By Robert Weintraub
In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. So far we've featured the Falcons, Cardinals, Ravens, Bills, Panthers, Bears and Bengals.
Let's face it -- there is only one story coming out of Berea this summer that anyone cares about. Every one of these "biggests" we use could easily be about the full-screen, high-def entertainment experience that is Johnny Football, a.k.a Money, a.k.a Johnny Cleveland. Johnny Manziel is the very epitome of "biggest."
He's pulled off the rather amazing accomplishment of totally overshadowing a rather eventful offseason in Cleveland. The Browns have a new head coach and GM, while the three men it took to fill those roles in 2013 were shown the door after just one season. They had a superb draft without even factoring in Manziel, while also adding an additional first-rounder in 2015. Linchpin players at center and cornerback were extended to long-term deals, while free-agent defections were countered with reasonable facsimiles. And the best wide receiver on the team is about to have his weekends free to peruse the classified ads in High Times, which is what got him into trouble in the first place.
But it all pales in the shadow of Manziel. Only the astonishing return of Jim Brown to the huddle would match this type of excitement, and even No. 32 would be second banana to Manziel. So in the interest of exploring the team in full, let's not go "the Full Johnny" in this particular space.
Biggest Offseason Move: Drafting Johnny Football
Sorry, but he has to be mentioned here, because Manziel Mania consumed Browns Town from the moment the Commish called his name at Radio City Music Hall. Sure, we want to know how the team will transition from Norv Turner's play-action, deep-passing concepts to Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking and read-option systems. And sure, new head coach Mike Pettine's move from coordinator (and Rex Ryan disciple) to running his own show for the first time is pretty crucial. But who cares? Let's dissect Manziel's middle-row seat on a flight home from Vegas instead!
Predicting exactly how good Manziel will be in the pros, especially as a rookie, is a fool's errand. Indeed, if you believe the Browns, Brian Hoyer is the starting quarterback. Hoyer is a good guy and a local hero (he starred at Cleveland's St. Ignatius High once upon a time), but he's a mediocre player who started and won two games last year before tearing up his knee. Let's just say the status of his rebuilt wheel isn't exactly garnering the same coverage that the rehab of Robert Griffin's ligament tear received in D.C. Hoyer may be beloved in Cleveland, but no one bought season tickets based on him playing quarterback. Over 1,500 fans did just that when Manziel was drafted. If Hoyer really does start the season under center, one of those new regulars at FirstEnergy Stadium may just kneecap Hoyer, Gillooly-style, to get Johnny Football on the field.
Biggest Offseason Gamble: Assuming Manziel can throw the ball to himself
The Browns were actively trying to unload their best wideout, Josh Gordon, during the 2013 season, only to find that Gordon's weed habit -- he was suspended for the first two games of the season -- and penchant for mischief-making made him radioactive. In the wake of the trade rumors, Gordon went on a ballistic four-game spree, morphing into 1998 Randy Moss before a stunned Lake Erie audience. In that quartet of contests, Gordon caught 36 balls for 774 yards and five touchdowns -- essentially half of his season totals in one month. Considering the quarterbacks targeting him were Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden (whose surname is a verb where Gordon is concerned), the spasm of production seemed like a collective mass hallucination, perhaps brought on through a contact high.
The Browns brain trust took bows for having the accidental foresight to not deal Gordon, but that presumption has blown up in their faces. (It helps that few of them still have jobs.) Gordon will reportedly lose the entire 2014 season to yet another positive drug test. We can debate the ethics of the NFL's ultra-stringent drug-testing policies elsewhere. The plain fact is that, fairly or otherwise, Cleveland is going to be without its best receiver -- perhaps best player, period -- for a significant period of time. (He may have his suspension reduced, but eight games seems like the absolute minimum.)
The team has known this for some time -- and certainly knew the possibility of losing the mercurial wideout was distinct, hence the attempts to deal him. But the Browns decided to sit out a wideout-rich draft, notably dealing away from picking Sammy Watkins. They also dumped their other leading receiver, Greg Little (though we should note that Little dropped the envelope that contained his pink slip). The club swiped shifty slot man Andrew Hawkins from Cincinnati, and brought in frequently-injured receivers Miles Austin, Earl Bennett and Nate Burleson to fill out the depth chart. But there is nary a deep threat in that group, much less a catcher of Gordon's ability. Nor is there someone Manziel can rely upon to pull down his speculative heaves, as Mike Evans routinely did in College Station. If Johnny is the goods, than it stands to reason he will make receivers look better than they are. But the team didn't do him any favors by leaving him without much of a support system in his rookie year.
Biggest 2014 Question: Can Cleveland ever un-Cleveland itself?
Since rejoining the NFL in 1999, the Browns have averaged five victories a season, boasted winning records just twice and played in a single playoff game (which they lost). That's a record of futility the original Buccaneers would mock (and wouldn't John McKay have fun doing it, too). For the most part, they have been as dull and unmemorable as their nickname.
That's where Manziel is worth all the agita his outsized presence will cause. If nothing else, Cleveland is poised to increase its RZA (Red Zone Attention) metric ten-fold. Andrew Siciliano and Scott Hanson haven't uttered the phrase, "You gotta see what the Browns are doing right now," unless it was to update us all on the latest punt Cleveland had blocked. Prepare for that to change: All eyes are going to be trained on the Browns every Sunday, while the likes of Jadaveon Clowney and Watkins toil in relative obscurity.
So the Browns are relevant again -- seemingly for the first time since Earnest Byner was breaking the city's heart. But that doesn't mean they will be good, even if Manziel is. The Browns have found countless ways to botch things over the last decade and a half, dating back to the original incarnation deciding to blow town in the first place. If it's true that God Hates Cleveland, Manziel won't just have to be great -- he'll need to be the antichrist.
Manziel is outstanding in the Browns' first two preseason games against Detroit -- a pigeon of a franchise just sitting there for Johnny to eviscerate -- and Shanahan's old buds from Washington. But Hoyer still starts the opener at Pittsburgh, and is ineffective. Johnny Time! Manziel holds his own against Drew Brees in a close loss in week two, and lights up the Ravens in an upset win the following Sunday. Manziel and the 1-2 Browns are the talk of the NFL during the bye week.
Then Johnny Drama whiles away the off week in Vegas once again, and every day another controversy erupts, culminating in Manziel punching a TMZ cameraman. He is suspended for one game, then comes back and is promptly injured. The locker room starts grumbling (anonymously, of course) about all the attention directed Manziel's way, even after Hoyer leads them to an win over division leaders Pittsburgh. Owner Jimmy Haslem publicly supports Manziel, even as he is indicted in the Flying J scandal. "Same old Browns," says NFL Nation. But Josh Gordon's return in week 11 provides a mini-boost, providing a now-healthy Manziel a reliable (on the field, at least) outlet. Cleveland wins three of its last four, providing some hope for 2015. The Browns wind up 5-11, as usual. But this season, everyone notices.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.