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Setting the Record Straight on Johnny Manziel

Sigmund Bloom runs down Johnny Manziel's positives and negatives, and busts some myths about his game.

Johnny Manziel has been the most polarizing draft prospect since Cam Newton, and like Cam Newton, flaws in his game are being invented to build an argument against him. The silly thing about this trend is that there are plenty of flaws apparent on film to give an evaluator some pause. Flaws that will lose games for him in the pros. Flaws that will dog him for his entire pro career if he does not improve on them. Here’s a nice long list of less than ideal things about Manziel’s game.

NEGATIVES

  • Manziel can take unnecessary chances on third and short and doesn’t tighten up his decision-making in the red zone, occasionally resulting in crushing interceptions. He doesn’t always alter his approach for the down/distance or the place he is on the field.

  • Manziel is an aggressive-minded quarterback, which turns into a bad quality when it compels him to press or force the ball (red zone interceptions come up here). He is the type of quarterback who errs on the side of pulling the trigger.

  • That inclination to pull the trigger can result in maybe Manziel’s most troubling flaw: he can get stumped and make a terrible decision if he stays in the pocket for too long after he has exhausted his reads. This is a version of a popular knock on Manziel, that he is not comfortable in the pocket. That knock can be true, but only when nothing comes open in his initial progression. The "book" on Manziel at the beginning of his career will likely to be only rush 3 or 4, with an emphasis on keeping Manziel in the pocket and drop everyone else into coverage except for possibly one spy.

  • Another troubling tendency for Manziel is having a slight hesitation in his decision to throw downfield or anticipate a receiver coming open. Manziel is mostly a quick decision-maker and actor, but you will see hesitation short-circuit a few plays, and even result in an interception or two.

  • Manziel is a Houdini in the pocket, but he has a habit of retreating as a first instinct and sometimes preferring to escape out of the back of the pocket. This is a classic “works in college, but not in the pros” strategy that will need to be ironed out. It is not incessant - Manziel does escape through the side and front of the pocket and he will step up as a response to pressure - but it is present.

  • When Manziel does escape initial pressure, he sometimes gets too relaxed when he resets and scans the field outside of the pocket, making it too easy for the undetected defender to sack him. Like most of his flaws, this will only happen once or twice in a game at most, but it is another area where he gives something back to the defense.

  • Manziel lacks the elite speed of Robert Griffin III or (young) Michael Vick, so a reasonably athletic linebacker can be effective at limiting his gains as a scrambler when they are assigned to spy him.

  • Speaking of Vick, Manziel takes too many big hits. He runs to contact like a running back and will fight through tackles and try to extend for extra yardage at the end of runs. He will have to have a better sense of self-preservation in the pros.

  • Manziel’s arm is mostly average. This results in a handful of weak throws in the dirt to the sidelines and balls that die as they are getting to their target. It happens on a small minority of his throws, but it does highlight that he isn’t a quarterback that is going to win with brute arm strength

This is far from an exhaustive list. I hope that it shows that I am not blind to mistakes Manziel makes on the field or the idea that he will have to evolve in the pros to keep these traits from betraying him at times. There are a lot of arguments against Manziel that some will list as negatives in an absolute way. These are myths, and I would like to dispel them. 


Myths 

Note: Big thanks to Draft Breakdown for all the cut-ups. A must bookmark for anyone interested in watching college players.

Manziel can't make plays as a pocket passer: Manziel does make throws from pocket after multiple reads, including deep balls. He can scan the whole field and find open receivers on the opposite side of the field that he started reading. He can look off safeties to create space for his receivers downfield. Manziel is probably more effective outside of the pocket, but that is because he is elite at creating there. He might even prefer playing outside of the structure of a play, but he demonstrates classic pocket passer abilities on numerous occasions.

Manziel tries to do too much on every play: Manziel can take what the defense gives him. As Matt Waldman pointed out “on the couch”, sometimes that is a running lane that yields easy yardage. Manziel will also hit checkdowns, even after he is flushed from the pocket.

Manziel is a freelancer who does not play within the offensive gameplan: Working with the confines of a play call and offensive scheme is another ability Manziel displays on tape. He can move the offense with short, quick throws, and throws early in progressions, with excellent timing and quickness. He then uses pump fakes, play fakes and body language to manipulate defenses to bite on those quick, short throws and set up longer throws downfield. There also plenty of examples of timing and anticipation throws on tape. Manziel is not strictly a playground quarterback who tries to outlast the defense.

Manziel would prefer to attack the defense as a runner: Manziel is not a run first quarterback. He often steps up in pocket and almost always looks to attack as passer first, including when he is outside of the pocket. Manziel is excellent at keeping the ball in a position that makes it easier to load up a throw when he is outside of the pocket, and he continuously looks for ways to beat the defense through the air.

