Souhan: Zimmer must decide if Manziel can play, even if he's unorthodox

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2014 - 11:31 AM

The 2012 Heisman winner likes a good time; will he be a great QB?

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New Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer answers a question during a media availability at Winter Park in Eden Prairie, Minn., Friday, Jan. 17, 2014. Zimmer is the ninth head coach in the Vikings franchise history.(AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

Usually when we meet a new Vikings coach, we ask for honesty.

My first hope for Mike Zimmer is a little different. I hope he’s lying.

We don’t know enough about Zimmer to know what to make of his critical comments about Johnny Manziel, but because of them we might know a lot more about Zimmer in five weeks.

We might know then whether Zimmer prides himself on being an old-school taskmaster who can’t stomach a flamboyant personality. Or we might find out that Zimmer was willing to lie to hide his true intentions.

Maybe the Vikings won’t have the opportunity to draft Manziel, but if they do have a chance to select him and they pass on him, we will know that Zimmer was being honest when he criticized Manziel. If the Vikings take Manziel, we will know Zimmer was fibbing.

I’m not sure which would be worse.

Zimmer separated himself from other coaching candidates because of his ability to extract value from troubled or underachieving players. He has done so as a defensive coordinator. As a head coach, he likely dreams of a prototypical quarterback with a prototypical personality. Everyone wants someone like Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck, whose refined skills are surpassed by obsessive work habits.

Most NFL teams have to find an alternative path. The Vikings need to find a young quarterback who can succeed even if he doesn’t remind anyone of Manning or Luck. They need to find their own Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick or Nick Foles.

Manziel isn’t a sure thing. He’s not big. He often prefers scrambling to reading defenses. But while the NFL loves prototypes, the league too often ignores outliers.

Wilson is an undersized, scrambling quarterback. Kaepernick is a sprinter who can throw. The current iteration of Peyton Manning lacks arm strength, as did Joe Montana in his prime. Fran Tarkenton’s scrambling would have been considered a negative if he were coming out of college today.

Brett Favre was once traded because he partied too much, and then he partied all over Wisconsin while winning a Super Bowl. Joe Namath wore pantyhose and thoroughly enjoyed Manhattan’s late closing hours.

There are quarterbacks in the NFL Hall of Fame who were drunks and jerks, and for every prototype who became a winner there are two oddities who won just as much.

If Zimmer doubts Manziel’s abilities, he should say so. If he is downgrading Manziel because he listens to Drake and wants to hang out with LeBron, Zimmer is making a mistake.

For his first calendar year as a national phenomenon, Manziel was a pain in the hip pad.

What happened in his second year, after an offseason of partying and using the Heisman Trophy to open velvet ropes? He played even better. Facing SEC defenses that had spent the summer devising game plans to stop him, facing remarkable pressure for a college kid, Manziel completed a higher percentage of his passes for more yards and touchdowns while taking fewer sacks and running less.

Would Manziel be the first player at Winter Park and the last to leave? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe in the future. As a young player, Favre was highly undisciplined. As a veteran, he would take game films home and watch them. He didn’t pride himself on office hours. He threw for more yards than any quarterback ever.

Dan Marino lasted until the 27th pick in the 1983 draft because of rumors that he had a drug problem.

Vikings history is littered with young players who were considered problematic and offered great value, including Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Percy Harvin. The last time the Vikings ditched a quarterback because he seemed smaller than a prototype, Rich Gannon later emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the league.

The last time a young baseball player was as good and as flamboyant as Manziel, he turned into Bryce Harper, whose big-league résumé is better than most Hall of Famers at his age.

If Zimmer doesn’t like Manziel’s mechanics or velocity, so be it. If he’s writing off Manziel because he might be a “celebrity-man guy,” as Zimmer said, then Zimmer needs to study NFL history, and maybe download some Drake.

 

Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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