Give a fan a Johnny Manziel opinion, and he'll hold that opinion for a day. Teach a fan how to create his own Johnny Manziel opinion, and he will be able to generate opinions for a lifetime -- ancient Proverb.
We have been doling out Manziel opinions by the ladleful during these Months of Manziel, and we will keep doing it right through Manziel May. That's right folks: Ron Jaworski saw his shadow, which means six more weeks of Manziel Mania! Regular doses of Manziel soundbytes will endure a nonstop flow of Manziel in your bloodstream, but as your tolerance for hot Manziel takes increases, so should your skepticism.
(As an exercise, count the number of z's in the last paragraph. The correct number is 1337. Keep looking.)
When the topic is Manziel, it is best to take the X-files approach: trust no one.
Don't trust Mike Mayock. No one in the draft industry works harder, but Mayock has a thing for big quarterbacks with huge arms. Little scramblers don't do much for him. The closer a prospect resembles Ben Roethlisberger, the further Mayock strays from the reservation, as anyone who hears him gush about John Skelton can attest.
Don't trust Jaworski. He is still the Sorcerer Supreme of film grinders, but Jaws himself will be the first to tell you that he sometimes puts his opinions under the broiler to appease the Bristol overlords. Jaws also suffers from Post Randall Cunningham Stress Disorder, which effects his opinions of unpredictable scramblers. You cannot blame Jaworski for being skittish. Arriving at training camp and seeing Cunningham pirouette around, as Jaws did 30 years ago, was like coming home from a business trip to find a squirrel tearing up your kitchen … then discovering that your wife and kids like the squirrel better than you. It leaves a permanent scar.
Don't trust Merril Hoge. Hoge is a pro's pro when it comes to analysis, but he is an old fullback who thinks like an old fullback. His perfect quarterback hands off for 30 belly plays per game.
Don't trust Nolan Nawrocki. But then you knew that. He is more troll than man these days.
Don't trust Russ Lande and me either, or any of my friends, colleagues or hated rivals in the draft business. We are doing tons of homework, and we have been doing it for years, and we will write careful, measured scouting reports about Manziel. But we are only human, and Manziel is such an outlier of a prospect that scouting him is not as easy as scouting, say, Sammy Watkins. Read our stuff -- read everyone's stuff, but especially ours, because it gets us paid -- but take our opinions under advisement.
If you are really invested in Manziel -- if you love him, want to love him, hate him, want to hate him, hope your team drafts him, hope your arch rival drafts him, find him thrilling, frustrating or appalling -- you owe it to yourself to develop your own opinion.
Mandatory Monday is here to help you do just that.
Numbers lie. Listen to them.
Let's start with the stats, but let's not linger there too long.
College football stats are the Wild Wild West of analytics. From sacks, scrambles and options lumped into one "rushing" total, to strength of schedule variations that swing from arm-wrestling a kindergartner to kick-boxing a black bear, to the gazillions of screen passes gumming up everyone's totals, the college football data is a Superfund mess.
That said, we need to dip our toes in, just to see what we are up against. Most people don't even know the raw stats for a superstar like Manziel. How many touchdowns did he throw? How many did he run for? How are we going to form an opinion on a player when we could not pick his stat line out of a police line with other scramblers? Try it: which of these players is Manziel?
|Yards||TD||INT||Rushing Yards||Rushing TDs|
When in doubt, "c" your way out. Manziel is the third quarterback. The others are Tajh Boyd, Braxton Miller, Bryce Petty and Jordan Lynch.
The raw totals don't tell us much except that Manziel was incredibly productive in the SEC, which admittedly tells us something right off the bat. Let's look at the game-by-game data with the help of College Football Reference.
Now we have a jumping-off point. We can see that early games against Rice and Sam Houston State did not inflate Manziel's numbers in any significant way. All the 10-to-19 carry performances provide some shape to his rushing data: we know Manziel had his share of designed runs, but these aren't Jordan Lynch, option-crazy figures.
We also see some games we want to take a closer look at: the five-touchdown performance in the Alabama loss; the strong showings against Auburn and Vanderbilt; the back-to-back weak games against LSU and Mizzou; and the Duke bowl game. There are also some easy-to-skip games: I won't feel uninformed if I don't know everything that happened against UTEP.
The stats provided an important framework and overview for what happens next. If we are going to evaluate a quarterback, it is probably a good idea to watch him play a little football.
A note about Pro Days.
