Johnny Manziel Might Be Only Hope to Save Mike Pettine's Job
Draft Day Excitement
It was May 8th, 2014. College football’s biggest star was falling in the first round of the NFL Draft. Twenty-one picks had gone by without Johnny Manziel’s name being called. Browns’ fans, so desperate for something to be excited about, waited as each team passed on the superstar quarterback for other positions including linemen, receivers, and cornerbacks. Even another quarterback had already been taken. As each team passed, Cleveland fans started to wonder if the unthinkable would happen. Could he really fall to the Browns with their second 1st round pick of the night? Would he last until pick 26? General Manager Ray Farmer and owner Jimmy Haslam decided not to wait and see. The Browns traded up with the Eagles to the 22nd pick (where Brandon Weeden and Brady Quinn had been selected in years past). The internet blew up knowing this was the moment. Then, Roger Goodell said the following: “With the 22nd pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns select Johnny Manziel: Quarterback: Texas A&M.” Johnny Cleveland was born. Sports bars in Cleveland erupted with Johnny chants. Arguably, the most polarizing and exciting player in college football history was coming to Cleveland. He was the new face of the organization.
In the short-run, the pick has been very “Cleveland.” It came with hype, hope, and hysteria. Those feelings have drastically diminished as we’ve witnessed the kid stumble on and off the field. Do I need to mention his first start at home against Cincinnati?
I am not going to rehash the details from the last 18 months. You know the story. The first year was clearly a disaster. His second year (after his very adult decision to go into rehab) has been a 180 at least in perceived work ethic. The biggest obstacle he has faced this season is a lack of opportunity brought on by losing the trust of his employer after his rookie year. It prompted the Browns to outbid teams for a journeyman quarterback and make him the undisputed starter. Johnny has had to wait.
Johnny's First Win
I couldn’t have asked to go to a more exciting game than the one I got to attend early this season. It was the Tennessee game. Manziel was to get the start for injured Josh McCown. Driving to the game, my fellow Browns fans and I could feel the anticipation of seeing if the new and improved Manziel would deliver. We made a couple jokes at his expense and tried to be cynical, but we were all hoping for the same thing. We wanted to see some Johnny magic. The game started wonderfully. The long touchdown throw from Manziel to Travis Benjamin to start the scoring thrilled the crowd. Before we knew it, it was 21-0! In the first half, the offense, defense, and special teams had all delivered. Although not perfect, Manziel’s big-play ability had us confident and excited to see what would happen in the second half.
But then the Browns started to become the Browns.
Tennessee scored. And then they scored again. Manziel’s offense went into a lull. Here we go again. Same ole’ Browns. I just absolutely was certain that Tennessee was going to tie the game. It was the fourth quarter and the Browns were clinging to a one-score lead. Cleveland had the ball and had been running well on this particular drive in the fourth quarter. But then they were facing 3rd and 6 on the 49 yard-line. It felt like 3rd and 30. I watched the Titans line up aggressively knowing a full blitz was coming. I knew our young quarterback was about to get hit. He was going to get hit hard. I know it sounds cliché, but I could barely watch.
And then something happened. Something different happened.
The dagger happened. Avoiding a free blitzer, Brian Orakpo, and rolling to his left, Johnny Football came alive. The beautiful spin move and roll out, and then the majestic deep ball that fell into the hands of Travis Benjamin happened. A happily shocked crowd shook the stadium. This quarterback with this offense on this day did not allow the opponent to come back. They finished them. He made the Johnny magic happen. The Browns won 28-14.
Pettine's Decision and His Salvation?
The following week, Coach Mike Pettine made the unpopular decision to go back to the healthy journeyman, Josh McCown. It seemed to let a little air out of the fans and perhaps even the team. They lost to the Raiders despite McCown’s solid play in the second half. The Browns have lost a lot of games despite the battered and bruised veteran’s solid play. They’re 2-6. Job security is definitely the issue now for the GM and head coach. Pettine is firm in his belief. He believes that McCown gives him the best chance to win. He believes McCown gives him the best chance to save his job. His belief may be wrong.
With the exception of Danny Shelton, Ray Farmer’s first round selections have not panned out. Pettine is being questioned weekly on why this defensive-minded coach can’t fix his struggling defense. Every week and every loss the negativity grows in Cleveland. Every loss is one step closer to the exit door for the GM and coach.
The offensive line is playing terribly. The run game is nowhere to be found. The receivers lack in size and now health. The defense doesn’t stop anyone. Even with solid play from McCown, how many games does Pettine need to win to save his job? Four more? Five? The Browns start their second half of the season on Thursday night against the team that embarrassed Johnny in his first start. Except this opponent is better than last year’s. The undefeated Bengals are playing in front of a home crowd and will not lack for motivation being that the Browns beat them last year on Thursday Night Football in their own stadium. Hope for a Browns win is there but very slim.
Philosophically, continuing this lost season with a 36 year old journeyman will not do the team any good in the big picture. The fans know it. The media knows it. Jimmy Haslam has to know it. Another losing season with no improved defense, a regressing offensive line, and no impact players spell a likely end to the current regime. In addition, having no information on what they have in the quarterback they drafted in the first round after this season would be unacceptable. Despite Pettine’s reluctance to play his first round quarterback, Manziel might be the only chance left to save Pettine’s job. Win a few more games with McCown and the Browns still finish with a losing record. They still go into the off-season not knowing if the future franchise quarterback is on the roster. The Browns will be back to square one. But what happens if Johnny plays? What happens if Johnny plays well? What happens if Johnny wins a few games? That momentum Johnny creates by winning those games means the organization will believe in their pick. The 2014 draft class will look like a success. And Mr. Haslam will know that continuity will help Manziel reach the next level of his development. This is all hypothetical I know. But in this scenario, the very player the coach is reluctant to play may be his last shot at saving his job. So let’s see what Thursday night brings. Let’s see what Johnny Football can bring to this team and this town. Let’s see if he can revitalize the one thing Cleveland has started to lose once again: hope.