It was a busted play or a thing of beauty depending on one’s perspective — and there are plenty of them.
Staring down the fearsome Alabama defense in Tuscaloosa as a redshirt freshman, Johnny Manziel caught a shotgun snap, ran into his right tackle, bobbled the ball as he stumbled back into the pocket, then rolled to his left to casually toss a touchdown pass.
It wasn’t how the Texas A&M coaching staff drew it up, but that was the signature play in an upset win that transformed “Johnny Football” from a cult hero into a household name.
Seventeen months, one Heisman Trophy, several school records and countless web clicks later, Manziel is the most polarizing prospect entering the NFL draft. Some analysts project the scrambler as a top-five talent, while others knock him for his lack of size, improvisational playing style or perpetual presence in the spotlight off the field.
If Manziel still is fidgeting in the green room when the Vikings are on the clock at No. 8 overall the night of May 8, the organization faces a quandary: Is Manziel a transformative player who is entering the NFL at the perfect time or is he an overhyped, overexposed celebrity quarterback whose unusual skill set won’t transfer to the pros?
“You’re going to hear from a lot of people that the game is changing,” said Greg Cosell, longtime senior producer for NFL Films. “Are we saying now that pocket play is down the list of attributes that you’re looking for? Is that no longer a strong requirement to play the position in the NFL? These are just questions, and smart, reasonable people will have different answers.”
Manziel breaks the mold of top quarterback prospects, and it’s not only because he likely will become the first quarterback shorter than 6 feet to be drafted in the first round since 1953.
For decades, teams coveted pocket passers such as Peyton Manning and Drew Bledsoe, players who stood tall and strong-armed the football to open receivers. But thanks to Michael Vick and a wave of mobile quarterbacks who have come in his wake — along with the infiltration of spread offenses and read-option concepts in the NFL in recent years — general managers such as Rick Spielman of the Vikings are forced to reconsider the future of the position.
Manziel, who has a slight build and is an eighth of an inch under 6 feet, has a more than competent arm and was able to threaten the whole field with both it and his legs at Texas A&M. Not only did he scramble for 2,169 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns in his two seasons as a starter, he also displayed uncanny body control while throwing accurately on the move, whether he was running right or throwing against the grain to his left.
“A defensive coach is going to be more apt to be interested in Manziel because they’re going to have an appreciation for what he brings to the table with those ad-lib type of plays,” said Phil Savage, the former Cleveland Browns GM who is now the executive director of the Senior Bowl.
Some argue he often left easy completions on the field so Manziel, who had the NCAA’s third-best passer rating in 2013, wants to prove he can play in a structured system in the NFL.
“There’s times where plays aren’t going to go as scripted as people draw them up on the white board. … There’s going to be times where you need to take off and get outside the pocket and extend plays,” Manziel said at the scouting combine in February. “But at the same time I want to be a guy who can drop back and go through my progressions, go through my reads and really take what’s given to me by the defense.”
Despite piling up 7,820 career passing yards with 63 TD passes, Manziel sometimes struggled when opponents purposefully pinned him in the pocket, and the pounding he took after taking off affected his play late last season. And although he never missed a game in college, evaluators are concerned about his longevity in the NFL.
Like Manziel on those Saturday afternoons, opinions on him are all over the place.
Todd McShay called him the draft’s most intriguing player, while fellow ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. believes Manziel is the biggest risk among quarterback prospects. The NFL Network’s Mike Mayock believes Manziel is different from all the other quarterbacks he has scouted over the years. Ron Jaworski, the former Eagles QB who works for ESPN, said if he was a GM and not another one of these highly regarded talking heads he wouldn’t touch Manziel in the first two rounds.
One of Manziel’s staunchest supporters is Gil Brandt, the legendary scouting guru who helped build the powerhouse Dallas Cowboys teams of the 1970s. While championing Manziel as the top prospect in this draft, Brandt checked off many of the attributes for which he has looked in a half-century of evaluating quarterbacks — intelligence, athleticism, competitiveness, arm talent, work ethic.
“Drew Brees and Vick showed us that 6-foot quarterbacks can be successful, and he’s just a fraction under that,” said Brandt, now an analyst for SiriusXM radio. “Like everything in life, it changes. When [former Viking Fran] Tarkenton came into the league, people doubted that he could be successful. The unfortunate thing is that we didn’t have another Tarkenton after Tarkenton.”
His roller coaster style of play ensures that Manziel, who idolized Vick and former Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, will generate excitement wherever he begins his NFL career.
“There is going to be a lot of buzz about this kid,” Savage said. “And it’s going to be fascinating to watch.”
Will the attention that will follow Manziel make teams hesitate? Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, after meeting with Manziel in March, expressed concern in a radio interview that Manziel might be more concerned with being a celebrity than a great quarterback.
Manziel has posed with NBA stars such as LeBron James and celebs such as Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel. He sat on a couch next to Jay Leno. Kicked it with the guys from “Duck Dynasty” in the French Quarter. Hit the club with rapper Rick Ross. Created a secret hand gesture with Drake. Even former President George H.W. Bush and wife Barbara had a front-row seats in a golf cart at Manziel’s pro day.
The only places where Manziel has been spotted more often than the end zone are Deadspin and TMZ.
“I’m from a small town of Kerrville, Texas — 20,000 people,” Manziel said. “I get lost in kind of the people who make me out to be a big Hollywood guy. [I’m] really just still a small-town kid.”
Manziel also made headlines for being arrested after his redshirt year for disorderly conduct and possessing a fake ID, was scrutinized for oversleeping and being sent home from the Manning Passing Academy last summer and got suspended for the first half of Texas A&M’s 2013 season opener after unproven accusations that he was paid to sign autographs.
“[I’m] continuing to learn from my mistakes and continuing to grow up,” Manziel said. “I have an opportunity now moving into a professional phase. This is life now, this is a job for me. Taking it very seriously, and I’m really excited about the future.”
Plenty of choices
But with jobs usually at risk whenever a quarterback is selected in the first round, some teams might be unwilling to risk it with Manziel and go with a more stable option under center.
Spielman, Zimmer and the Vikings have been spending the past few weeks poking and prodding quarterbacks, from the consensus first-rounders in Manziel, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Central Florida’s Blake Bortles to other prospects such as Fresno State’s Derek Carr, Louisiana State’s Zach Mettenberger and Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who rarely relied on dual-threat quarterbacks in the past, will have input in the decision.
While the Vikings might have several intriguing options from which to choose, none moves the pocket or the meter like Manziel.
“I think his strength at this point in time is the ability to make random, arbitrary improvisational-type plays,” Cosell said. “And that to me is not something you want to hang your hat on. … Others may disagree, but I don’t think you can live on the edge playing quarterback in the NFL.”
Soon, one team — maybe even the Vikings — will bet the house that Johnny Football can.