The Manziel Mistake
News item: The Browns, who recently handed Johnny Manziel the starting quarterback job, yanked it back after images surfaced of Manziel partying on his bye weekend. Josh McCown will start instead Monday night against Baltimore.
Manziel, a first-round pick in 2014, was a party animal in his first season with the Browns. After his rookie year, he entered substance-abuse rehab and spent 73 days there. Earlier this year, he admitted to police that he had been drinking after he and his girlfriend were investigated for having an argument. Last Saturday in Texas, he was recorded on a phone having a good time, presumably with alcohol, during the bye weekend. On Tuesday, Browns coach Mike Pettine, saying he was disappointed in Manziel, named McCown the starter. “At this point, we’ve decided it’s best to go with Josh as the starter going forward,” said Pettine.
The fact that Pettine said “going forward” leads me to believe this is not a one-week assignment. Making Manziel the third-string quarterback is further proof this will not be temporary.
So what does this mean? It means Manziel is likely finished in Cleveland. The next coach—and I would say it’s at least probable if not very likely that Pettine will be a two-and-done coach for the ever-changing Browns—will begin the same process that every Cleveland coach since Bill Belichick has undergone since the infamous benching of Bernie Kosar: finding the elusive “quarterback of the future.”
Let me say first I understand that Manziel is quite a knucklehead, who tells authority figures what they want to hear about being serious in his responsibility as a quarterback in the NFL. Then he goes out and does what he darn well pleases. The Browns, quite possibly, already have decided there is no chance Manziel is the quarterback of the Browns’ future.
If they have decided this, Cleveland should immediately cut Manziel.
If they have not decided this, Cleveland should play Manziel for the last six weeks of the season.
The only reason for the 2-8 Browns to show up and play out the end of another miserable season is to see if Manziel has any chance to be the quarterback going forward. There are many reasons to like McCown, who is a better quarterback than you think but only a short-term answer to the quarterback quandary at age 35. But he is going to be the same quarterback next September—presumably the Cleveland caretaker, if the franchise is smart—as he is now. That’s why the only smart thing is to see if Manziel has the chance to be more than that.
I think it’s a mistake to play the last six weeks of this season for some noble cause about showing to your team and to your immature quarterback that some principal about being a good citizen and non-partier on the bye weekend is going to trump the most important task the franchise has. That task is finding the quarterback for the next decade.
This just doesn’t help that. That’s why it’s a mistake.
* * *
A surprise AFC team to watch
Alex Smith thought about the question for three or four seconds, and realized he just didn’t have an insightful answer to it.
“Well,” Smith said finally, “this is going to be a crummy answer.”
And that’s why you read this column! For crummy answers!
My question: What’s gotten into the Chiefs? At 1-5 a month ago, welcoming Pittsburgh to Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City looked like it would have one of those lost years. It happens. What was surprising, though, is that this was happening to a team with such a good defense, with a rising-star rookie corner in Marcus Peters and the return of star safety Eric Berry from a dangerous bout with cancer last year.
The fall of the Chiefs didn’t generate the kind of alarm I thought it should a month ago. Maybe it’s because they sit out there in the hinterlands, or maybe it’s because the Royals took away so much attention in October, or maybe it’s because so many fans have lost faith in Andy Reid to deliver a championship and Alex Smith to pass a team to one, or maybe because fans just figured without Jamaal Charles, lost for the season in Week 5, it was just one of those years. But the football world didn’t exactly spin off its axis when the Kansas City Chiefs started 1-5.
And maybe that was good for the Chiefs. Instead of there being a four-alarm fire with the public and the media and the social media around the team, the way it would have been if this happened, say, in a high-expectation market like Philadelphia or Dallas or Denver this year, the Chiefs could go about the business of fixing the team in relative sanity. “Relative,” being the operative word. Nowhere is 1-5 cool.
Anyway, back to Smith, and the answer he knows I wasn’t seeking.
“It’s not one big thing,” he said this week. “Early in the year, we’d play a good quarter, or have a couple of good drives, and then we’d play poorly. We were just not consistent. What’s happened here lately is we’ve been playing four quarters, four consistent quarters.
“At 1-5, it was pretty dark. You feel this sort of dark mentality, like, ‘Are you kidding?’ But the good thing about this team and about this coach [Reid] is he never let it get to that spot, and our locker room never got a real negative vibe. It’s easy to point fingers and have guys whisper things in the locker room. We never did. I never heard it. That’s a credit to our leaders.”
Is Smith right? Let’s see. Let’s look at the factor that might explain the difference in a team that was lost 30 days ago and now wins road games by 30:
• The schedule. The Chiefs lost a weird game to Chicago in Week 5, the defense surrendering 88-yard and 67-yard touchdown drives in the last eight minutes to lose 18-17. That’s the game when Charles went down for the year—the darkest day. The other four losses came to teams that sit a combined 30-10 today: Denver, Green Bay, Cincinnati and Minnesota. They played at Green Bay and Cincinnati when the Packers and the Bengals were both hot on offense. Last four weeks: the Steelers at home, with Landry Jones making his first NFL start … the Lions in London, with the game sandwiched between offensive-staff firings … Denver when a beaten Peyton Manning looked like a knuckleball pitcher, the first time in his career he got yanked for performance … and San Diego, on a five-game losing streak. The 1-5 start isn’t shocking, just as the 4-0 recent run isn’t.
