I grew up a fan of the Cleveland Browns. By choice.
Yes, historically I do tend to root for the underdog. But no, I’m not a glutton for punishment. The Browns were actually good when they became my favorite team. I was seven years old when they played in the 1990 AFC Championship game, their fifth straight playoff appearance back then. I was 13 and wounded when the Browns bolted for Baltimore, 17 and jaded when they were resurrected as an expansion franchise, 31 and considering defection when my hometown Seahawks won the Super Bowl while the Browns cleaned house for yet another “new era” following yet another losing season.
I give you that history to point out that, while it’s now common for even non-Browns fans to memorize the infamously long roster of tried-and-failed starting quarterbacks to play for Cleveland since that 1999 reboot, I’m familiar with the QBs who came earlier than that. The original members of the Not Bernie Kosar Club. Before you were clowning Tim Couch and Charlie Frye, we had Vinny Testaverde and Eric Zeier. Before you could SMH at Jake Delhomme, we had Todd Philcox. Sometimes they were decent, sometimes they were dreadful, and all of them drew complaints and criticism from Cleveland’s Dawg Pound.
And now we have Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy winner with more star potential than any QB the Browns have had since Kosar. And for some reason, fans and the media seem intent to ruin him before he takes his first NFL snap.
Fame has not been a smooth ride for Johnny Football. After pretty much coming out of nowhere to set the SEC on fire in his 2012 redshirt freshman year at Texas A&M, Manziel was briefly America’s football sweetheart as his legend grew and he emerged as a Heisman contender. He accounted for five touchdowns when the Aggies dropped 63 points on Auburn. He guided A&M to a stunning upset over mighty Alabama on the road. He lit up Oklahoma for four touchdowns and Cotton Bowl-record 516 total yards. He was small enough for the average guy to relate to, cute enough for the average girl to notice, and – thanks to an A&M policy preventing freshmen from speaking to the media – he seemed like a nice enough kid by those judging the book by its cover.
But then the 2013 offseason came, and suddenly Manziel supplanted John Cena as the most unwittingly obnoxious dude-bro heel character in sports.
He earned a suspension for the first half of the Aggies’ 2013 season opener against Rice. So of course, when Manziel (now playing the villain role) made his delayed sophomore debut, he celebrated his first TD by pantomiming, essentially, “Where da cash at?”
But Manziel was even better as a sophomore than as a freshman, completing almost 70 percent of his passes for over 4,100 yards and 37 TDs, while rushing for another nine scores. He left A&M for the 2014 NFL Draft, and after being projected as a top-five pick early in the process, he was again the most talked-about man in football after slipping to the Browns with the No. 22 overall pick. (And if you were among those mocking or feeling bad for Manziel that night, go talk to Michael Sam and the other seventh-rounders about what it really means to slide down the draft board.)
Now, with training camp and the NFL preseason right around the corner, Manziel is again a hot topic. And again, it hasn’t been about what he’s doing on the field or his impending position battle with Brian Hoyer, Cleveland’s returning starter at quarterback. It’s been about basically all that goes against the Manning Robot Quarterback archetype. You know, the one currently being practiced and perfected by recently-crowned Super Bowl champ Russell Wilson.
The public narrative has become that Manziel’s lifestyle will be a distraction to the team and a detriment to his own chances of success at the pro level, which are already slim considering Manziel stands “only” 6-0 tall and doesn’t have the strongest arm in the league and plays too recklessly and has not yet proven that he’s actually good instead of just lucky.
This is where fans and the media – especially Browns fans and media – need to chill and stop trying to force Johnny Football to fit into whatever sized and shaped box they think comes standard for NFL quarterbacks.
Manziel is short. So what? So is Russell Wilson and so is Drew Brees.
Manziel doesn’t have a rocket launcher for an arm? Neither did Joe Montana or Kurt Warner.
Manziel is reckless and improvises too much on the field? Brett Favre and Michael Vick wore that same label and wore it well.
I can recognize that Manziel is just 21 years old and is somewhat expected to go through this phase. Jim McMahon did it before him, Joe Namath did it before him, and both of them managed to pick up a Super Bowl ring amid all of those distractions. And really, is Manziel’s version of having fun any more dangerous or distracting than Tom Brady jet-setting the globe with his supermodel wife or Aaron Rodgers dating Hollywood starlets?
Until we see what Manziel is able to do on the field – and that’s with the caveat that he is shown some kind of patience, because even some of the NFL’s best QBs were not immediately incredible in Year 1 or Year 2 – I think it’s best to take an old-school approach with the league’s most new-age player.
Remember back in the day, when the media and the public didn’t obsess over an athlete’s every move off the field? Remember how Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Babe Ruth, and Mickey Mantle never dealt with the kind of over-scrutinized coverage that percolates today? Remember back when the media kept its distance and wasn’t itself the distraction?
Even if he wasn’t the next great hope for my favorite football team, the public’s focus on Manziel’s personal life has been too much. On the field, Manziel doesn’t fit the conventional QB model. But the Browns have lost plenty of games with guys who did.
Couch was the prototypically tall, big-armed clean-cut, country boy pocket passer, and while he was handed a rotten lemon of a team in Cleveland and unfairly asked to make lemon-meringue pie with no utensils, Browns fans still hold him up as a symbol of the franchise’s recent futility.
Brady Quinn was the golden boy from Notre Dame who lost his shine in Cleveland. Jeff Garcia was a playoff-tested crafty scrambler who couldn’t carry the Browns to success. Frye was the scrappy blue-collar hometown kid whose guts and guile weren’t enough to produce yards and points. Brandon Weeden was the quick-read, quick-release, spread-offense maestro whose Browns career was marked by pick-sixes and putrid performances.
Manziel isn’t like anything the Browns have had before. And that might be exactly what the Browns need.
Follow Austin on Twitter at @UmmahSports