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The Debut of Johnny Football

You probably remember this — the 2007 BCS Championship game featured a ridiculously good Florida defense against an undefeated Ohio State team led by Heisman Trophy quarterback Troy Smith. The game started off kind of weird — with Ohio State returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown — but the next time Ohio State got the ball, Smith dropped back to throw. He noticed a Florida lineman break through to his left, so he calmly rolled out to the right and looked downfield. It was something he had done a thousand times before.

Only this time, the defensive lineman grabbed him and pulled him to the ground.

This could have been my imagination, but I think a lot about how Troy Smith got up after that sack. There was something about his body language that expressed shock and awe. He had not seen that sack coming. He had run away fully expecting to get away. But — and this was crushing — that giant defensive lineman was FASTER than him. All these giant defensive linemen were faster than him. This wasn’t good. All of the timing mechanisms in his brain had to be re-calibrated. All of the football things he was so sure about, well, he wasn’t so sure about them anymore. The rest of the game progressed predictably — Smith looked helpless and was sacked repeatedly and he completed four passes in the entire game.

I thought a lot about that moment Sunday while watching Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel make his NFL starting debut against Cincinnati. It’s undeniable that Manziel was awful. He threw two interceptions and had a third one mercifully overturned by penalty. He proved to be whatever is the opposite of elusive. He displayed none of his college feel for improvisation — every audible led right into the teeth of the defense, every off-balance throw was laughed at before being picked off. His arm looked a little weak, his decision-making seemed foggy, his ability to escape was clogged up It’s hard to imagine how it could have gone worse.

Three important caveats:

1. It was just one game and, even more, just Manziel’s first full first NFL game.

2. The team around Manziel played brain-dead football, as if they had been woken up a few minutes before gametime and told, “Oh yeah, I forgot, we have a game this week!” You can’t blame this clunker of a game on Manziel any more than you can blame the movie Jack and Jill on Al Pacino.

3. The overbearing hype that revolves around Manziel naturally forces rash conclusions and unfair judgments

OK, those out of the way … when watching Manziel play I kept thinking about Troy Smith. I kept thinking about someone who stepped into a world where things, suddenly, did not compute. Manziel would say afterward that he did not feel overmatched, but what else could he say? He certainly looked overmatched. He looked hopelessly unsure. Every element of the Bengals defense seemed to surprise him. On one option read, he kept the ball and then seemed shocked when the defender merely ignored the fake and tackled him. On one of the few plays when he worked himself into some space, he had an open receiver breaking behind a linebacker — he found that throw (over the backer, into the receiver’s hands) too difficult. Both of his interceptions were the sorts you rarely see in the NFL, even from struggling quarterbacks; on one he was way too late, on the other he seemed to lose his mind. It was like that again and again — I cannot remember him making even one play the entire game that showed promise.

Maybe he did not feel overmatched but I’d wager he did. You don’t play THAT badly if you are feeling comfortable and in control of your faculties. His team was collapsing around him, the Bengals were mocking him at every turn, the game was moving way faster than he was accustomed, this was the very essence of being overmatched. I’m pretty sure there were fuses popping again and again in his brain.

Now, of course, we get back to those caveats. Just one game. Team quit on him. Hype clouds judgment. So the real question is: Does it mean anything? Can you make any judgments at all based on one stinker of a game?

Well, one of my theories about sports is the theorem of negative predictions. It postulates that if you want to be right, you just make a negative predictions because those are exponentially more likely to be true than positive ones.

Example: If you said, “Ted Williams will absolutely NOT get a hit here” before every single Ted Williams at-bat, you would have been right 73 percent of the time. Now, you’ll quickly say: “No, that’s not right, Williams hit .344 for his career,” which is true, but that doesn’t include walks. In the “Ted Williams will not get a hit here” scenario, walks are part of the mass of “non-hit” possibilities.

If you said, “Bill Belichick is not so great, he will absolutely not win the Super Bowl this year,” you would have been right 84% of the time if you just count his years as a head coach.

If during Tiger Woods’ glory years — from 1999 to 2008 — you said before every major tournament: “No way Tiger’s winning this week,” you would have been right 68% of the time. If you said it before every major from the beginning of his career to now, you’d be right 81% of the time.