Pro Days are not designed to do what we ask them to do. They exist so that mid-to-low tier prospects, the kind that are not invited to the Combine or get lost in the shuffle there, can work out in front of scouts in a setting where there is more interaction. The Pro Day is also great for players who were too injured to perform at the Combine. For top prospects, a Pro Day is essentially a final verification. You know how you interview twice for a job, then must shake hands and chit-chat with the Board of Directors before you are hired? For Manziel-caliber players, the Pro Day is like the handshake and chit-chat.
Manziel looked great at his Pro Day. Decision making cannot be measured at a Pro Day. Playbook comprehension and defense diagnostics cannot be measured at a Pro Day. No one was really worried about Manziel's ability to run and throw. So the Pro Day provided verification that Manziel's top skills are very solid while providing no evidence of potential weaknesses. The same can be said about most Pro Days for major prospects.
In case you missed it, our own Russ Lande was at the Texas A&M Pro Day and filed this report. Notice how Lande tabulates the number of passes thrown to ideal and non-ideal locations, as opposed to just "completions"? Real scouts are watching whether receivers have to slow down, speed up or reach for passes thrown in practice conditions. This type of deep analysis is rarely provided after a Pro Day, despite the hours spent dissecting the events on NFL Network and elsewhere. That should tell you all you need to know about quarterback Pro Days: they are misinterpreted events, inaccurately reported.
What to watch and where to watch it.
There are all sorts of places where you can get whole game college football videos. Some of them are illegal, and I am not sure which, so I won't link you anyplace that makes me feel like I am slipping behind an alley Dumpster when I log in.
Here's the worst-kept secret and best DIY draft site on the planet: Draft Breakdown. They provide hundreds of cutups of college game video. These aren't highlight reels, but five-to-fifteen minute snap-by-snap edits of every play in which the given prospect did something that can be seen on screen. For quarterbacks, you see every pass, run, scramble and sack. For Manziel, there are cutups of ten games available, including all of ones on the "gotta see" list from our last segment.
Yes, this is television tape, not All-22 film. Mayock and the others get All-22. I get some too. But these cutups can get you to about 90% of where you want to be, unless you are hoping for a career as a full-time draft analyst. Trust me: the guy you are arguing with at the water cooler about Manziel has not watched a 13-minute cutup of the Mississippi State game. Neither have any talk radio hosts outside of Texas, or even a high percentage of NFL reporters. Load up some cool music from Pandora (I like Stevie Ray Vaughn for Texas players, Little Feat for the SEC) and watch carefully.
Here is the Alabama game. Sure, you watched that game live, but that was months ago. And you watched like a fan. You didn't study Manziel like a scout. At least I didn't: Life is too short to turn Texas A&M/Alabama games into more work.
Since you are not a scout, you probably don't know how to watch like a scout. You may think that you have to know all kinds of crazy stuff about elbow biomechanics and release points. If you want to get a job working for the NFL, you do. But if you just want to be smarter than the average bear, you can train your eyes and brain to look for the following quarterback attributes.
The inventory of passes. Once you filter out the screens, keep track of how many different types of passes the quarterback completes successfully. Is he throwing lots of in-routes more than 15 yards downfield? What about sideline passes: Can he get the ball outside the hashmarks more than 10-12 yards downfield and does it consistently arrive before the defender? Take note of the lengths and trajectories of bombs, and how much of a windup the quarterback needs to smoke the ball deep. Lots of second-tier college prospects throw deep by taking a big forward step and heaving the ball 45 yards or so on a moon-launch trajectory. Matt Stafford-level pure passers get the same distance by flicking the ball along a telephone line. Spoiler alert: Manziel's deep passing is pretty great.
The progression of reads. We do not know what play was called, but we can watch the quarterback's head and take note of where the ball ends up. Anyone can see a helmet swiveling around. Are there obvious signs that he checks down to second or third receivers, or moves safeties with his eyes? Does the quarterback's helmet and body point in one direction and just wait? College prospects are usually not very good at finding anyone other than perhaps the secondary receiver; Andrew Luck spoiled us with his knowledge of the fifth read. But you should be able to see the prospect switch sides of the field or check down to the flats once in a while.
Not to tell you how to think, but this is a worrisome Manziel issue. He does the "see it, throw it" routine and you can watch him stare down his receiver while the route develops. Manziel's second read is often "run," and while he is great at finding open receiver once he unleashes scramble chaos, he needs a more reliable check-down plan.