• The defensive playmakers are making plays. In the four-game streak, the pass-rushers have been formidable. Tamba Hali has all but one of his 5.5 sacks in the run; Justin Houston had 12 impact plays in the smothering of Denver, according to Pro Football Focus: 12 combined sacks, hits and significant quarterback pressures. The D is giving up just 257 yards a game in the past four, and the combination of pressure plus better secondary play—Berry is coming on, and fellow safety Husain Abdullah has been one of the Chiefs’ steadiest players—has been important in limiting big gains.
• Smith is himself. Since in the five-and-a-half games since Charles went down, Smith has thrown zero interceptions, had a quarterback rating of 99, and made very good friends with rising-star tight end Travis Kelce. (Receptions by Kelce in the five full games since Charles’ loss: 5, 5, 6, 5, 5.) There’s always going to be a segment of Chiefdom dissatisfied with Smith—with some justification—as a guy who can make you a decent team but never be the kind of explosive thrower you need to create a dangerous passing game. No one’s arguing. But with a defense like Kansas City’s, you don’t need Marino. You need a guy who’s not going to turn it over. “When you lose Jamaal,” said Smith, “you know it’s going to be tough. We just wouldn’t allow that to be used as an excuse.”
In the bad start, the Chiefs allowed 38 points (to Green Bay) and 36 (to Cincinnati). In the good run since, they’ve beaten the Lions by 35 and Chargers by 30.
Two other positive points: Other than Charles, the Chiefs haven’t had a debilitating injury. And of the past six games, exactly zero come against teams currently over .500. Kansas City is 5-5. Who will be stunned to see them finish 10-6 or even 11-5 and go on a January run against a mediocre AFC South foe, for example, and maybe Denver or Cincinnati in the divisional round? Every year we look for the hot teams to make a run going down the stretch. Regardless of record, the Chiefs look like that AFC team.
Now for your email:
* * *
DEFENSIVE GAME PLAN
I enjoyed reading about Carson Palmer and the Cardinals coaching staff on their preparation process for the next opponent. Can you guys also run a defensive and special teams game plan story too? Maybe follow Seahawks safety Earl Thomas or Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly on what goes into game preparation on the defensive side.
I very much want to do that. I hope I will be able to do a story like that next year. It’s very difficult to convince a team and a player to be fairly transparent (nevermind completely transparent, which is impossible). When I pitch these types of inside stories, for every 15 asks, I get probably 12 “nos” and three “maybes.” I really credit Carson Palmer for his willingness to be an educator as he went through a week of preparation. This story would never have happened without him helping me tell it.
ON FAREWELL TOURS
You ended your column with a salute to David Ortiz. I enjoyed it and agree that he should get “the respect and appreciation he deserves for changing the course of” the Red Sox. But it got me to thinking about how star players “announce” their retirement a season ahead of time. Top of head: Rivera, Jeter, and now Ortiz. I like all of those players and appreciate their greatness and really don’t blame them for announcing their intention to retire one year out, but in a way it comes across as a selfish move. Even if their decisions were purely selfless, I’m also not a fan of the endless pre-game “present a rocking chair as a gift” ceremonies throughout the season and the guaranteed All-Star game pick. What do you think?
—Rob H., Newmarket, Ontario
I agree totally. I like it when players just play and say at the end of the season what they are doing next year. Charles Woodson is doing that right now with the Raiders. He is going to finish this season, play as hard as he can, and announce in the offseason whether he will return or retire. Maybe he knows right now. I don’t think he does, but maybe he does. I think it is much better for players to play and announce what they are going to do after they finish doing it.
ON COSTUMES AND CAUSES
“The NFL does not have uniforms anymore. The NFL has costumes.” Best line of the best column you have written all season. Well done.
Thank you. I have been annoyed in recent years by the NFL using players and coaches as billboards for causes. I am a cause person myself. But I do not wear cause clothing 180 days a year. I don’t believe coaches and players should be asked to wear cause clothing for more than half of their seasons.
ON CASE KEENUM’S CONCUSSION
I was thinking about Case Keenum. Why didn’t he pull himself from the game? I assume it's because players aren’t celebrated for it. (Look at the praise Joe Flacco received for finishing a game with a knee injury.) Yes, Keenum’s symptoms should have been noticed and the team or independent doctors should have pulled him. I think Keenum wasn’t pulling himself because he was getting his first start this season and didn’t want to risk losing the starting job.
—Jonathon M., Summerside, Prince Edward Island
Your last point is the correct point. This has very little to do with the culture of football praising the tough guy. It has everything to do with a quarterback who never gets a chance to play and thinking that the only way he is coming out is by being forced to come out.
DANTONIO AS A PRO?
With Saturday's impressive victory over Ohio State, Mark Dantonio has planted himself as one of college football's elite coaches. Is he, or should he be, in line for an NFL head-coaching job? The work that he has done while at Michigan State, coming from Jim Tressel's former Ohio State staff, has been remarkable. Could he transition from the college game to the NFL, in your opinion, and with what struggling organization could he make a mark?
— Jasson H., Kettering, Ohio
I am sorry to say I am not a very good resource person to answer that question. I do not know Mark Dantonio and I do not know whether his coaching style would be a great fit for the NFL or not. I just know that he wins and owners in the NFL like coaches who win. My feeling is that too often NFL teams will look at very good and cutting-edge coaches like Chip Kelly and become fixated with Kelly because he is such an interesting offensive innovator. I marvel at Dantonio because two or three times a year his team seems to win a game it shouldn’t have won. Again, I don’t know much about Dantonio except that in a very difficult environment and region, he seems to win more than his fair share of games.
• Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.