This should be obvious, but it isn’t. Success is hard and rare, even for the best. Comebacks fall short an overwhelming majority of the time. Phenoms flame out almost always. The odds are OVERWHELMINGLY against prospects. After Larry Bird became a star in the NBA, there was an annual crop of “next Larry Birds” (a.k.a., tall white guys who could shoot) and none of them became Larry Bird because he was a miracle, he was not the start of a trend.

Look at the quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall in the draft since Peyton Manning — these are the best of the best of the best, right?

2012: Andrew Luck (looks like a superstar)
2011: Cam Newton (many mixed feelings about him)
2010: Sam Bradford (can’t stay healthy)
2009: Matthew Stafford (great arm, mixed reviews)
2007: Jamarcus Russell (disaster)
2005: Alex Smith (sent packing, now a game-manager)
2004: Eli Manning (will be most argued about QB ever, I think)
2003: Carson Palmer (nice career. Not thrilling. But nice)
2002: David Carr (had moments, didn’t work out)
2001: Michael Vick (a weird and controversial career)
1999: Tim Couch (disaster)
1998: Peyton Manning (one of best ever)

So, you have two great players, a handful of middle earth types and some out-and-out disasters. And that’s with the surest pick in the draft. If a quarterback gets picked No. 1 overall and you say, ‘He won’t become a star,” you have a much greater chance of being right than wrong. You can say right now about Marcus Mariota, “Yeah, I just don’t think his game will translate well to the NFL,” and you can be pretty confident about being right.

Which brings us to Manziel. He was not the No. 1 pick in the draft — a lot of scouts didn’t like him particularly (though that one homeless guy who scouts for the Browns owner did). He’s just 6-feet tall, which could be a disadvantage. His arm is clearly not in the Stafford or Flacco class, which could be a disadvantage. He is a fun-loving media star, which could be a disadvantage. He plays a free-flowing, playground style of football that NFL coaches have generally not trusted and that too can be a disadvantage.

And in his first NFL start — after a week of practice that had teammates singing hosannas — he looked like he had been chosen to be quarterback before the game in some sort of fan contest.

In other words: Johnny Manziel could still become a star quarterback in the NFL. But you have a much, much, much, much better chance of being right if you predict he won’t.

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43 Responses to The Debut of Johnny Football

  1. It’s always fun as a fan to see a braggadocious prima dona media hound get his comeuppance the way Manziel did.

    • Karyn says:

      I don’t understand stuff like this. He didn’t drive drunk. He hasn’t beat on anyone. He didn’t get busted with illegal firearms, or a pocketful of coke, or an underage girl.

      He . . . got in a bar fight a couple years ago. And, what else, again?

      • Phaedrus says:

        So you’re only allowed to be annoyed by, or root against, people that have broken the law?

      • Dave says:

        He decided to quit college before graduation.

        He hammed it up with his “show me the money” sign, including making a fake phone call with it.

        He parties quite a bit when he hasn’t “earned” that right – being both underage and (so far) not at all successful professionally.

        Karyn, good question. I – being a Buffalo fan and really uncaring about “Johnny Football” or the Browns – suggest a few answers. You are most definitely correct – he didn’t *drive* drunk. (He was however, out at 2 am the night before a road football game and is underage.) He hasn’t beat on anyone, done drugs, or yes, even an underage girl.

        He’s a millionaire football player who speaks and (sometimes) acts much more loudly than he plays. So far.

        • Karyn says:

          I dunno. It just seems like, of all the people to waste ill feeling on, he’s pretty small potatoes. He . . . left college early? Throws some hand signs? Okay, I guess.

          And heaven forfend a college student drink before turning 21. What a terrible human being.

          • Phaedrus says:

            It should be pointed out that Manziel knows his actions rub a lot of people the wrong way. As he’s laughing all the way to the bank, He’s probably thinking, “love me or hate me, just make sure you keep talking about me.”

          • He thinks he’s all that and he’s accomplished exactly nothing. Win a bunch of games, then pop off. Otherwise shut up. Why do you think the Bengals enjoyed mocking him so much?

