Texas A&M handling Johnny Manziel like starter amid investigation
Johnny Manziel faced his first blitz of the season this weekend, and like most of the pass rushes he faced last fall, he appeared to emerge unscathed. The Texas A&M quarterback got grilled by NCAA investigators for six hours on Sunday regarding accusations that he was paid for autographs this offseason. On Monday, Manziel took the starter's reps at a light practice in advance of Saturday's season opener against Rice.
That last part is the most telling. The NCAA doesn't comment on open investigations, and Texas A&M officials and the Manziel family have declined to comment publicly on the case. Even Manziel's attorney, Jim Darnell, has been tight-lipped after an initial public relations salvo. Not much hard information emerged until late Monday night when ESPN.com's Travis Haney broke the story of the meeting with NCAA investigators. (A Texas A&M source confirmed the details to SI.com.) With so little news, the best way to gauge the progress of the investigation has been to watch how Texas A&M has handled Manziel. He's taking the bulk of the first-team reps this week. The coaching staff, which is advised by athletic department and school administrators, is going ahead as if Manziel will start Saturday and beyond.
If the Aggies are concerned that the NCAA will pull Manziel off the field, they aren't acting like it. That wasn't the case two weeks ago. At that point, under the guise of a backup quarterback derby, coaches limited Manziel's first-team reps. This was necessary for two reasons. First, Texas A&M coaches actually did need to identify a backup quarterback. Freshman Kenny Hill had arrived, and he joined a competition that included Matt Joeckel and Matt Davis. Second, the coaches wanted to develop that backup in case they didn't have Manziel for some or all of the 2013 season.
There are two kinds of backup quarterbacks. There is the guy who can finish a game if the starter gets hurt, and there is a guy who can take over the offense if the starter is sidelined for a longer period. In some cases, those two guys are the same person. At South Carolina, if starter Connor Shaw gets hurt, backup Dylan Thompson can finish the game and then assume command of the offense for as long as necessary. In other cases, those two guys are different people. When Michigan's Denard Robinson injured his elbow last year against Nebraska, Russell Bellomy finished the game. But when coaches realized the injury would keep Robinson from throwing the rest of the season, they moved Devin Gardner, who had switched to receiver eight weeks earlier, back to quarterback. They considered Gardner the guy who could lead the offense long-term. At Texas A&M, Joeckel and Davis were the guys who could finish a game. Hill, who was named the Texas Class 5A player of the year last season as a senior at Southlake Carroll High, was the guy who gave the Aggies the best chance to win long-term if Manziel couldn't play for any reason.
So Hill won the backup job, and Davis recently announced his intention to transfer. But last week, when the Aggies had to decide which quarterback to start getting ready for the season opener, Manziel began taking the bulk of the first-team reps again. What does that mean? It means the attorneys representing Manziel and Texas A&M felt confident the NCAA didn't have any smoking gun evidence with which to ensnare Manziel. The NCAA doesn't have subpoena power, but it does have the power to force athletes and their families to turn over bank records. If athletes don't cooperate with an investigation, they get suspended. Because he hasn't been yanked off the field -- and because he met with investigators on Sunday for such a lengthy stretch -- we can make a fairly educated guess that Manziel is cooperating. That doesn't mean Manziel is in the clear. NCAA investigators may want to talk to him again. These cases tend to drag. But the circumstances suggest Manziel is in good shape. If the Aggies thought they were going to have to open the season with a true freshman at quarterback, they wouldn't be giving Manziel -- who knows the offense much better -- all those valuable reps.
Keep a few things in mind here. Not once since the first Manziel autograph story broke has Manziel declared his innocence. Not once has Manziel's attorney declared Manziel's innocence. This case is about what the NCAA can prove. By the same token, the only evidence against Manziel that we know of is accusations by unnamed sources to ESPN. That's where it gets tricky for NCAA investigators.
The NCAA's rules require that the person who accuses an athlete or coach be named. That name might not necessarily be released to the public, but it must be revealed to the accused. At that point, the name certainly would get leaked -- either to the media or within memorabilia-industry circles. Anyone in the memorabilia industry who helps the NCAA shut down an athlete would get blackballed by other athletes. It would be professional suicide. That makes collecting evidence much tougher for investigators.
Add to that the current political climate regarding the NCAA and its amateurism rules. While a few of us pointed out the absurdity of rules against selling one's own property -- or one's own signature -- when they were used to snag Terrelle Pryor and his Ohio State teammates three years ago, most were happy to paint Pryor as a villain. The reaction to the accusations against Manziel has been quite different. Even people who dislike Manziel -- and there are plenty -- have questioned why he isn't allowed to cash in when a lot of other people are cashing in on him. This speaks to how public opinion of the business of college sports has changed since 2010. If schools hadn't been so nakedly dollar-driven as they remade the conference landscape the past three years, the public might still be willing to buy the amateurism sham. But that period opened a lot of eyes, and it made cases such as Manziel's far more difficult for the NCAA to prosecute. The NCAA is in a no-win situation here. It must enforce the rules on the books or face rebellion from the schools that passed those rules, but any decision that would keep Manziel off the field would be met with a ferocious political backlash.
The one factor that might have helped the NCAA seems to have disappeared. A few weeks ago, Manziel and Texas A&M brass did not seem to be on the same page. When I interviewed Manziel in late July, he expressed deep affection for Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff, but he didn't appear to trust the Texas A&M administration at all. If these accusations were going cause the earthquake that swallowed the remainder of Manziel's college career, the fault lines were obvious.
But something changed in the past few weeks. Texas A&M system chancellor John Sharp has adamantly defended Manziel twice in interviews. He was professionally ridiculed after the first defense, and he still came back stronger the second time. While the camps seemed to be divided when the accusations first hit, they now seem to be working together. If this seems similar to the way Auburn closed ranks around Cam Newton in 2010, it should. The only way this works is if player and school pull in the same direction.
There was another telling clue in Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman's statement on Monday that proclaimed that no players or coaches would discuss Manziel's status. Remember, this statement came out after Manziel met with investigators. Hyman knew exactly what questions were asked and what Manziel answered. Here is what Hyman's statement said: "The focus of our coaches and student-athletes is solely on preparing for Rice this Saturday, and in the best interests of Texas A&M and the 100-plus student-athletes on the team, I have instructed coach Sumlin, his staff and our student-athletes to refrain from commenting on or answering questions regarding the status of our starting quarterback, Johnny Manziel."
Hyman didn't have to use the word "starting," but he used it anyway. That speaks volumes.