With Josh McCown injured again, Johnny Manziel got another chance to start for the Cleveland Browns against the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday Night Football.
Manziel played pretty well in the first half, and has clearly improved even more since his last start against Tennessee in Week 2. Manziel used his mobility to avoid several sacks, despite pressure from a good defensive front. He also ran smartly, picking up yards on the ground when no receivers were open downfield.
He also moved the offense well in the first half, orchestrating a 92 yard touchdown drive before halftime, which he finished with an outstanding throw on the run to Duke Johnson. Manziel was pretty successful when throwing on the run after either wheeling out or being forced from the pocket; which was his calling card in college.
Manziel even managed to make some good throws from within the pocket in the first half, something he has worked on since his disappointing rookie year. His final stats weren’t helped by drops and misses by his receivers on some perfectly thrown passes. Manziel still had some risky throws, but that comes with having a young gunslinger quarterback fighting for the starting job.
However Manziel struggled in the second half after the Bengals figured out how to keep him contained in the pocket. The Browns picked up just one first down after halftime, and Manziel could manage just 40 passing yards in the second half. He was also sacked three times after managing to avoid several potential sacks in the first half. The Browns would lose 31-10.
Manziel completed 15 of his 33 passes for 168 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions or turnovers. He also seems more mature on the field and didn’t panic in the face of pressure. But Manziel’s career to date has remained a cautionary tale, especially with the recent struggles of similarly skilled and quickly anointed mobile quarterbacks like RG3 and Colin Kaepernick.
The Browns themselves are still divided when it comes to Manziel. Head coach Mike Pettine has made it clear that he is committed to Josh McCown. Pettine’s position is completely understandable; McCown gives the Browns the best chance to win games in a lost season, which could protect Pettine’s job. After all, Manziel was not one of Pettine’s picks. But the front office and ownership are committed to Manziel, believing him to be capable of being the future in Cleveland. Even that position is precarious, as it is clear to me that general manager Ray Farmer is in danger of losing his job after the season. Farmer was sweating profusely in a recent press conference and has been the veiled target of subtle jabs by Pettine.
There are still character concerns with Manziel. He may have worked at having a starter’s mindset on the field and in the facility, but he is still getting into trouble off the field. Manziel was questioned by police following an argument at the side of the road with his girlfriend last month.
The report indicates that alcohol was involved, which probably set off warning bells for the Browns after Manziel entered rehab in the offseason. But Manziel was not charged. However, he will need to completely focus on football and clean up his off-field act to have a chance to remain the starter.
So where do the Browns go from here? It’s highly likely that Pettine will want Josh McCown back in the starting line-up as soon as possible. But is that really the right decision?
In an earlier piece I wrote this season, I argued that the Browns should start Johnny Football for the rest of the year. I stand by my suggestion. The Browns would’ve likely lost this game even if McCown was starting. They have problems that run much deeper than just the quarterback position.
Manziel has shown that he still has the potential to be a starter. He had a great first half this week, keeping the Browns in the game. If he could gather more experience during what is essentially a lost season, the Browns will be able to figure out if he is the future under centre. Manziel has improved hugely from last season. With more time under his belt as a starter, how big will the leap be next year?