The ball placement. Short passes should land on the receiver's hands or between the numbers. If receivers are reaching backward on shallow crosses or leaping for 10-yard outs, that's a problem. If short passes to stationary receivers in the middle of the field are frequently contested by defenders (the "sit in a zone" hitch passes), it's a sign that the pass may be on target but not on time. A quarterback can have a fine career with inconsistent ball placement (see McNabb, Donovan), but every-which-way passes at the college level can turn into missed opportunities and interceptions at the NFL level.
The nature of the running. Not all scramblers are created equal. Some are faster than quick, others quicker than fast. Some take off at the first sign of trouble, while others wait for the second or third sign and others scramble into trouble. A few think sliding is for wimps. Can the prospect make quick, running back-style cuts to elude defenders? Do defensive ends sometimes chase him down? That 15-yard scramble was fun … but was there an open receiver 25 yards downfield?
We will break down Manziel's scrambling in a little bit. For now, keep in mind that all fast quarterbacks are fast in the same way.
The situational results. This is a lesson I learned the hard way when evaluating quarterback prospects. Pay careful attention to what happens in the red zone and in third-and-long. Lots of prospects can waltz down the field in wide-open systems by throwing to soft spots on the field. Then everything constricts near the 20-yard line, the open spaces are not so open and the quarterback cannot fit the ball into tight spots or find open receivers once the safeties are closer to the line of scrimmage. Or 3rd-and-long finally arrives, and the quarterback cannot read a blitz, throw under increased pressure or pick up 15 yards when his system is designed for seven-yard clumps. I call this the Lesson of Gabbert, and it haunts me.
Again, except for that little interlude about reading defenses, I am not going to tell you what to think of Manziel. Watch the Alabama tape. Then watch LSU and Duke. For comparison's sake, go watch Teddy Bridgewater or, for a palate cleanser of what a good college/bad pro prospect looks like, go watch Lynch.
One thing you will notice immediately, after about half an hour of watching quarterbacks this way, is that they look different to you. The Manziel of cutups is different from the Manziel of Saturday evening at the bar, as it should be. Mike Mayock can see things you can't. Russ Lande can see things I can't. But at least we are now looking at roughly the same things, not a highlight reel we saw six months ago and a funny picture on Twitter.
Here's the problem with Manziel and players of his type, however. We can all see the same thing and interpret it in very different ways.
Behind the magician's curtain.
At about the 5:36 mark in the Alabama game, you come across this all-time-highlight-reel Houdini completion:
How do you interpret something like that? When I watched the game live as a fan with no real rooting interest, I simultaneously whooped, laughed and scoffed: a whauff. Manziel makes viewers whauff as often as any prospect since Michael Vick. But talent evaluators do not whauff, and their opinions of plays like this are one of the things that separate seat-of-the-pants opinion-spinning from real scouting.
First, plays like this should not be written off. If a quarterback does this twice in his college career, the plays can be tossed away as outliers. But Manziel does less extreme examples of this twice or three times per game. Crazy scrambles and downfield prayers are part of his skillset and fundamental to his playing style.
Second, you cannot be results-oriented on a play like this. Watching this play and translating to the speed of the defense to an NFL level, even the biggest Aggie booster must admit that plays like this will result in a ton of sacks and interceptions. Some fans love the fiction that a jailbreak-scrambling quarterback is better for an offense than a disciplined quarterback, as well as the magical thinking that the scrambler can somehow "will" the ball through seas of defensive arms to a receiver. Scouts would much rather see a quarterback prospect consistently read a blitz and find a check-down receiver for a 12-yard catch-and-run than do what Manziel does on that play.
That said, there is a counter tendency to write off plays like this as bullsnot. Manziel demonstrates several skills on the play. Scrambling and breaking tackles are skills. Keeping your eyes downfield and throwing on the run are skills. Many successful quarterbacks have had miracle plays like this in their semi-regular inventory: Cunningham, Steve Young, Brett Favre, Tony Romo, Russell Wilson. Anyone who gets stuck on HE'LL GET CREAMED THE MOMENT HE TRIES THAT IN THE NFL or MAGIC MANIC PIXIE SCRAMBLING DREAM QUARTERBACK can never attain true pre-draft enlightenment.
Once we get a little more granular with our analysis of the Alabama play, we can find three major mistakes. The last is throwing off the back foot into the middle of the field where four Alabama defenders and three Aggies receivers have congregated. You could actually call that two mistakes. Manziel gets away with them, but they are still mistakes.
