The Cleveland Browns have been open in their public statements of no longer being committed to Johnny Manziel as their future starting quarterback. Given the public issues that Manziel has had culminating with him entering rehabilitation for undisclosed issues, it’s no surprise. He’s done just about everything he could possibly do to sabotage an NFL career that many still believe stems more from promotional skills of his handlers than actual ability to play in the league.
Whether he can play well enough to be a functional NFL quarterback – let alone the star he was in college – remains to be seen. But his off-field problems will prevent him from even getting on the field if he doesn’t get them under control. There was an intentional opaqueness to the statements from the Browns that Manziel wasn’t guaranteed to be their starter in 2015 and that they were prepared to move on without him if he didn’t begin to take his job as seriously as he did being a bon vivant celebrity who liked to party and enjoyed the “celebrity QB” lifestyle without doing the work necessary to fulfill the “QB” part. They might have been threatening him or they might have been serious. My belief is that it was the former – for now. Given his off-field value to the franchise and the still unknown on-field quantity that he is, it’s worthwhile for them to give him another chance to see if he gets the message.
Unless Manziel shows a commitment to playing in the NFL in lieu of being in the NFL, there’s no logical reason for them to go forward with him. No matter how much Kardashian-style attention and financial benefit they get for having Manziel on their roster, eventually it’s going to be a case of diminishing returns. Fans – even rabid ones – will stop watching a freakshow if the freakshow is an embarrassment and, especially, if the team doesn’t win. The players won’t support Manziel; the coaches won’t support Manziel; the media won’t support Manziel. Eventually, even his most vocal benefactors like owner Jimmy Haslam would acquiesce to the groundswell, accept the situation for what it is and move on.
The Browns being so open about questioning Manziel as their franchise linchpin is in part a fact and a message. The second part of the equation is finding someone who can serve as competition/potential replacement. Given the relative weakness of the pro free agent and trade market and that, barring a trade, they’re not drafting high enough to get a top college quarterback along the lines of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, they had a choice: re-sign last year’s starter Brian Hoyer or sign a veteran who could play if necessary, but isn’t so head and shoulders above Manziel that he must start. They chose the latter by signing veteran Josh McCown to a three-year contract.
On the field, there’s really little difference between Hoyer and McCown no matter how many sources – identified and not – say that the team has the best chance to win with Hoyer. Hoyer’s a journeyman who somehow parlayed a few brief spurts of good play and a solid attitude into being a “starter” and “leader.” The fact is that when Hoyer was benched in favor of Manziel late in the 2014 season, there might have been some background noise from factions in the Browns’ front office that they wanted Manziel to play, but objectively, the benching was more than deserved as Hoyer had been terrible for a solid month before he was finally pulled. That it was Manziel and there was a movement for him to get his opportunity based on factors ancillary to his readiness or viability doesn’t alter that reality.
A team in need of a quarterback or possibly in need of a quarterback – the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – will sign Hoyer with the intention of him getting a legitimate shot to play with Hoyer expecting to walk in as the first man on the depth chart when training camp opens. That’s not the case with McCown.
Like Hoyer, McCown is the ultimate case of believing too much in what’s happening in the moment and looking at factors that need to be placed in better context. He’s not as good as he was in that late season run with the Bears in 2013; he’s not as bad as his team was in 2014 with the Buccaneers. His resume, however, is at least as accomplished as that of Hoyer which says more about Hoyer and his sudden in-demand position than it does about McCown or Manziel. The difference is that Hoyer will sign a contract befitting a starting quarterback and will not be happy if he’s not the starter regardless of performance. McCown will be prepared to start. He’ll also be willing to sit if that’s what will help the team. If that’s the case, he’ll be happy to try and steer Manziel in the right direction both on and off the field. Would that happen with Hoyer? And is he the player the Browns want to commit to if they’re teetering on giving up on Manziel?
While Hoyer is said to have gotten along well with Manziel, it’s human nature for him to want the younger player to continue partying and damaging his standing with the organization to let Hoyer keep his tenuous hold on the starting job long enough to get a large contract as a free agent. McCown is long past that and is now thinking about a future of hanging around a few years as a respected backup and team player with a coaching job ahead of him. That says that the Browns are still hoping that Manziel will realize that he’s owed nothing and has to work for what he gets rather than have it handed to him because of his public relations team, Heisman Trophy and name recognition.
Only Manziel knows and the Browns can judge whether or not he’s being sincere in changing his ways and is treating sobriety and his career with a seriousness he’s yet to show. It’s difficult to envision him ceasing and desisting with drinking and doing whatever else it was that spurred the (parentally? organizationally?) mandated intervention that sent him to rehab in the first place. This won’t be a matter of him evolving from the immature Johnny Football into the mature John Football. It’s going to take a sacrifice that he may not be prepared to make; one that, given the spoiled life he’s led, he won’t have the first concept of how to make. McCown can help him and, unlike what would be the case if Hoyer were still around, will be willing to help him enough so he can take the starting job and run with it if he’s capable of doing so.