          • Chris K. says:

            Karyn, of course you’re right. I recognize that. And I haven’t met Johnny Manziel; don’t know about charitable organizations he works with, outreach he does in the community, what kind of loving family member, friend or mentor he is, etc. I just know that, in public at least…he kind of comes off like a douche-lord, sorry.

            And please!! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an “anti-fan” by any means. He’s fun to watch play. Nor do I have any vested interest, one way or the other, in the fortunes of the Browns as a whole. I’m not rooting for him to fail. Also too, I say this as a Seahawk season ticket holder, and I understand the irony of my perspective; the Seahawks have MORE than their share of arrogance/attitude on the field.

            But arrogance is one thing, unsubstantiated arrogance is something else altogether. And Johnny Manziel’s just rubs me the wrong way, dammit. Win something first, please. Then talk..

          • Richard Aronson says:

            I don’t know if he’s a terrible human being. I do know that great quarterbacking comes from at least one and preferably both of two things. The first is amazing physical attributes. Ben Roethlisberger is huge and strong and a bit nimble. Cam Newton is a great runner and passer. The second is an incredible football mind. Peyton Manning is perhaps the epitome of the football smart quarterback, and he is renowned for his study habits, which enable him to maximize his physical attributes. Johnny Manziel is not quick enough, big enough, or strong enough to be classified as the physical specimen QB. He does not realize this, or does not care, and thus does not spend the time he needs to spend learning NFL football well enough to be a good QB for the type of body he has. Compare and contrast to, say, Russell Wilson, who IIRC is similar physically to Manziel but has a much better head about him. I think Manziel disrespects football by his actions; he is immature, acts immature, and talks about his need to change without actually changing. I don’t think the drinking and partying matter as long as they don’t interfere with getting ready for game day, but Manziel is not ready for game day, which makes them part of the problem.

        • Tom says:

          He’s 22 years old; not underage.

        • Spencer75 says:


          Not successful enough professionally to party?

          What planet are you from?

          Just say he rubs you the wrong way because your reasons sound insane.

          • Win a few games, then nobody can blame you for partying. Play a game wher you look like a high schooler, you better spend every minute studying film for the next game. But that’s not Johnny. He’s convinced he’s a star. Instead, he’s the next Ryan Leif. FU Johnny Football. Loser.

  2. largebill says:

    “Look at the quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall in the draft since Peyton Manning — these are the best of the best of the best, right?”

    May sound counter-intuitive, but I would recommend never drafting a first round QB unless you sucked enough to be first pick and there is a Luck type available. You’re as likely to find your franchise QB in second or third round (Dalton, Brees, Wilson) as you are in first round. Thing is Manziel as a first round pick is thrown into a game clearly not yet ready. A linebacker or D-lineman picked in first round can be rotated in and out of games and developed. You have to commit to a QB and it often doesn’t give them a chance to really develop before passing final negative judgment. You miss on QB with 1st round pick (Quinn, Weeden, Manziel) it sets team back few years. You miss in later rounds it is not nearly as destructive to your team.

    • Jake Bucsko says:

      “Unless there is a Luck type available”

      You mean one of those transcendent talents that come along once every 15 years or so? Also, for every Brees, Wilson, or Brady that strikes gold there’s two guys like Carson Palmer, Eli, Roethlisberger, Rivers, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Tannehill, Flacco…all first round quarterbacks.

    • Cathead says:

      There’s a way in which a QB taken any time in the draft presents a risk. RGIII was taken second in the draft (behind Luck), and where did that get him? At this point, he would be considered a disaster. You could just wait till a QB falls off the garbage truck and see if he works then — that worked for Kurt Warner, Johnny Unitas, and Drew Brees.

      I think the larger lesson is that QB’s are always a risk. You could run Joe’s analysis for every QB who has ever played whether drafted or not, and the chances are that they are not going to succeed.

