COLLEGE STATION, TEX. -- He walked into the room wearing headphones and an Adidas backpack and a white hat and a T-shirt that said "No New Friends," and the first thing that happened was a Texas A&M flack handed him a school-branded polo shirt to cover up the T-shirt. It was a surprise to see him here, in this auditorium that doubles as a media interview room on Saturdays, but that's the thing about Johnny Manziel; it isn't what he does, but how he does it. Contrarianism becomes him.
I mean, I don't think anybody expected him to speak after this game, after a 49-42 loss to Alabama, because A) His team lost, and B) He hadn't spoken beforehand, because the story during the week went that his lawyers were advising him to keep his mouth shut. And as Manziel was midway through some kind of explanation that essentially boiled down to, I have no idea what kind of stories people tell about me to protect my interests, another Texas A&M flack broke in and threatened rather angrily to end the press conference before it had really begun, as if to reinforce the point.
So let me say this up front: I can't tell you anything more about how Johnny Manziel feels regarding the concept of amateurism, or what his legal strategy is, or whether he is an unlikeable human being because I saw him (appear to) send a text message, or if Drake personally gifted him with that T-shirt while they were hanging out at a bar mitzvah with James Harden. I'm assuming this whole overwrought soap opera centering around the off-field existence of a 20-year-old who likes to party is largely behind us, now that A&M-Alabama is behind us, now that Manziel once again proved he is the most purely exciting improvisational college quarterback of his generation, and now that Nick Saban proved he is the most tediously brilliant football mind of his generation. In the end, this game was kind of a push, except for a couple of crucial plays, and this is why order generally prevails over chaos: Because chaos tends to get kind of screwy sometimes.
It happened twice for Manziel. Two mistakes, but I still think the first one was bigger than the second one (a tipped pass that Alabama returned for a score), because it happened early on, while A&M still had residual momentum from a 14-0 start that seemed cribbed from last year's gametape, when almost the exact same thing happened; and I think the first one was bigger than the second one because A&M was about to score again, to go up 21-14, and if the Aggies score there, maybe they keep scoring, and maybe Alabama never pulls away mid-game like they did, and maybe it really goes down to the wire just like it did last season when A&M shocked them in Tuscaloosa.
In retrospect, it sure seemed like the first mistake would work. It was a fade pass to the back of the end zone, and it was Johnny Manziel throwing the football, and Manziel just has a way of making things work, even when they shouldn't. (I don't know if there's ever been a quarterback with a better pure ability to elude a pass rush; sometimes, Manziel throws into coverage, but he gets away with it more than most people do because his instincts are generally so dead-on. If you don't objectively enjoy watching him play football, you may require a prescription of some kind.)
"We felt good with the matchup," Manziel said of that fade pass. "I'll take that one on me. It was just a miscommunication. We were just on different pages. That was a big turning point in the game, and I take responsibility for that one."
This brings us to the central problem with facing Alabama, and the problem A&M faced Saturday; if the Sabanbots do not make syntax errors, there is really no way to beat them. Alabama's AJ McCarron passed for 334 yards but did not throw an interception and the Tide kind of rolled with every attempt to jar their bolts loose, which is what makes them the most hard-to-kill dynasty in college football history. When they needed to throw, McCarron threw; when they needed to run, they ran. When they needed to slow the game down, they slowed it down; when they felt like speeding it up, they sped it up. Nobody expected they could give up 42 points and 628 yards and win, but Alabama is so supremely good and so infuriatingly adaptable that they actually beat A&M, A&M-style.
"I don't think anyone saw that coming," said A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, "but that's the kind of game it was."
It is only September, of course, and the A&M players consoled themselves with the fact that Alabama lost games much later in the season each of the past two years and won the national championship both times. But I don't know if that can work for a program other than Alabama; I don't know if A&M can be methodical, and I don't know if they can maintain the martial order that Saban did after those defeats. Alabama is almost foolproof by now, almost infuriatingly perfect; A&M is a team that thrives on the manic and chaotic energy of their quarterback, who is the most interesting player in college football largely because he seems deliberately imperfect, a risk-taker whose risks sometimes go awry. And maybe it's impossible to win a national championship that way. Maybe Alabama's meticulous robotics engineers will simply reprogram in response to everything thrown at them.
"What did we have to lose?" Manziel said. "The pressure wasn't on us. The pressure was on Alabama to try and three-peat. We were just going to go and play our hearts out and leave it all on the field."
And then Johnny Manziel answered one last question, and he stripped off that polo shirt, and he handed it back to the A&M flack, and he walked out of the room in his "No New Friends" T-shirt, looking just as he had when he came in.