By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com
IRVING, Texas — Johnny Manziel became a first-round pick because of the mystical mojo that made him Johnny Football.
You can call it swag. Or charisma. Or you can just refer to it as Manziel’s “it” factor.
Anyone who ever watched him play at Texas A&M knows what it is. That’s where he won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman and became college football’s most exciting — and, perhaps, notorious — player.
That’s reason No.1 why the dumbest thing the Cleveland Browns can do is suppress the phenomenon that is Johnny Football, the dude who has graced the cover of Sports Illustrated twice in the last month.
The Browns did just that last weekend during the club’s rookie minicamp.
They banned the national media from the minicamp and limited the local media to a few minutes of watching the rookie go through a few drills, which included throwing three passes. Later, Manziel met with the media for about 15 minutes.
This is after owner Jimmy Haslam popped off about Manziel being a backup and needing to understand his role.
Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
“I got passed up 21 times, so that says something,” Manziel told the media after Saturday’s practice.
“Getting passed up 21 times is never fun — and obviously some of those teams weren’t going to take quarterbacks – but, still, it’s even humbling to be the second quarterback off the board. So for them to come in and say that, I don’t think I need to be humbled. I realize where I’m at in this organization and what I need to be doing, and that’s all I’m really focused on.”
The Browns PR department should have consulted with the St. Louis Rams about how to handle a high-profile rookie. Instead of hiding Michael Sam, the Rams embraced the attention, fulfilled 105 credential requests and kept it moving after Sam’s availability ended.
Manziel, selected with the 22nd pick of the first round, needs his Johnny Football alter ego the same way Deion Sanders needed Prime Time and Michael Irvin needed The Playmaker.
The Browns have been irrelevant since their return to the NFL in 1999. A 77-163 record, two winning seasons and one playoff appearance in 15 seasons will do that.
The Browns have had 21 different starting quarterbacks and seven coaches since returning to the NFL after the original franchise moved to Baltimore at the end of the 1995 season.
Johnny Football already has has invigorated the fan base — his jersey is among the league’s hottest sellers — and a locker room that knows it has no chance to win without a difference-maker at quarterback shouldn’t be too far behind, as long as he plays well.
He’s the guy who make plays and persuades his teammates to believe the impossible is possible.
He revived Texas A&M, which had been a nonfactor on the national college football scene since the 1990s. Texas A&M won 10 games or more once from 1995 through 2011.
The Aggies owe their football resurrection to Johnny Football, the dude who once partied wearing a “Scooby-Doo” costume.
Perhaps, he can resurrect this moribund Browns franchise, too. We’ll never know if the front office doesn’t accept Johnny Football, the dude who parties with the rapper Drake and dates models.
He’s not the only quarterback fresh out of college who was born into a wealthy family, but he’s the only one hanging with one of the music industry’s most successful rappers. And he’s the only one with a jet-setting lifestyle who routinely has been seen courtside at NBA games or lounging in suites during an NFL game.
He’s the epitome of a celebrity quarterback, and every team in the NFL knew that’s what they would be getting if they called his name on draft day.
When you think about it, what other player in the draft would have texted an assistant coach during the draft and implored that coach’s team to draft him so, “We can wreck this league together”?
That’s the essence of Johnny Football. And that’s why the Browns front office must accept Johnny Football. It’s the only way for Cleveland to reap the benefits form a guy who doesn’t come close to fitting the measurables for successful NFL quarterbacks.
None of us know if Manziel’s style will translate to the NFL, but there’s no doubt he’ll fail if the Browns attempt to neuter him and make him play and act like every other NFL quarterback.
He’s unique. The aura that envelopes him and the confidence he possesses are what made him special and what give him a chance to be that difference-maker those in the Browns locker room are looking to rally behind.
“He is [different] and that’s part of it,” said Browns head coach in Mike Pettine. “We talked about the ‘it’ factor and he’s got it. But we also think [Browns quarterback] Brian [Hoyer] has it, as well.
“I think all NFL quarterbacks have to have that swagger about them, that aura that it’s confidence and not cockiness.”
Then again, we’re talking about a franchise that hasn’t had an All-Pro quarterback since Brian Sipe in 1980. Sipe (1980), Bernie Kosar (1987) and Derek Anderson (2007) are Cleveland’s only Pro Bowl quarterbacks since the 1960s.
And we’re talking about a first-year head coach in Pettine who’s spent his NFL career with the Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills. Steve McNair, who led Baltimore to 13 wins in 2006 during his 12th year in the league, is the best quarterback he’s ever had on one of his teams.
Pettine must learn to embrace his celebrity quarterback and the noise that surrounds him.
Manziel, the ultimate boom or bust player, has no chance to maximize his potential if Cleveland’s front office and coaching staff treat Johnny Football like he’s just another player.