On Nov. 9, 2013 Johnny Manziel, a boy-man just beyond the verge of stardom yet still reluctant enough to linger at the threshold of his own adolescence, threw his final touchdown pass at home wearing the maroon and white of a Texas A&M Aggie.
The pass was hucked off his back foot and on the run. The ball discharged from his hand as if he’d just stolen it from a liquor store and deposited it in a Dumpster as he fled. Manziel’s imperfectly precise post-pocket release created a rubber pencil illusion as it sailed improbably over the alumni section into a chasm of screams.
To the 80,000-plus behind his right shoulder at Kyle Field, the orb appeared to have been air mailed somewhere placid between the net halfway up the uprights and three bounces past the impossible back corner of the end zone to spin to rest at the spatted feet of the band.
Instead, the slippery large mouth bass of a pass found the waiting hands of receiver Malcome Kennedy, who hauled in just two more from his quarterback than Mississppi State corner Jamerson Love. Love, the recipient of two-thirds of Manziel’s interceptions that Saturday, was but a speedy sidebar to the sophomore quarterback’s historic 51-41 College Station swan song.
By the final gun, Manziel had dashed off and through and above quarter of a season’s worth of stats — 446 passing and 47 rushing (including five Bulldog sacks for big losses). He spit and galloped and cavorted off his home turf with not-quite-ready-for-Disney-movie freneticism for the final time with his fourth 400-yard passing game of the season and fourth consecutive game of three or more passing touchdowns.
It would not get much better than that for the suddenly NFL draft-eligible 21-year-old from Tyler, Texas. Consecutive losses to division foes LSU and Missouri landed A&M in the LGBT-unfriendly consolation Chick-fil-A Bowl where Manziel simply went with the wrap and salad, staying light on his feet and going 30-38 for 382 and four more touchdowns (no ints) against Duke to close the books on his collegiate career and open the door to the blizzard of next-level criticism and doubt.
It is a quarterback conundrum which will ultimately land the greatest college skill position player of the last four decades somewhere in the back of the room noshing on baby carrots in the third round on the draft’s second day. Dozens of front offices will simply forget to select the poet out of crowd-based fear.
And that is too bad.
Such is the logic of the NFL: Bring us your bloated your dumb and your tagged and stamped and stupid. We’ll take ’em drug-addled and (kind of) decriminalized, and we’ll make room. Talent, spark and true flourishes of, well, gamesmanship, can wait by cooled-to-gelatin spinach dip in the stale-as-a-picture-frame bread bowl.
Before Manziel’s number is called, approximately eight DBs who will do more time in prison than on the field will be selected. A baker’s dozen of offensive linemen whose knees and backs can’t hold out for a full season will be branded and penned. Almost 20 receivers, half of whom will be cut or sent down to the practice squad — special teams if they’re lucky — before camp breaks in August, will flash their silk suits and ice cream smiles as ESPN gushes like a water pick about potential.
At least Oh Well rhymes with Manziel.
He’s partly still plucky because he knows he is lucky to be there at all as a quarterback. A generation prior, the NFL laid waste to the quarterbacking talents of the aprototypical. Too short. Too slow. Too smart. Better on special teams, maybe. Call it Scott Frost syndrome.
Because of perceived lack of size and speed, Frost, the starting QB for Tom Osborne’s undefeated ’97 Huskers squad, was relegated to safety and special teams in the NFL. He is now one of the great innovators of NCAA football. Upstairs with the headset as the University of Oregon’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
After Frost was denied his shot, San Francisco’s Jeff Garcia broke the glass ceiling for the undersized and under-scouted with jump passes and 400-yard games near the turn of this century. At the same time, San Diego took a second-round flier on Drew Brees, the not-quite-built-to-scale play caller from Purdue.
The Brees experiment, even with a Super Bowl ring stashed in the back of the sock drawer and the record for all-time yards in a season on the books, still hadn’t settled with league execs in the Brady/Manning era. Then along came Russell Wilson, also a little pudgy and understated from an overlooked program in Wisconsin; the third-rounder from 2012 only led Seattle to the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory in February.
The league’s future is here now. Wilson and his unheralded West Coast contemporary Colin Kaepernick (second-rounder, 2011), represent the yin and yang of the Manziel concern. Neither true game manager (Wilson) or gun slinger (Kaepernick), Manziel is flashes of both and sometimes represents neither at inopportune times.
But his story only gains resonance when you look at A&M’s supporting cast, castoffs in the western edition of the top-heavy talent pool of the SEC.
Week after week he was stranded in a polymorphous landscape of talking heads and know-nothing know-it-alls, defying the spread and rendering tomorrow’s next big d ends and linebackers limp with broken ankles and need for oxygen. Manziel has the once-in-a-history-of-his-sport vision of Pete Maravich and the accuracy of a lubed-up Steve Nash. It is no wonder his football IQ is questioned when he roams the gridiron like it’s half-court three ball at the Y on a Tuesday evening.
And yet, this “NFL coach’s nightmare” will be penalized for simply owning the playbook enough to create from it. Think of criticizing a Michelin-rated chef for using juxtaposition in a tasting menu. Manziel mixes a style that is classic yet warms up the spiciness of the dish to something fresh and flavor-filled.
He improvises and makes a weapon of the broken play. His object of affection is not just the post-game spoils of victory but the in-game advantages of trickery — though he revels equally in both. There is nothing regrettable about his game, nothing eye-rolling or predictable and even his misfires seemingly give nothing if not his offensive line a moment to rest and reload and come up with even more strange and savory concoctions.
That’s OK, the masters know it’s not what they say about you it’s how history remembers you. And Manziel has something extra up his sleeve too this Draft Thursday. He knows it’s just a game. And he plays it like one. Ask the pundits and survey the owners, who don’t think of it as such, and they’ll deny his entry into the multi-billion-dollar boys club buoyed by false promise and grandiose marketing.
…Until they have to let him in.
To simply watch him play is why sport matters still — professional sport anyway. And it is why tuning in to draft day to see his jersey-holding wry grin is secondary to the joy of Sundays to come.