Nothing is ever taken at face value when it comes to Johnny Manziel, so expect the usual laundry list of qualifiers to be placed on his performance Sunday. Yes, he and the Browns won but ...
... it came against the 49ers, who despite a recent run of steady play still are a mess;
... the Browns' defense and run game carried much of the load, as they did during a victory over Tennessee with Manziel as the starter, earlier in the season;
... Manziel still threw one of the worst interceptions by an NFL quarterback this season, trying to go late back across his body to the middle of the field.
All of that checks out as true. Also true, though, is that Manziel yet again delivered a steady performance when his team called upon him. Counting the ghastly interception, Manziel finished 21-of-31 for 270 yards and a TD (plus rushed for 15 yards) as Cleveland rolled to a 24–10 win over San Francisco.
“He’s been solid in the building over the last couple of weeks,” Cleveland coach Mike Pettine said earlier this week, when announcing that Manziel would draw the start in Week 14, “and we are hopeful he takes this opportunity to continue to build on the progress he’s made on the field throughout the season. The goal for every game is to go out and win, and Johnny needs to show that he can put us in position to do so during these last four weeks of the season.”
Now, Manziel needs to take responsibility to keep his nose clean off the field. There should be no reason whatsoever for the Browns to bail on him as their starter for the remainder of the season, and that would have been the case even if Josh McCown was healthy.
It helps, obviously, to see the type of team effort Cleveland delivered against San Francisco. 49ers QB Blaine Gabbert was sacked a whopping nine times by a Browns defense with all of 17 sacks this season prior to Sunday. Isaiah Crowell had a career day out of the Browns backfield, too, rushing for 145 yards and two touchdowns. In all, Cleveland produced more rushing yards (230) than San Francisco did total yards (221).
“Look at how our defense played,” Manziel said after the game. “Defense played lights out. Offensive line played the way that they did. Try not to make any mistakes and you're going to have a good result. This is a complete team effort for sure.”
So, there's no point in pretending that Manziel had to be at his best Sunday, nor that he found himself in a boatload of tense situations late. The result was more or less in the bag by the third quarter. On a different afternoon his boneheaded turnover could have loomed much larger, but it didn't, at least in part because it was the only critical mistake he made. For the rest of the afternoon, Manziel was smart with his decisions and steady with his throws.
To wit: his touchdown pass to TE Gary Barnidge came with the 49ers bringing a huge blitz. Rather than panic and make another ill-fated play, Manziel backpedeled to buy time, then floated a pass out where only Barnidge could grab it. Not a miraculous effort, by any means, but one that showed progress in Manziel's decision-making.
Of course, the other situation hanging over Manziel's latest performance is speculation that these sporadic starts are mere showcases. With the Browns heading toward another off-season house-cleaning, Manziel could end up as trade bait, but more performances like he had in Week 14 would make it more difficult for the Cleveland GM, whomever it is, to consider that possibility. In his starts this season, Manziel has provided the type of positive energy that the Browns were hoping he would back when they drafted him.
There are going to be rough moments because of Manziel's efforts to create plays. The off-season might be a tense one for Cleveland's front office, should it want its young QB back again in 2016. All we know for sure right this second is that Manziel has done his job when given a shot on Sundays, as he did in Week 14.