Good Evening
Good Evening
SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

It's time for Johnny Football to show us what he's got

Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine, right, pats

Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine, right, pats quarterback Johnny Manziel on the head as they leave the field at halftime of a preseason NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, in Cleveland. Credit: AP / Tony Dejak

Depending on your opinion of Johnny Manziel, now that he's the No. 1 quarterback, this is the start of something great for the Browns -- or it isn't.

Either Johnny Football will live up to all the hype and turn into Cleveland's best quarterback since the days of Bernie Kosar, or he'll be another in a long line of failed quarterbacks that Browns fans have suffered through since the franchise returned to Cleveland in 1999.

No matter where you stand in the debate, this much we can all agree on: The Manziel era, regardless of how long -- or short -- its duration, is one of the most compelling football stories of this season. Or any season, for that matter.

Give the start to the 22-year-old former Heisman Trophy winner -- famous for winning college football games and pushing back against the establishment with his famous gesture of raising his hands in the air and rubbing his fingers together in the money sign -- and you're sure to have one of the most-watched debuts of any quarterback.

The polarizing figure that Manziel has become will get his first chance to lead the Browns in Sunday's virtual must-win situation against the AFC North rival Bengals in Cleveland.

It's time for Johnny Football and all that goes with it: the confidence bordering on cockiness, the scrambling style and -- most important of all -- the chance to see if his skills will translate to the highest level of his sport.

Will he succeed? I still have my doubts, for one simple reason: Like other scrambling quarterbacks before him, Manziel's default reaction at the first sign of trouble in the pocket is to run.

If that first read isn't there, he'll take off -- just like Michael Vick, Tim Tebow and Robert Griffin III. And what's the biggest limitation of all three? Their unwillingness to hang in for those second and third reads detracts from their ability to make plays in the passing game.

It's fine to scramble every now and then. But when it's your first instinct, and when you don't have the kind of discipline to slide and avoid injury, you're going to be in trouble.

I hope I'm wrong about Manziel. I hope he can scramble effectively the way Russell Wilson does for Seattle, or Andrew Luck does for Indianapolis. The way Warren Moon did. Steve Young and Roger Staubach, too. Runners, yes. But passers first.

In his college days, Manziel showed too often that his first instinct was to scramble, and that's not an easy habit to break. Sometimes it's impossible to break, and because Manziel is so small (a shade under 6 feet), he creates an even greater injury risk.

Wilson is slightly shorter than Manziel, but he's extremely careful when he runs; he either gets out of bounds before getting hit or slides when he confronts a defender about to whack him.

It's better for the NFL if Johnny Football can stay healthy and make electrifying plays the way he did at Texas A&M. But he'll have to prove he can adapt his game in a league in which players are bigger, stronger and faster -- and very willing to give a quarterback like Manziel an extra shot because of all the buzz around him.

The man who made the decision to replace veteran Brian Hoyer with Manziel understands that dynamic and why the rookie quarterback will be a target.

"It's something he's faced," Browns coach Mike Pettine said. "That's not anything new coming into the NFL for him. He's been a target probably from the first day he stepped under center in college. I'm sure he knows, but it'll be reiterated."

The expectations for Manziel are off the charts, especially for Browns fans who have been used to little else but frustration since Cleveland got its second version of the Browns. Manziel will be the team's 21st different starter since 1999, but none of his predecessors has come close to generating the kind of buzz Manziel has created.

And as big a lightning rod as Manziel has become for fans, it's even more pronounced among his opponents. Remember that preseason game against Washington in which Manziel made a profane gesture toward the Washington bench -- a move that was caught on television cameras and led to a $12,000 fine by the NFL and a stern talking-to from Pettine?

"That's the price that he has to pay for who he is and the reputation that he brings with him to the NFL," Pettine said. "He already got a taste of it in the preseason."

This past week, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis referred to Manziel as a "midget," a comment for which he subsequently apologized. But it was an indication of the kind of contempt that Manziel can generate among those he faces. Rest assured there will be more derisive comments ahead.

Manziel can't wait to get started. After he experienced a difficult adjustment to the Browns' system in the preseason, the coaches have gained enough confidence in him to give him a chance to run the offense.

That decision, of course, was made easier by Hoyer's poor play in recent weeks; he threw only one touchdown pass and had eight interceptions in his last four starts. In fact, it was a no-brainer.

"I'm very excited, I know that," Manziel said. "I'm looking forward to this opportunity to go out on Sunday and try and get this win. For us, throughout this week I think these guys have started believing in me. Obviously I'm going to be the guy this week, and they've rallied around me and helped me tremendously. Them continuing to help build my confidence as the week goes on, going into these walk- through sessions and getting closer to Sunday, I think we're in a good place."

It's showtime for Johnny Football. Time to show he can live up to his reputation as a big-time playmaker.

Or not.

New York Sports