The Controversy Quarterback

Monday September 21st, 2015

After heaving touchdowns of 60 and 50 yards to Travis Benjamin to spark a 28-14 victory over the Titans on Sunday, Johnny Manziel ignited the quarterback controversy that, like earbuds with an iPhone, was essentially an accessory that came with the 2014 first-round pick.

Such distractions are the cost of doing business with Johnny Football. Bloggers, tweeters, sports radio callers and columnists will opine this week that Browns coach Mike Pettine should name Manziel his starter for Week 3 because … well, that’s what you do with any highly drafted, 22-year-old quarterback who is playing remotely well.

The praise being heaped on Manziel is similar to the praise that, just one week ago, was being heaped on his Week 2 counterpart, Marcus Mariota. Sunday’s game offered an interesting contrast in the similarly styled Heisman winners-turned-NFL projects. Suffice it to say: The notion that because Manziel’s Browns outplayed Mariota’s Titans all is well with Manziel is ill-considered.

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Mariota’s most glaring weakness on Sunday was a mistimed mental clock in the pocket, which prevented him from getting from one progression to the next quickly enough. That was bound to happen; in Week 1 Mariota faced a predictable and untalented Buccaneers defense that almost always played its usual straight zone coverage. The Browns, on the other hand, run a man-to-man–centric scheme that’s rich in disguised fronts and interior coverage changeups. Inexperienced quarterbacks struggle most with recognizing what’s not open. By the time they do they’re two progressions behind in their reads and the pocket is collapsing. On that note Mariota was careless with the football; he easily could have paid for it in turnovers (he had an ugly fumble and even uglier interception nullified by unrelated penalties). While the rookie QB is willing to hang in a tight pocket—a significantly encouraging sign, particularly for a college spread passer—he hasn’t yet developed the consistent awareness that must accompany this trait.

This issue can be corrected through experience. So can Mariota’s mental clock and, obviously, his ability to read defenses (something that, at this point, is naturally hit-and-miss). And herein lies the difference between Mariota and Manziel: Mariota’s weaknesses are circumstantial—the circumstance being that he’s inexperienced.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Manziel has exhibited similar weaknesses. But to his credit, while he still has a long way to go, it’s clear that he’s also come a long way since his disastrous rookie season. Over the first two games of 2015, he has done a decent job identifying and reacting to blitzes. He has been relatively sharp in the quick-timing passing game. And, as evidenced by the Benjamin touchdowns—not just this week, but also the 54-yarder last week—he’s been proficient on called deep shots. First-time offensive coordinator John DeFilippo wisely dialed up deep throws against Tennessee on second-and-8 in the first half, exploiting aggressive safety Michael Griffin’s tendency to bite on play fakes, and on third-and-6 late in the game, when the greatest downside of the long pass—an interception—would have served as a de facto punt.* In both instances Manziel had the advantage of executing the unexpected, plus the plays naturally gave him a defined read, eliminating the concerns that remain about his proficiency at sorting out populated coverages. (This, by the way, is why it’s wise to only rush four at Manziel right now. Make him read seven coverage defenders, as opposed to evading blitzers, which only encourages him to get the ball out quickly.)

(*Note: after this article was published, it came out that DeFilippo actually did not call for the second deep heave. Manziel did that on his own. It was assumed the deep shot was part of the play structure because you almost never see quarterbacks take that kind of liberty in that stage of a game. Fortunately for Manziel, not only were his coaches and this writer caught off guard, so were the Titans.)

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But while Manziel is showing progress in the mental department, there are still his physical limitations to consider. Unlike circumstantial limitations, these can’t be overcome with experience and practice. In fact, there’s almost nothing you can do about them. Take Manziel’s arm strength, for example. It’s lacking. While a tweak in mechanics might help a little—he has a bad tendency to lock his front leg when he drives the ball, which curtails power—nothing can change the fact that Manziel’s arm is attached to a 6-foot, 207-pound body that’s not naturally strong.

Which brings us to the more glaring issue: size. Thanks to Russell Wilson’s success, it has become politically incorrect to classify a quarterback’s small stature as an insurmountable limitation. (If you do, you’re picking on the little guy for simply being little.) Unfortunately, this high-minded assertion holds no water. The NFL is the ultimate meritocracy; it is too competitive. That competitiveness means the league’s 32 top decision-makers can’t afford to waste time building up an underdog. And without question, Manziel’s lack of size makes him an underdog.

What was apparent Sunday, and what was even more apparent in Week 1 against the Jets, is that there are instances when Manziel, who plays low to the ground instead of up on his toes like Drew Brees, literally can’t see downfield from the pocket. This is another reason why it’s smarter to defend him with coverage concepts instead of blitzes. Just think about the implications here: The quarterback can’t see. As a play-caller, how are you supposed to proceed?

Manziel got the win on Sunday, but he doesn't measure up to Mariota in terms of long-term ceiling. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The counterstatement is as predictable as the next day of the week: Big deal—Russell Wilson is even shorter than Manziel. How has that worked out? Understand, Wilson is an anomaly. He has a very compact and powerful body, which propagates arm strength. This allows him to play more on the move, where he’s a lethal touch passer who can also throw the occasional dart. Wilson also takes care of the football and his body when he’s on the move. Manziel, at least going off the early samplings of his young career, does not. Most of his bad decisions have come outside the pocket.

That doesn’t mean DeFilippo won’t put Manziel on the move. That might still be the best way to employ him. At least when Manziel’s blockers are moving and he’s moving, his line of vision remains clear. But there’s only so much an offense can do with moving pockets. And, despite what we saw on the second Benjamin touchdown against the Titans, it’s not a tactic that can usually be called on third-and-long. In the NFL, most games are decided by what happens on third-and-long.

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At best, Manziel is bound to be an inconsistent pro quarterback, his game defined by highs and lows. Sunday’s win—the first of his career—was one of the highs. Mariota, on the other hand, is constructed (potentially) for success over the long haul. At 6-4, 220, he’s big enough to play fully from the pocket if needed. So far, that’s mostly how the Titans have used him, incorporating a lot of basic play-action concepts to simplify his reads. (Tennessee’s offense didn’t get going at Cleveland until the third quarter, when coach Ken Whisenhunt started running the ball out of two-tight end and/or two-back sets, forcing the defense into more predictable looks and clarifying his QB’s play-action throws.) But thanks to his size and, more importantly, a quick, compact release that amplifies his arm strength (which is already adequate), there are no borders around the possible expansion of Mariota’s game.

Those who watched the Browns beat the Titans saw that Cleveland was the better team on Sunday. But the Titans clearly have the better quarterback.

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