      • Brees didn’t fall off the garbage truck. I think he was the second or third pick in the second round. He became a starter in his second season with the team that drafted him and had early success. Yes, he had an injury that caused San Diego to jettison him, but that was just one of those salary cap induced risk/reward decisions they had to make. He moved on to NO and continued his success (and even greater success, of course). Johnny U and Kurt Warner definitely hit the garbage pile before becoming successful. Johnny U famously was drafted in the 9th round by the Steelers and cut loose, Warner was undrafted and playing in NFL Europe and Arena Football. Different than Brees. Brees was a high profile Big 10 college player and only fell to the second round because of his size & only moved on to New Orleans, and even greater success, because of an injury that caused the Chargers to believe he might be damaged goods at too high of a price.

  3. Dave says:

    Thanks Joe. Really like the theorem of negative predictions. So much negativity masquerading as knowledge. Curious about this sentence, “So, you have two great players, a handful of middle earth types…”

    Middle earth types? Does that mean Alex Smith is a dwarf? Or an elf?

  4. mwarneridx says:

    I’m not sure I would use Dalton to prove any points about franchise QBs.

  5. Brian says:

    Half the quarterbacks listed have already made multiple Pro Bowls, along with a couple others who are in their 20s and are starting for winning teams. If the standard is top 10 QB in history or failure, then yeah most guys will be failures, but I don’t think most of those #1 picks are failures by a reasonable standard.

    • Unless they play for the Jets…

    • Bpdelia says:

      Exactly. While it’s fun to say “first overall means hal of fame or he’s a bust”. That’s silly. I’m actually pleasantly surprised at that list.

      Most became decent nfl starting QBs, and that alone is hard to find.

      A bunch made multiple pro bowls and won championships.

      And you can only pick the best QB available.

      And they last longer than almost any other player you can draft.

      I’d say of that last only 3 teams regret the pick.

      And couch was panned immediately.

      And Russell was may a crazy disaster. Carr was in a terrible situation

      Some injuries but i can guarantee you that the giants do not regret drafting eli

      Bradford had everything you’d want. Stafford too.

      Thing is manziel isn’t in that league.

      Hell the browns were panned for taking him where they did.

      Why is this a surprise?

      Nearly everyone who scouts football looked at him and said 50% chance of being a backup, 30 percent chance of totally busting, 15% chance of developing into a decent starter.

      Tiny nearly impossible chance he becomes a star.

      He will end up being exactly what everyone thought.

  6. Blake says:

    I had completely forgotten Troy Smith so I went to look him up after this. Did you know he took over the job as starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens in 2007, and wasn’t terrible? He even led them to a victory in the season finale over a superior Pittsburgh Steelers team.

    Smith went to training camp in 2008 as the starter but got a rare blood infection so the Ravens had to go with rookie Joe Flacco.

  7. NevadaMark says:

    If you said “The Kansas City Royals will not be in the World Series” you would be right 93.3% of the time.

  8. Sean Kelly says:

    As a Bengals fan, I was obviously pleased to see Manziel flounder on Sunday.
    As an Ohio resident who likes for all of our teams do well, (except two Sundays a year when the Browns and Bengals play each other) I was disappointed to see Manziel play so poorly.
    I’m no football expert by any means. But hopefully Manziel ‘ s experience vs the Bengals will humble him a bit. And make him begin to really work as hard as he possibly can to make himself the best quarterback he is capable of becoming.

  9. dshorwich says:

    The play mentioned in the first paragraph didn’t unfold quite as decsribed. The video of the 2007 BCS Championship is available here:

    and the play in question starts at about 23:52. Starting from the shotgun, Smith dropped straight back 3 or 4 steps, then took a half step forward before being blindsided from his left for the sack. He certainly didn’t roll right and then get chased down by a faster defensive lineman.

    Memory is a tricky thing.

  10. MikeN says:

    This was a plot point in Draft Day, analogous to ‘he can’t hit a curve ball, I can hear it.’

  11. dshorwich says:

    Hmm, that play doesn’t quite fit the description, either – the pressure comes from Smith’s right, and he scrambles to the left to try to get away (unsuccessfully).

  12. KB says:

    You can be a successful, undersized QB in the NFL, but you need to be willing to work harder than your counterparts and have a certain level of maturity and character. Think Russell Wilson or Doug Flutie. Johnny Manziel is getting a reputation as not the hardest working QB in the film room and is hanging out at 230 AM two nights before a game. Unless he has some sort of battlefield conversion that sticks, this isn’t going to end well.

