It was two years ago last week that ESPN, in the most heated, crazed stages of its Tim Tebow fever nightmare, spent a frighteningly large percentage of its airtime wishing happy birthday to the then-backup quarterback. At one point, Herman Edwards, an adult grown human being with a job and taxes and a mortgage, lit the candles on a cake, put on a party hat and blew a kazoo. The network's devotion to Tebow coverage was so absurd and over-the-top that I'm still a little worried Tebow's new gig at ESPN's SEC Network is less an analyst job than a roundabout, long-con strategy to get him to somebody's Bristol prom. It was a lowpoint for the network, something many people there are readily willing to agree with these days.
If you were to watch last night's preseason game between the Cleveland Browns and the Washington football team -- or if you've just tuned into any sports cable network in the last four months -- you would think that Johnny Manziel has ESPN gripped by the same sort of collective frenzy. Manziel seems to lead every "SportsCenter," and each tic and whistle is documented and analyzed down to the molecule. At one point last night, perhaps inevitably, ESPN compared him to Derek Jeter. When it comes to coverage that borders on stalking -- particularly when it involves someone who isn't currently an NFL starting quarterback -- Manziel is the logical heir to Tebow.
With one crucial difference: We still want to hear about Manziel.
The lunacy of ESPN's Tebow coverage was that Tebow, himself, was dull gruel: A self-effacing, anything-for-the-team square who was far more worthy of admiration than he was attention, particularly since, well, it was increasingly obvious that he didn't have any business being a starter in the NFL. (Even though he still has as many playoff wins as Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck and Tony Romo.) At the center of all the coverage, ultimately, was a guy who wasn't worthy of it, both on the field and off it. Tim Tebow may have been a peach of a fella, but boring as a stone. All the fuss was for nothing.
Johnny Manziel, however, is an ongoing rollicking road show, a daily dose of something new and different and a little dangerous. The way Manziel plays on the field -- jittery, unpredictable, capable of the transcendent and the boneheaded in equal measures -- appears to be roughly analogous to the way he is off the field. (At this point, if you haven't captured a photo of Manziel surrounded by women or holding some sort of brown liquor, you're simply not trying.) To watch Manziel play at Texas A&M was to see football reduced to pure id, an instinctual wildman show, one butt-kicker bucking and flailing all over the place. He is, in many ways, the antithesis of Tebow. Tebow was a different kind of athlete, but he was a regular type of player: A rule follower, a company man … another grunt. Manziel is nobody's grunt.
This puts him at direct odds with how today's NFL works. This is a league designed to homogenize, to turn everyone, star to scrub, into the same anonymous mealy-mouthed corporate automaton. (You watch: By five years, Colin Kaepernick is going give up and start dressing and talking like Peyton Manning.) There isn't supposed to be room for a guy like Manziel in today's NFL, a party guy who wants to run every play like it's closing time at the club and they're just about to turn the lights on. This is constantly couched as something that Manziel has to work on, something he needs to grow out of, so he can mature.
But this is a problem with the NFL, not with Manziel. This is, for lack of a better word, fun. This is what we should want the NFL to be, about excitement, about spontaneity, about that sense of wonder about what wild improve this guy is gonna come up with next. The players clearly feel this way. After Manziel flipped off the Washington bench last night -- because this is the sort of thing Manziel does as a matter of course, just part of going through his progressions -- did the Washington players recoil in shock and horror? Of course not! They loved it.
"It was hilarious," Brian Orakpo said. "We were messing with him a little bit, just saying this ain't college and stuff like that. We were having a little fun. Manziel flipped us off. It was something funny. We were all laughing on the sidelines." This is, you know, competition, and sometimes when you're in a heated competition -- as heated a competition as you can get in a preseason game anyway -- you flip somebody off. It's fun. It's funny. Everyone thought it was funny.
Until, of course, everyone found out the cameras caught it.
And that's the center of all this. Does the way we cover the NFL preclude us from truly enjoying what transcendent players like Manziel have to offer us? And I mean that sincerely, by the way. Is Manziel a great quarterback yet? Obviously not. He may never be a great quarterback. But the way he plays -- both its brashness and its creativity, two aspects of Manziel's game that obviously go hand-in-hand -- is the way we want football to be. It's what made the game so popular in the first place, lunatics flying all over the place doing anything they can to win, and you can already see, bit by bit, the league starting to chip away at Manziel. (His response to the Browns PR person informing him that his gesture was captured is a classic, "crap, another thing I can't do anymore" realization.)
Maybe Brian Hoyer should be starting right now and maybe Johnny Manziel should (the Browns have a terrible decision to make), but one thing I know for sure: Every time Brian Hoyer took a snap last night, I knew it was safe to go to the bathroom or take out the trash. I wasn't missing a single damned thing Manziel did.
Will ESPN and all the Manziel obsession -- including, obviously, this column -- kill that excitement? Will there be Manziel overkill? I dunno. There was Tebow overkill because not only was he a lousy professional quarterback, he wasn't particularly enjoyable to watch either. If Manziel can become the quarterback I think he can be, and not lose what makes him Manziel, I truly believe he can change the NFL for the better. We don't know that after two preseason games, though the coverage has been so suffocating it might have us believe so. But I hope we all let him try. I am already counting down the days until the next Cleveland Browns preseason game, something no human being should ever do. That's because of Manziel. I don't know what's going to happen with him. But I can't wait to find out. So bring it on. He's no Tebow: I can talk about Manziel all day.
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