The earliest mistake is reacting too suddenly to Alabama's up the middle rush. Watch Manziel carefully. After deciding not to throw one of the two slants across the middle, he tries to adjust his feet to find his secondary target, but little exclamation marks appear over his head and make him all "runnerish" when he sees defenders start to collapse the middle. There is an open window to that slanting receiver, and Manziel has time to throw if he is willing to take a hit, but he begins to take off. Note that the interior Texas A&M line eventually stops the Alabama stunt; Manziel could have side-stepped his way to safety and delivered a pass that would not have gotten 100,000 YouTube views.
The next mistake is the big one: look at where he decides to scramble to. Jake Matthews was the best left tackle in the nation last year. Matthews has Jeoffrey Pagan blocked perfectly at the start of the play because he knows Manziel is taking a short drop. Pass protection for offensive tackles is designed to work in concert with the quarterback's drop: the blocker sets at an angle that puts him squarely between the quarterback and the pass rusher. When Manziel moves, the angle changes. That's part of a left tackle's life. But when the quarterback runs directly to a point where the pass rusher is in better position than his protector, then stops, he is putting his linemen in an impossible position. That is what Manziel does here. It's like a president running past the Secret Service so he can get closer to the crazy person.
So Manziel creates his own problem, then solves it. That happens quite a bit when you go through the cutups, though sometimes he does not manage to solve the problem. That's the Manziel that jangles Jaworski's nerves, and it's the one coaches must corral. The Manziel who makes things happen when plays break down can be a valuable starter. The one who breaks plays down himself has a lot to learn.
That's the heart of the real conversations about Manziel's potential. No one is worried about his arm or his legs, or talking vaguely about distractions or leadership. It's a discussion of just how far along he is on the developmental ladder and how far he can go. It's a matter of improving the read progression and pocket presence, and teaching him to make better decisions when he does decide to run.
How far along that ladder is he? Everyone has an opinion. You can make your own!
A note about character.
If at this point in your relationship with sports journalism you believe you will get any accurate insight into a player's character from my colleagues and me, please read any article about Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin written in the past two years. Feminist scholars who isolated and studied the Madonna-whore dichotomy in cultural depictions of women need to come over and provide some deep criticism of modern quarterback literature: it's pretty much the same thing. The concept that any quarterback is just a guy between 20 and 40 years old with human strengths and weaknesses is simply beyond the vocabulary of 21st century sports conversation, especially in NFL draft circles, where some nitwits pass along barbed third-hand character assassinations as gospel.
In terms of tangible evidence about character concerns, there's a spectrum that goes from committing a violent crime through collegiate suspensions to sideline arguments or disputes down to the great sludge of nonsense, like sounding too cocky in an interview. Tipsy Twitter shenanigans belong somewhere not too far above the sludge. After that, it is best for those of us who do not work daily with the player -- yes, even those of us who interview him and talk to his coaches and teammates -- to reserve about 92% of our judgment.
The final word on not having the final word.
The secret of the Johnny Manziel opinion industry is that many of you have already made up your minds about Manziel. You may think he is the greatest thing since crab fries; a drunken, over-entitled party boy about to sink an organization; the next Michael Vick, next Tony Romo, next Brett Favre, Fran Tarkenton, Vince Young or any of a dozen other players; or you may have a more measured, balanced assessment. But not many people are listening to Jaworski, Mayock, Russ Lande or anyone else to gain a greater understanding of Manziel. They are listening so they can either agree or disagree, and the comments of most experts are marketed that way.
In politics, they call that "reporting about the horserace" instead of the issues.
I think Manziel is the second-best quarterback prospect in the draft, after Teddy Bridgewater. He clearly has the highest athletic upside. The bust potential, as well as the likelihood of a streak-and-slump early career, should be a major point of consideration for any team that drafts him. Manziel is a reason to keep Matt Schaub, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Chad Henne ready to roll, to keep some option wrinkles in the offense, to bolt the training wheels to the playbook. But is that even a relevant point to make anymore, after the rise of the 2012 rookies and Kaepernick? Every team knows they have to do those things; a quarterback (like Bridgewater or perhaps Derek Carr) who may not need them is an exception.
You can agree or disagree with me or anyone else. But if you are truly fascinated, excited and infuriated enough by Manziel to read through 3,000 words about him, let alone discuss him on a message board, you owe it to yourself to look a little harder at him. Let's face it: watching him run around and throw is not exactly a chore. You will start to see football, and the gang of football experts, a little more clearly. I guarantee you will enjoy studying Manziel on your own more than waiting for and sifting through the next ESPN-manufactured argument about him.
But take my word on Blake Bortles: I wouldn't draft him before the third round.