterback was nothing like the Texas native had hoped. On Dec. 14, 2014, the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Cleveland Browns in a decisive shut-out, 30-0. Had it been any other NFL rookie quarterback, many of the millions of viewers watching, including thousands of Texas Aggie fans who believe that Manziel is an important part of the future of the Cleveland Browns, would have been quick to excuse his performance as first-game jitters, and understandably so.
LeBron James, Cleveland’s beloved native son and basketball superstar who has much to gain as co-owner of the management company who handles Manziel, offered words of encouragement to his very own money-maker. Under his own “King James” Twitter handle, earlier this morning LeBron tweeted, “Best of luck to my lil’ brother @jmanziel2 on making his 1st start today. Let’s Go!!” accompanied by an Instagram picture of Johnny doing the money sign.
That singular sign of slightly egomaniacal attitude may be approved as workplace conduct for LeBron’s company, but not everyone shares that opinion. Even King James’ Twitter cover photo has the more to be expected quote “I promise to never forget where I came from.” Such cannot quite be said (yet) about young Manziel, who hails from three places before calling Cleveland his home–Tyler, Kerrville, and College Station, a Texas triumverate.
Earlier this week, thousands of Aggie fans overloaded message boards with excitement and anticipation of Manziel’s first pro start (finally) being given him, not soon enough to the liking of those who bleed maroon. Yet, Fox reporters shared they’d had a frank and intimate sit-down with Johnny on Saturday to discuss his thoughts on today’s game. They shared Manziel said he’d been thinking it had only been four years since he’d put on his high school uniform for the last time.
Not a word about Texas A&M came to their minds to share? It was a less-than-obvious nod to set the stage for another round of “he’s just a kid.” However, when the Aggie passing/running superstar signed a multimillion-dollar pro contract, that “young kid” dog won’t hunt anymore, as they say in Texas. This is the big leagues and it’s useless to remind people you used to be in high school. Several first-year rookies were playing on that same NFL field today, just doing their jobs without fanfare or excuse.
And yet in Kerrville, on Dec. 5, 2014, reporter Jonny Auping filed a surprising report from an expansive look around the tiny town, one of many, where Tivy High School football is king. Wanting to know more about what Kerrville thought of their (purportedly) native son, the Slate article revealed that the Kerrville folks considered Manziel an outsider from Tyler, and he was not particularly beloved either. He is hardly a hero these days in Kerrville. Read Aupling’s review here.
Whether or not Johnny Manziel could stay in the pocket, throw from the pocket, or live up to his 68% completion rate he’d established at Texas A&M, by the fourth quarter of the game, the Fox television announcers had dubbed him “the celebrity quarterback.” Such would be considered theoretically reaping what Johnny sowed in having to learn some important lessons–the hard way, the NFL way.
As ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler noted, the Bengal’s Wallace Gilberry was the first to “celebrate his sack of Johnny Manziel by flashing the quarterback’s signature money sign.” That was once. It happened again.
Also during the game, Rey Maualuga, Cincinnati linebacker, was right in Manziel’s windshield, frequently, staring him down like a Marine on a mission. In fact, when Rey did the “little money sign” right up in the face of the rookie quarterback who had, earlier this season, secured the trademark “Johnny Cleveland,” it cost the Bengals a penalty, but no one said a word. Message delivered, whether or not it was (yet) understood. “Stop doing the little money sign.”
Johnny Football’s freshman debut stats wound up not reflecting anything that his Aggie fans and supporters would have hoped for: 10 of 18 passing (to six different potential receivers, for 80 yards, with 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, along with 5 carries for 13 yards. The “off-suspension now” Josh Gordon (no Fox announcer can say Gordon’s name without reminding all viewers of his 10-game suspension penalty) caught three of Manziel’s passes for 48 yards.
Isaiah Crowell and Andrew Hawkins caught 2 passes each for a total of 17 yards, all of which embodies the word “dismal” to describe the offense today. One should recall that there are 10 other players responsible for the offense, never mind the ready-for-action Cincinnati defense, but all eyes and ears have been only one place. They’ve been on the 21st quarterback in a series of short-timers on the Cleveland QB roster, each of whom has been heralded as “the answer,” “the hopeful,” and “the solution” to a world of troubles that have dogged the Dawgs.
Three Cincinnati defenders, Carlos Dunlap, Brandon Thompson, and Geno Atkins each sacked Manziel today. It was, essentially, the heart of the game plan that Cincinnati had devised against Cleveland, “to teach Johnny a lesson.” In fact, Fox sideline reporter Pam Oliver interviewed the Bengals’ Carlos Dunlap after his JM2 sack, wherein Dunlap said “we wanted to show him (Manziel) that you can’t do the little money sign anymore. This is the NFL.”