Mike Evans made Manziel: There is a narrative out there that goes like this, “Mike Evans is bailing out Manziel by catching the prayers he throws up after he runs around for a while.” Here’s the thing: Manziel consistently puts the above the rim in a place where Evans can out-leap/extend above his opponent and win the catch. This happens with such consistency that it is hard for me to believe that it is random. Manziel does almost everything on the field with great intention, including his mistakes. This is evidence of Manziel knowing how to utilize the weapons at his disposal, far from a negative or flaw in his game.

Manziel only wins by running around until he outlasts the defense: It also seems like Manziel’s ability to keep plays alive for ridiculously long durations and make a play that it looks like he shouldn’t have been able to make has skewed his evaluation. While Manziel has done this a handful of times, the vast majority of plays he makes to move the offense are within the structure of the play, or decisive runs/throws outside of the pocket soon after the breaks the pocket. While Manziel can make highlight plays by outlasting the defense in an absurd fashion, it is far from the cornerstone of his game.

Manziel's career will be ruined by durability problems: The durability knock is also a bit of a myth. Yes, Manziel plays a style that will translate to a higher injury likelihood in the pros, but it is important to point out that he did not miss a game in his two years of SEC play. It is fair to point out that he did suffer some nicks and bumps that may have lowered his effectiveness for a few games, such as the LSU game in 2013, but there’s no evidence that Manziel is particularly fragile, or a slow healer, or unable to play through injuries. He also has the body type of a running back. Manziel’s game will suffer if he doesn’t practice better self-preservation on the field, but it doesn’t appear that it will be a fatal flaw.

On Fatal Flaws

Now that we’ve sorted the reality and myths of Manziel’s game let’s address those flaws. The sacrifice of clean health for playmaking ability is something Michael Vick has never improved on. Donovan McNabb would spray the ball at times and waste downs. Tony Romo likes to escape out of the back of the pocket and he is prone to turnover fests (I see the most similarities as a passer and decision-maker between Manziel and Romo). Colin Kaepernick can get stumped in the pocket. Andy Dalton can be a beat late anticipating. “Successful” NFL quarterbacks have flaws. The question is whether they have enough positives to mitigate those flaws. Now we get to the fun part, Manziel’s positives.

What does Manziel bring to the table as an NFL quarterback?

Composure/Poise: Manziel plays with a rare calm - in “the eye of the storm”. Pressure does not limit his options or rush his thinking. He never forecloses options during a play, and if anything his inclination to go for the jugular can be a negative at times - it is much easier to rein in an aggressive-minded quarterback than it is to transplant nerve into a timid quarterback. This mental calm translates in his escapability in the pocket, ability to make throws in a muddy pocket, and ability to create positive outcomes when the play is extended. He never looks overwhelmed, or otherwise like the game is too big, fast, or complex for him to process the field with clarity and act decisively to move the offense.

Elusiveness: When it comes to escapability inside the pocket and elusiveness outside the pocket, Manziel might be the best quarterback I’ve ever evaluated. He has elite raw quicks, but he also has terrific instincts to sense pressure and load up a move to thwart them. The first free rusher almost never tackles Manziel, and they often fail to even get a hand on him. Manziel’s moves to elude pressure sometimes make defenders look like they have a string on their back that someone yanked.

Creativity: Once Manziel is outside of the pocket, he is an artist. He can direct his players to openings directly with hand movements, or indirectly by “throwing them open”. He sees possibilities where other quarterbacks would not. This is another iteration of his aggressive-minded approach.

It’s not just that Manziel sees and tries to make plays outside of the pocket. His ability to use footwork to create a quick setup and release from a suboptimal platform, and deliver an accurate pass is stunning at times. Very little time elapses between “see it” and “throw it” while Manziel is scrambling, and it rarely comes at the expense of accuracy or decision-making. Manziel always keeps his eyes downfield on the move and he has the physical wherewithal to make what he sees a reality.

Influence on Defense: That ability to make throws to all parts of the field on the move is supplemented by enough speed and elusiveness in the open field to chew up big chunks of yards as a runner. Manziel must defended as a passer first outside of the pocket, but he can obviously hurt defenses as a runner. This is crucial because it means Manziel will force defenses to play 11-on-11 football and defend the entire field at all times. He puts defenses at a disadvantage before they even step on the field. SEC teams with high-end pass rush talents would neuter one of their best weapons on defense to try to force Manziel to stay in the pocket by playing contain instead of pinning their ears back. This has often been brought up in the difficulty it creates when evaluating Texas A&M’s pass protectors. Manziel hypnotizes defenses and he is the focus of the defensive game plan. He forces defenses to play on their heels and he dictates the game in the SEC. This is a good indicator of the caliber of player that he is.

