Johnny Manziel can create plays in very interesting -- but not unique -- ways. (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Johnny Manziel might go first overall in the 2014 draft. He almost certainly won't get past the fourth pick, which belongs to the Cleveland Browns. He's the most exciting and polarizing quarterback in this class, but there's one thing for sure -- he's on a positive trend wave that will benefit the perception of him immeasurably. Now that Seattle's Russell Wilson has a Super Bowl ring, there's a new acceptance of shorter and more mobile quarterbacks in the NFL. Wilson was more consistent in college than Manziel was, but it's Manziel's combination of big-play ability, and his nascent awareness that there's more to the game than drawing plays in the dirt, that will push him up much further than the 75th pick with which Wilson was taken in 2012.
"Absolutely," Manziel said Friday from the scouting combine, when asked about his work with more conventional quarterbacking methods. "There’s times where plays aren’t going to go as scripted as people draw them up on the white board. Whenever that does happen and you go through your reads and you do certain things, there’s going to be times where you need to take off and get outside the pocket and extend plays. 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."
Where Manziel succeeds is where Wilson and Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton and all mobile quarterbacks who run to throw have succeeded: When they break contain and extend the play past its logical conclusion, making defenses spread apart in their coverages and opening huge holes in the secondary. Manziel made a ton of plays throwing deep to Mike Evans against those broken coverages, just as the new wave of current NFL quarterbacks have exploited defenses pushed past their breaking points.
And as Pete Carroll, Wilson's coach, pointed out Friday, what's happening now in the NFL is obviously an extension of what's been going on in the college game for years, which tied Manziel's collegiate hopes to his professional reality.
"College football has really generated a style of play that has allowed us to see quarterbacks as athletes away from the pocket," Carroll said. "A great deal of their work has to be done in the pocket. That's where we're counting on them to play the game. But then when the athletes get out and move, there's nothing more difficult for a defensive coach to deal with. That element of the scrambling quarterback that can create after the regular play starts and begins again. That's the factor that is most difficult because it's the most unpredictable. We're seeing more and more of it."
But at a certain point, you do have to be able to stand in the pocket and make a stick throw on third-and-9, when the rush collapses your outside lanes and you're left with what you can see. And as it's been for Wilson at 5-foot-10-5/80-inches, it will be for Manziel, who clocked in at the combine at just under six feet tall. When Texas A&M played LSU on Nov. 23 last year and lost, 34-10, Manziel was kept in the pocket enough and was ineffective enough to create a ding on a lot of scouting reports. That's what a 16-of-41 for 224 yards, one touchdown and two picks day will do for you.
"It was a game that I felt like just a little off in all aspects," Manziel said of the LSU experience. "Whether it was coming off a bye week, whatever it was, really, no excuses. There was a fade route I remember down the sideline, Mike Evans gets off great press coverage and a ball I hit Mike on nine times out of 10, 10 times out of 10, just overthrew him about three yards. It was something that was really just an uncharacteristic day, something that just had an off day, they had a great scheme and played really well defensively, but I felt like we still should have performed better on that stage."
Then again, there are times when Manziel does what Wilson, et al have also done -- use every one of his talents to take a game by the scruff of the neck and makes it his own.
At the half of the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31, Duke had A&M on the ropes to the tune of a 38-17 lead, only to see Manziel thunder back and take things over completely. Duke lost, 52-48, and head coach David Cutcliffe was left to lament the memory of the man his team couldn't stop when he was on.
"It looked like we had him down three times," Cutcliffe said after the game. "He's just strong, so strong."
Manziel said after that he'd never been in a zone like that, which speaks a bit to the fact that he is still boom-and-bust and will be until and unless he reconciles his love for improvisation with his need to square up with structure. Everyone from Steve Young to Michael Vick to the Newton/Wilson/Kaepernick trio have had to do the same.
Carroll has said that what makes Wilson an outlier in that sense is his desire to be great at every aspect of the game -- especially those things that guys his size aren't supposed to be able to do.
"Size doesn't matter," Carroll said. "We've learned that Russell's a great football player and a great competitor, and it just doesn't matter what package he comes in. It's not because he's 5-11-and-a-half that he's a great football player. He's a great football player. ... Here we are in another draft with some notable players that are likewise. I think it was Johnny that said Russell had opened the door for him and guys like him. That's true. Prior to the last couple years, the general thinking was that a guy of Russell's stature couldn't play, which obviously is wrong. It's just wrong. Anybody who said that is wrong. But not everybody who is 5-11-and-a-half can play quarterback. You've got to be a great football player. All the elements that make up Russell make him very, very unique regardless of how tall he is."
Manziel has pointed to Wilson as the inspiration for his next level, but it could be any one of those guys. It just so happens that the quarterback who just won a Super Bowl is the ideal paradigm.
"For those guys, being able to evade a first wave of pass rush and really extend the play just a little bit -- to be able to move the pocket and do some things like that, it really opens the playbook up a little bit more," Manziel concluded. "At the same time, there’s guys who are sitting back in the pocket and doing everything from there who are still some of the greatest in the game. The young guys who are doing that, the guys that I enjoy watching, I think they’re really doing a good job for some of the mobile quarterbacks in college right now."
And for those moving to the more complicated iteration of the game: The door is open, and the hospitality's there for Manziel's type of quarterback as never before.
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