That’s an important message, repeatedly delivered today, that hopefully emphasized to young Johnny Manziel that his peers (as he is now in their league) had spoken. The message really was delivered decidedly as nicely as it could have been. Ever since the NFL draft, no other football player has received the press, the fame, the discussion or the hype as the 22-year-old kid from Texas.
Now Johnny has only been 22 for a week or so, and until last week, it was all about “well, he’s just a 21-year-old kid” that the reporters were forced to say over and over, to explain away all of the off-field, in-season hoopla where the media darling managed to distract attention away from the Browns’ roster, game plan, and so forth.
Johnny Football sold tickets to the game; Johnny Football made Fox decide to expand its viewing audience for the noon game today; and Johnny Football secured more endorsements, courtesy of LeBron’s company, to garner him the moniker “the celebrity quarterback,” which would make even Broadway Joe Namath’s Noxema endorsement deal look, well, poor in comparison. But Johnny Manziel in his starting spot debut did not live up to the hype coming out of the gate.
Sure, the “kid” was nervous, and he knew the Cincy defense was gunning for him, but imagine the impact of not being able to shake off the distraction of the “fan encounter” just a few weeks ago, that cluttered Cleveland news wires over the dust up between Johnny and “the devoted fan.” Cincinnati read those reports and so did Johnny’s Cleveland teammates.
Then for the past recent weeks, most reporters were quick to bring up the early season NFL fine for obscenity (again), the inflatable swan (again), the Vegas bathroom photo (again) and pile on the Dawg pound for one (young) adult dressed out in a professional NFL uniform hoping to carve out a name for himself, other than “Johnny Clipboard.”
Throughout Sunday’s game, the television announcers kept trying to compare Manziel and his work habits to other, more successful and veteran quarterbacks in the league, from Russell Wilson to Tony Romo. Even Brian Hoyer was trying to lighten Manziel’s spirits on the sidelines, finally drawing a smile from the newbie, with two minutes left to go in the shutout, just in time for the Fox cameras to capture it and comment on it. Even during the Seattle-San Francisco game, the Fox announcers were rubbing it in, noting (or jabbing) that Johnny Manziel had a 27.3 quarterback rating in his debut game. Manziel will use that as fuel in his next venture forth, no doubt.
A few vintage sportscasters were greatly missed among those commenting today, though. By not having John Madden (or Frank Caliendo) on the team, viewers missed hearing “Here’s a guy over here who, who, who, should know now that ‘This is the NFL,’ and it’s not one of my video games.” Then that would cue Al Michaels to say “and….” And then the late, great Pat Summerall would have said, “Thank you, John.” Then in homage to Madden, today’s Fox-sters offered, “This is not College Station anymore.” That was the message Cincinnati was bent on impressing upon Manziel today.
One can only imagine the disdain, or wrath, with which the star of television commercials is regarded by his opponents, as no one can watch a daytime or prime-time television show without seeing “Johnny JamBoogie” sweatin’ to the oldies in a Richard Simmons send-up, selling some candy bars, presumably in self-deprecating humor.
Then there’s the Nissan spot where Johnny says “Booowwwwl game” every time he’s asked to say “Playoff.” That’s actually one of the difficulties that has confronted young Manziel; he’s still hanging onto a “good time Johnny” hanging-out-at-Chimmy’s-in Northgate” heart (he reportedly gave his credit card number the night of the NFL draft to buy drinks for the house as they watched his draft night, with them still in spirit).
Reporters noted how admirable it was that Manziel missed his hero LeBron’s birthday extravaganza earlier in the week because he was busy working, preparing for Sunday’s game. In actual fact, the locker room, the workout room, and the sidelines were where young Manziel should have been since the day he was drafted, taking his professional career choice as seriously as do his peers, and teammates. The Cincinnati Bengals had a TCU product as their quarterback, who solidly directed his team down the field and whose offensive line gave him plenty of time to throw, and options to scramble if need be.
Playtime is over. College is something Johnny Football can go return to, if and when he is ready to complete his academic studies for a degree, should that become a requirement for a future career position. The honeymoon is over. “This is the NFL.” Message sent by Cincy and received by Manziel, loud and clear. Those who know, believe in, and love Johnny Manziel believe he’ll use the lessons he’s learned today, take his lumps, and get back to basics, searching for substance to go with the buildup. Others, who think they know “the real Johnny,” whoever they believe themselves to be, are saying nothing, for now. Time will tell.