Accuracy: Manziel gets dinged for inconsistent mechanics, but when his mechanics are quiet and smooth, he is a hyperaccurate downfield passer. He will display this ability when hitting reads later in his progressions. In addition, he can make accurate downfield throws when he doesn’t have room to step into them, or in general in muddy pockets with bodies around him. Manziel will also use his pocket elusiveness and quickness to instinctively move to space where he can re-establish a throwing platform and scan the field.

Speaking of accuracy, let’s also include that Manziel has been a 68 and 69.9 percent completion rate passer as a freshman and sophomore in the SEC. He is accurate to all parts of the field, and he is accurate both inside and outside of the pocket.

Intangibles: In addition to being a springy, tightly wound athlete, Manziel is also extremely tough, with tremendous stamina at the end of games and a “won’t back down” competitiveness. He is a leader both directly and indirectly - his effort inspires his teammates and gives them faith that he is likely to win the game for them if they keep it close. Manziel is not only willing to put his team on his shoulders, he relishes the opportunity. He’s like a basketball player who wants the ball in his hands for the last shot of the game. He does not shy away from big moments, he rises to them. His calm and his aggressive mindset intersect here.


Closing Argument

I understand Manziel’s flaws causing pause when evaluating him. Just like Tony Romo, who I think is closest to Manziel as a passer and decision-maker, Manziel will have a few turnover fests. He’ll have game-ending turnovers, and he’ll frustrate his fanbase by not being conservative when the game calls for it. Like Vick, he may miss some games due to injury because of his playing style. Like Kaepernick, he’ll have some games early in his career where good defenses can cut some of his favorite strategies off at the pass and force him to re-trench elsewhere in his game with mixed results.

None of these quarterbacks are failures. None were out of the league after five years, or destined to be backups.

Manziel’s calm, aggressive, and quick thinking and acting on the field will translate to the NFL. Last time I watched an NFL game, there were a lot of plays that forced a quarterback to function outside of the structure of a play call. Being able to excel outside of the pocket, or when moved off of a launch point is a big part of winning at quarterback in the NFL. I understand the view that Manziel will have to do more than that, but holding his ability to do that against him in his evaluation, as if it is the ONLY way he wins is just plain false. The reality is that he has already demonstrated elite ability in one of the key areas that sink many quarterbacks who are very good when the play goes exactly as designed. This is a positive, not a negative.

Another factor is working against the prediction of Manziel as a failure. NFL offenses are merging with “college” offenses in their willingness to incorporate more concepts seen at the college level. NFL offensive coordinators today are much more willing to craft offensive gameplans to accentuate the strengths of their quarterback instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. In addition, the team that takes Manziel will be one that actually likes his playing style. That increases the likelihood that they will design an offense that naturally fits Manziel’s ability to extend plays and be a threat as a runner. Let’s also remember that he just turned 21 in December and showed marked improvement between his freshman and sophomore years. This is inconvenient if an NFL projection of Manziel includes the assumption that he will not evolve in the pros a la Michael Vick - although Vick was able to turn the tools that made him a dominant college quarterback into a very good NFL career. Vick basically represents Manziel’s floor in the NFL.

The poles in the relative possibilities of what lies ahead of Johnny Manziel are not nearly far apart as the poles in the evaluations of his NFL future. He will either be a tease who dominates at times, but never quite puts it all together and relies too much on his gifts like Vick, or he will continue to grow and fall somewhere on the McNabb-Romo-Favre axis. To predict abject failure ignores the aspects of Manziel’s game beyond improvisation, and how many of the elements of his improvisation will translate. No matter what happens, Manziel will continue to be one of the most talked-about players in the league, and we will all learn more from each other about evaluating the quarterback position and what it takes to win at QB in the NFL… and I look forward to that almost as much as I look forward to watching Manziel play on Sundays. Almost.


More from Sigmund Bloom:

Pre-Camp QB Tiers - July 23
How Andre Johnson Changing Teams Could Shake Up Fantasy Rankings - July 10
Top 200 (PPR) - July 4
Rotoworld Mock Results - July 2
Navigating the Best Ball PPR MFL 10 of Death - July 1
Sweet Spots and Dead Zones - June 26
2014 Rookie Review: WRs - June 11
From The Gut - June 6
My First Post-Draft Mock Draft Team - May 22
Could the Buffalo Bills be the Breakout Offense of 2014? - May 19