Success of Johnny Manziel will come down to discipline, on and off field

Friday February 21st, 2014

Beyond showing that he's matured off the field, Johnny Manziel must prove he has the patience to be a pocket passer.
Darren Carroll for Sports Illustrated

INDIANAPOLIS -- The sense of discipline and maturity Johnny Manziel displayed from the podium in the NFL scouting combine's media workroom Friday afternoon was impressive. But what the NFL really wants to see from him are those same two traits displayed in the pocket and on the town.

Can he stay patient in the pocket when necessary, and can he stay out of the headlines for all the wrong reasons? When it comes to the colorful and controversial former Heisman-winning quarterback from Texas A&M, what the league is trying to ferret out is whether the growth he has claimed is actually taking place -- both in his game and his lifestyle. The answers to those questions no doubt will help determine whether or not he's a top-10 pick in this year's draft, or has a shot to even go first overall to his home-state Houston Texans.

To his credit, and to those who obviously prepared him well for Friday's 15-minute grilling from a horde of media members, Manziel seems to understand the stakes. On the field, he recognizes his need to emerge from the NFL's draft scouting season with a reputation for more than just a razzle-dazzle style of playmaking and escaping trouble with his legs. Off the field, he's intent on convincing NFL decision-makers that the hard-partying persona and poor decision-making of his college years are well in the past.

MORE: 2014 NFL Mock Draft | 2014 NFL Draft Big Board | Burning questions for combine

"I think you look at on the field stuff, from freshman year until what I was this year, I tried to really hone in on some things this year, get better in the pocket and continue to develop as a passer,'' Manziel said. "Off the field, some scrutiny off the field, but continuing to learn from my mistakes and continuing to grow up. I have an opportunity now moving into a professional phase. This is life now. This is a job for me. I'm taking it very seriously and I'm really excited about the future.''

Sounds good, but nothing matters but his words standing the test of time. That's what the NFL wants to know: Has Johnny Manziel really put the Johnny Football act away for good?

"Off the field, the league wants to know what they're getting with him,'' NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock said Friday, shortly after Manziel spoke to the media. "If he's a top-10 pick, then he's the face of your franchise and all that goes with that. I think he has been well-coached on what to say here, and I know he's going to put his best foot forward, and that's fine. But I tend to discount all this stuff [the media sessions]. There's got to be a bigger sample size than just this.''

Manziel came off as polished, poised and under control in his press conference setting. He was ready for any and all character-issue questions, and didn't seem to get flustered, nervous or defensive at any point. I'm not sure I was buying his "I'm really just still a small-town kid'' spiel, but it was more believable when he described his mistake of getting caught up in the Hollywood-level hype and celebrity that attached itself to him in the wake of his Heisman-winning 2012 freshman season. In so many words, Manziel admitted to a rather familiar defense: When I was young and stupid, I was young and stupid. Last week, he spoke of making "some goofball decisions'' in recent years.

"When I decided to make this decision to turn professional, it was time to really put my college years in the past,'' Manziel said, when asked if he was willing to change his lifestyle upon entering the NFL. "This is a job now. There's guys' families, coaches' families and jobs and all kinds of things on the line. For me it's nothing [to scale back his active social life]. It won't be a hard thing to kick or anything really that hard to not do. I'm extremely focused on whatever organization I'll be at and really pouring my heart out trying to be football 24/7 with that team.''

Like NFL teams will no doubt ask him about here this week in their 15-minute interviews with Manziel, reporters peppered him with questions about an ESPN report last summer that said he was in counseling for alcohol abuse and anger management. Manziel denied he underwent counseling for those issues, but then acknowledged he saw an "in-house'' counselor at Texas A&M -- at head coach Kevin Sumlin's suggestion -- for a "couple years.''

Perhaps the task of separating fact from the fiction in Manziel's NFL scouting process started Friday morning, when he measured in at the combine at 5-foot-11 3/4, and 207 -- a quarter inch shorter than the 6-foot benchmark he had assured the media he would hit. That was no big bombshell, though, because league scouts knew he was in that ballpark in terms of his height, and Russell Wilson's Super Bowl victory for Seattle only further made it clear that undersized quarterbacks can succeed in the NFL.

"I feel like I play like I'm 10-feet tall,'' said Manziel, flashing a little of his trademark bravado. "A measurement to me is just a number.''

The size issue doesn't seem to resonate much with the NFL sources I've talked to about Manziel his week. But the league is focused on seeing if he can make improvement in his pocket passing skills, wondering if he'll be too inclined to take off running rather than work his way through his pass progressions.

Manziel is ready for that criticism and has been trying to work on his pocket passing this winter in San Diego with quarterback coach George Whitfield.

"I'm looking forward to [showing] up all the people that are saying I'm just an improviser,'' Manziel said. "Feel like I worked extremely hard this year to all-around hone in on my game. I'm continuing to do that, and getting better as a pocket passer and as a quarterback in general.''

I asked Manziel how he approached convincing the NFL of his pocket-passing ability, given so much of his college tape shows him on the move, making throws on the run. The league sees his legs and escapability as both an asset and a potential problem.

"There's times where plays aren't going to go as scripted, as people draw them up on the white board,'' he said. "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.''

Showing the discipline to not bail too early on plays is something scouts need to see from Manziel. Mayock said in the two games in which Manziel struggled the most last season -- losses to LSU and Missouri -- he displayed a lack of composure in the pocket.

"His patience was bad in the pocket,'' Mayock said. "He would back up and start trying to escape the pocket before he needed to. He would get frustrated and not trust his pocket and not trust his offensive line. And he might have had a better offense line last year at Texas A&M than he'll have as a rookie in the NFL. When he got frustrated with not being able to get out of the pocket quickly enough, his accuracy and decision-making would suffer.''

Manziel has made no secret of his desire to go first overall to his homestate Houston Texans, but he downplayed his comments of last week, when he said the Texans passing on him "would be the worst decision they ever made,'' adding "Sorry, but you just turned that chip on my shoulder from a Frito into a Dorito.''

New Texans head coach Bill O'Brien didn't seem overly concerned about the risk of such a move, brushing off Manziel's dare, which the quarterback delivered last week in the Houston Chronicle -- albeit with a smile on his lips.

"I think it's a free country. He can say whatever he wants to say,'' O'Brien said. "I've enjoyed watching him on film, [but] you know there are other quarterbacks in the draft. I mean, I know there are three or four that are always mentioned, but there are a lot of quarterbacks, I've watched a bunch of quarterbacks in the draft and they all have different skillsets.''

That doesn't exactly sound like a head coach laying the ground work for a long-term relationship with his future quarterback, but O'Brien stressed the team is just in the formative stages of scouting the prospects it could take with the No. 1 overall selection. Manziel might be the clear-cut favorite among Texans fans, but O'Brien said the organization will not be swayed by a groundswell of public pressure to take the homestate hero.

"I don't worry about those things,'' O'Brien said. "We concern ourselves with what's best for our organization, what's best for our team, and which player at any position fits what we're going to do, the style of play that we're going to play. Is he going to be a hard worker? Is he going to be a good teammate? Is he going to be coachable? Is he going to be in the building all the time? Is he going to eat, breath and sleep football? If you're going to play in this league, that's the type of players that have success in this league at any position. So that's really what we're looking for.''

Those are just some of the questions Manziel still has to answer to the Texans' and the NFL's satisfaction. Discipline and maturity -- both on and off the field -- can't be just talked about. They have to be displayed in different settings, and prove lasting. The draft's first round is still more than two and a half months away, but Manziel's track record and reputation are topics that aren't about to fade away.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.