By Jason Cohen
If it were easy to take a quarterback with one of the top picks in the NFL draft, Tim Couch would have a Fathead, Jordan Palmer wouldn't have a chance to end up as the most successful member of his family in the sport, and former Super Bowl MVP Ryan Leaf would sit next to Chris Berman every Sunday. Teams screw up their big selection all the time, whether they play it safe or take a risk, and the screw-ups end up feeling bigger when the pick is a QB. This is not much of a revelation, just like my desire to end this sentence with William Goldman's famous Hollywood aphorism, "nobody knows anything," is not original (props to you, Brian Billick).
But that's why, if you're Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith, picking No. 1, what you do on May 8 is an easy call. You take the risk. You make the splash. You do as the billboard and website created by Houston trial lawyer and Texas A&M regent Tony Buzbee commands: Draft Johnny Manziel.
You do it because Texas is a place of risk. Because your team is called the Houston Texans, not the Houston Guys From Florida (i.e., Teddy Bridgewater or Blake Bortles). And most of all, because to be the Houston Texans is to be the also-ran, the state's "other" football team: underestimated, overlooked, always on the smaller TVs in the sports bar. That's also how it used be for Texas A&M, forever in the shadow of the University of Texas. Then Johnny Football came along.
The Texans have been here before, of course -- atop the draft not once, but twice. The first time, as a 2002 expansion team, they took David Carr, a quarterback who did indeed get to the Super Bowl, but as Eli Manning's backup on the New York Giants. Then, in 2006, they infamously -- and, as it turned out, wisely -- opted for defensive end Mario Williams over (since-vacated) Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and Houston native/BCS-winning University of Texas quarterback Vince Young. If you're a Texans fan who doesn't want Manziel, VY is your cautionary tale, his NFL career now over after just six seasons. But there are also Houstonians who think Young's story might have turned out better on the Texans.
Based on his time in College Station, the fact that there are doubts about Manziel are also the very reason you would want him on your team. He won the Aggies QB job -- and ultimately, the Heisman Trophy -- in 2012 despite being written off as a recruit, and despite being arrested (and almost suspended from the university) before the season. Then he had what was arguably an even better individual season in 2013, despite all the "distractions" of his newfound fame (like palling around with Drake and LeBron -- he now shares an agent with the latter, as well as a McDonald's commercial).
Last month, Manziel addressed the Texans' draft predicament head-on with the quote of the century, in an interview with John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. "It would be the worst decision they've ever made," Manziel said of the Texans passing on him, especially if he ended up in Jacksonville (which has the third pick). "I'd be in the same division playing against them twice a year. Sorry, but you just turned that chip on my shoulder from a Frito into a Dorito." Given what kind of results the Frito got for him in college, one might like to see that.
Predictably, this made-of-awesome quote did not charm everyone. "You don't say that to football teams. That's just not something you do. You don't back a team into a corner like that," former Oilers quarterback Warren Moon huffed. That's the same conservative NFL mentality that had people saying former University of Oregon coach Chip Kelly (the only big-time coach besides A&M's Mike Sherman who wanted Manziel) couldn't do it in the pros. Manziel comes from a family of wildcatters, oilmen who go after the least-known and least-certain spots for wells. The first round of the NFL draft is almost the exact opposite of wildcatting.
But if you're the team in Houston, it doesn't have to be that way. Houston is about hubris, and innovation. The "energy capital of the world." The home of cancer research and the artificial heart. The place where President John F. Kennedy made his famous speech at Rice, laying the groundwork for Apollo and the Johnson Space Center. "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things," JFK bellowed, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Running a traditional NFL offense with a controllable personality and perfect physical specimen at quarterback is easy. Johnny Football's hard. But he just might get you to the moon.
The Houston Texans need that, because they're not just second-fiddle to the Cowboys in the state of Texas -- they're second-fiddle to the memory of the Houston Oilers. The Texans need to give its fans a personality as transcendent -- and Texan -- as Earl Campbell or Bum Phillips. "The Cowboys may be America's team, but but the Houston Oilers are Texas' team," Phillips once said. It wasn't true -- then as now, places like San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley, both closer to Houston than Dallas, remain Cowboys Country. But it could be. Put Manziel on the Texans and you get a slew of casual fans, as well as all the Aggies like Tony Buzbee. You'll also earn the ire of Manziel haters and UT fans -- but hate is still a form of interest.
Granted, winning trumps all. The Texans could win with Bortles. Heck, under first-year coach Bill O'Brien, a man who previously coached (6th rounder!) Tom Brady, and turned Matt McGloin into an NFL quarterback at Penn State, the Texans might be able to win with newly acquired journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick. Become a good team again and get back to the playoffs, and the Texans will have Houston's attention. But become a good team again and get back to the playoffs with Johnny Football, and the Texans could have the whole state -- or even the whole country's -- attention.
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