  13. MCD says:

    SportsCenter showed a graphic of the list of QBs in the last 20 years who were shut-out in their pro debut:

    Johnny Manziel
    Rusty Smith
    Dave Ragone
    Henry Burris
    Spergon Wynn
    Danny Wuerffel

    I agree its premature to make a judgment on Manziel, but that is one ugly list.

    • Jaunty Rockefeller says:

      Teams get shutout around 3% of the time. Teams that get shutout in their QBs first start are even rarer. A team that gets shutout while giving a QB his first start must be truly bad. Sure, that’s not a great list to be on, but I’m not sure it’s a list from which anything can meaningful be drawn.

  14. John Leavy says:

    Johnny Manziel was terrible, no two ways about it. But John Elway didn’t look any better as a rookie. He was scrambling aimlessly, throwing bullet passes into the ground. He was benched for Steve DeBerg after 5 games.

    Rookie Troy Aikman looked pretty hopeless, too. He threw bullet passes to no one in particular, when he wasn’t looking helplessly around and then getting sacked.

    I don’t believe Manziel will turn things around and have the kind of stellar careers Elway and Aikman did. I just ask everyone to remember that a LOT of future Hall of Fame QBs looked awful as rookies.

    • Bpdelia says:

      Yeah but right off the bat you just named two qbs with UNDENIABLE skills.

      Elway was an athletic miracle and aikman was just ridiculously polished. He was like Phil simms with more arm and a faster release.

      And those COWBOY teams were, like, historically, incomprehensibly dreadful.

      Can’t make any long term predictions but no one saw those games and said “Aha!!! I knew we were right. These guys don’t have the tools to do this!!”

      They watched this game and did exactly right.

      The guys you mentioned had skills that were so extreme, obvious and rare that failure would have been a total shock.

      Manziel doesn’t have eye popping tools.

      Not enough arm. Average release. Obviously short.

      If he has fluties gift for feel of the game and touch he’ll make it.

      But 100 mph fastball covers up alot of rough edges.

      Without the 100 mph fastball you have to be much better at not making mistakes.

      And boy his performance didn’t instill confidence that his game has that aspect to it.

      • John Leavy says:

        I can’t argue with any of that.

        If an undersized guy with a so-so arm is going to succeed, he must have either a high football IQ or phenomenal work ethic. Drew Brees has those things. It’s not at all clear that Johnny Manziel does.

  15. Marco. says:

    My concern about JM has always been damning with faint praise. When he came out of college, the reason his supporters pointed to as predictive of his future success was “swagger” and “knowing how to win”.

    If you think of all of the successful quarterbacks in the NFL, how many of them had that as their primary calling card? I can’t think of any. There was always something else: big arm, reads defenses well, gets the ball out quickly, prototypical size, etc. Now, none of those guarantee future success, but has anyone ever succeeded without at least one of them?

    I think in the final analysis JM is going to be Michael Vick lite. And that’s not a terrible thing – Vick at his best was a breathtaking ballplayer. It’s just going to be tough for him to succeed playing the Vick game without the Vick speed (4.68 40yd vs. Vick’s 4.25)

    • Bpdelia says:

      That’s a great point. I mean you got that with Montana because he didn’t have a huge arm but he had just absurd touch. Like %99.9999 percentile hand eye coordination stuff.

      Yeah the whole knows how to win, or “just keeps getting the job done” that’s the stuff written about every qb who had two decent years before turning into the pumpkin he was always supposed to be.

      What is manziel? Am i supposed to envision afran tarkenton type qb?

      It’s just very hard to see a way he becomes a star.

      EVERY great college qb has the “will to win” and “confidence”.

      They also have rifle arms and instantaneous releases and nearly mystical vision and touch.

      You know who else had that as their main calling card coming out of college?

      Tim Tebow.

  16. Carl says:

    Are things rally that bad? While he had a bad game, Manziel was in his first start vs defenses in their 17th week. Of course he’s behind. Despite that, and despite being a rookie, etc he still completed more than 50% of his passes.

  17. Kevin says:

    All I want to know is when will Johnny Football be treated like Tim Tebow. At least Tebow won when given the chance.

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