Sequels are rarely as good as their originals but in the case of Johnny Manziel, year No. 2 almost has to trump his rookie season.
Pointing fingers is counterproductive at this point so the only real option for the Cleveland Browns is moving forward with “Johnny Football,” and keeping an open mind after his disastrous freshman campaign in which all the rumors of a poor work ethic, coupled with stunning immaturity, were undersold if anything.
What the Browns got after trading back up in the first round to secure Manziel with the 22nd overall pick was not a franchise quarterback but the poster child of a lost generation, a 21-year-old entitled a#$@*&@ who enjoyed his favorite spirit and selfies with his latest conquest far more than film sessions designed to decipher what the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers were throwing at he and his teammates.
And the results were oh so predictable.
When Manziel did get on the field, he looked lost and scared, a one-read quarterback from a spread offense at Texas A&M thrown into the fire of the NFL and asked to progress from receiver to receiver in a real-live pro offense.
That’s a tall task for the best of students. For the class clown, it was jumping from arithmetic to advanced calculus.
Manziel was back on the practice field in Berea on Tuesday for the first time since his release from Caron Addiction Treatment Center in Pennsylvania and he was attempting to at least play the part of a more mature professional.
His hair was shorter and his coach Mike Pettine, as well as several teammates, claimed to see a renewed focus in him as he started 2015 as the backup to veteran pickup Josh McCown, a 35-year-old, 13-year NFL journeyman.
The results weren’t great.
Manziel fumbled on at least two different occasions, tossed what would have been a pick-six, and more often than not, immediately checked down to outlet receivers rather than letting things develop.
Despite that, however, it was a step, albeit a very small one, in the right direction.
Veteran safety Donte Whitner, who has taken Manziel under his wing, claimed that the second-year quarterback’s car is usually one of the first in the parking lot and among the last to leave every day, a far cry from last year when the former Heisman Trophy winner jetted off to Las Vegas, Hollywood or Miami every time he had a free moment.
“If you’re here in the morning, you see who has those first couple parking spots, you know who was here before everybody else,” Whitner claimed. “So he’s taken the steps that it takes to be a good quarterback.”
“I remember last (year) they made a big fuss about Johnny being in Vegas for Memorial Day Weekend,” he continued. “Johnny was here in Cleveland for Memorial Day weekend this year. So that’s another step that he’s taken. He understands that you can’t be in Vegas or Miami or any of these other places, you have to be here. If you have to come in a day or two extra for an hour or two per day, that’s what quarterbacks do.”
Manziel has also moved out of his downtown Cleveland apartment, which was party central all too much a season ago, and into a scaled-down golf community on the city’s west side.Whether this is all optics designed by image makers to rescue a tainted brand or a real attempt by Manziel to turn his life and career around will continue to play out as the weeks roll by.
“First of all, Johnny’s a very young guy,” Whitner said. “He understands the mistakes that he’s made, so he’s taken the proper steps to try to keep himself out of the trouble. From being out or people seeing him somewhere and saying ‘Johnny’s doing this, Johnny’s doing that’ and now he understands how serious it is. He’ll be all right.”
Pettine hopes so but certainly doesn’t trust Manziel yet. The coach believes he sees a change on the work side but may have issued a warning also by saying the popular QB’s personality hasn’t really changed.
“I just think he’s probably a little bit more focused now,” Pettine said. “But it’s something that he knows and he has said, he’ll have to prove it every day.”
McCown was brought in to both mentor Manziel and hold down the fort until the ex-Texas A&M star can prove he’s a viable option at the NFL level.
“For Johnny, it’s one day at a time,” said McCown. “You just gotta keep stacking good days and from everything I’ve seen, every day is a good day. He’s put one good day on top of another and I’m really proud of him for that.
“His position is very demanding. It’s demanding of a lot of things — emotionally, your time and effort — and I think he’s understanding that and he’s embracing that, and that’s the key.”
Cleveland general manger Ray Farmer drafted Manziel but his actions in the offseason clearly foreshadowed a different approach this time around with what is in essence a total rebuild.
Farmer tried to acquire Sam Bradford in the offseason and also did his due diligence on trading up in the draft to acquire Marcus Mariota before standing pat and moving forward with McCown, no doubt hopeful Manziel can push for playing time at some point.
It’s a good situation because McCown, unlike last year’s starter Brian Hoyer, understands his role. A starter last season in Tampa Bay after backing up Jay Cutler in Chicago, McCown knows the NFL game and isn’t going to be rattled by fans calling for the backup after the first incompletion.
“More than anything, I just believe (a QB controversy) takes away from any kind of distraction that you can have and the team can just move in one direction, regardless of who that guy is,” said McCown of his role. “It’s helpful to just say, ‘This is our guy until something happens and he’s not our guy.’ But I agree with that philosophy and that approach.”
“(McCown) has taken a big responsibility in making sure that Johnny’s doing all the right things,” Whitner said. “(Manziel) has a mentor, somebody to talk to, certain things that he really didn’t have the ability (to do) or somebody to talk to before. It looks like it’s working out so far.”
For now “Johnny Football” is gone and Manziel decided not to address the media after his first day of OTAs, perhaps understanding his actions are all that matters now.
“Today was our first day being out here, but I could tell you one thing, (Manziel) was here 100 percent of the time in offseason workouts, from conditioning and running and lifting, putting extra time in,” Whitner said. “Everything off the field and the things he’s supposed to be doing, he’s really doing. So hopefully that translates to him going out there, making plays and becoming the quarterback that we think he can become and that he wants to become.”