If any one, specific mystery became more clear as Cleveland Browns team owner Jimmy Haslam and his CEO, Joe Banner, addressed the local media in the wake of their firing of first-year head coach Rob Chudzinski, it is that Haslam, despite his talk of clouds and potential indictments, is calling all of the shots as his team moves forward into 2014. Armed with a 18-wheeler full of salary cap space and draft selections, it was the suited Haslam, not the quarter-zip sweatshirted Banner, who will be pulling many of the strings as the team looks for places to allocate his money when it comes not only to the vacant head coaching position, but the 53 men whom that man will have at his disposal come this summer.
Mike Lombardi, the man currently listed as the team’s general manager, was nowhere to be found on this very Monday afternoon. Inquiries were made as to why the general manager would not be a part of a decision as large as the firing of a head coach, or, at the very least, be a part of the discussion when it came to the fallout, but they were immediately passed over by Haslam who stated that he had “never really thought about it, to be honest.” Sporatic proclamations of honesty aside, rumors immediately circulated that it was Lombardi who was spearheading the team’s bowl-scouting efforts as some of the best players the NCAA has to offer would soon be showcasing their skills on the national scale. While players like Teddy Bridgewater and Jadaveon Clowney and Blake Bortles all put on a show for their respective viewers, there’s one player—a red-assed, firey, heir-to-millions, take-no-shit kid from the south—who seemingly couldn’t be more of a match for Haslam, a man who has gone on record to say that his team will do whatever it takes, shunning all distractions surrounding character or alleged rule-breaking, to not only get back on the map of respectability, but finally win some football games. That player: Johnny Manziel.
“In our estimation, it was best that we make a change, try to get it right so we could move forward and candidly most importantly, give the fans here the kind of winner they deserve,” said Haslam, multiple adverbs and all, on Monday afternoon. This wasn’t long before he, not Banner or any member of the personnel staff, began discussing the 10 draft selections his team has for this May’s selection weekend. It was Haslam who, in firing Pat Shurmur just one year ago, discussed adding a leader of men, a strong and dynamic personality.
“I think the four or five things we’ve said: strong leaders, tough, demanding, organized, good attention to detail and able to motivate people,” said Haslam, last December. “The NFL, it’s a long season with a collective group of individuals and to keep those people playing hard and interested in the team is a tough challenge.”
The operative difference here is that Haslam was speaking of his next head coach. The nuances involved with Oregon’s Chip Kelly ultimately choosing the playoff-bound Philadelphia Eagles1 over the Browns remain unknown, but the takeaways are as plain as day: Agreeing to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns is as more of a two-way street than ever before. Simply offering a man a job, complete with legal counsel in tow, isn’t enough to get that man to sign on the every-popular dotted line. The NFL Draft, however, is a place where, save for a few incidents involving John Elway and Eli Manning, the team gets to scribble a player’s name on a piece of paper, have said name read in front of thousands of angry New Yorkers and ultimately reserve the right to negotiate a multi-year contract.
Whether or not a player like Manziel would want to play in Cleveland, for these Browns, is largely irrelevant. What means inherently more is the way that Manziel, on New Years Eve, right as the ball was gearing up for its descent, continually called his teammates into action, telling them to ignore the scoreboard as they amounted a comeback for the ages. What matters more is that Manziel was frequently seen talking to his offensive counterparts, sometimes more animated than others, ensuring that all four quarters of that game would be played—that nothing would be left on the field. What matters more is the way Manziel, in a play that will go down in Bowl Game infamy, dropped back to the 30-yard line before hurling his 6-foot-1-inch frame into his offensive line, ricocheting to his left, escaping and finding a wide open wide receiver for six much-needed second half points.
Manziel would be on his feet, with the football in hand, for roughly seven seconds before he would throw it down field. He completed 30 of 38 passes for 382 yards and four touchdowns. He added 73 yards on the ground with another touchdown for good measure. While the sports world would go on to celebrate Manziel for that play and his career at Texas A&M, it’s difficult to envision any scenario where Haslam did not immediately call Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi to discuss their plan in ensuring that a player of this caliber, with elements of leadership and motivation and accountability, is wearing orange and brown come next year. The opposite of this, essentially.
This isn’t to say that Bridgewater or Bortles will not go on to be better quarterbacks at the next level. Both are taller than Manziel and carry way less in the way of media-based baggage. Bridgewater tossed for 447 yards and a four touchdowns; Bortles led his team, a 17-point underdog, to a win over Baylor. But to those who want focus on Manziel’s size or the fact that Tuesday night’s Chick-fil-A Bowl was played in a dome have not paid the kid from Tyler, Texas enough in the way of actual, football-based attention.
Sure, Manziel may have used much of the last summer to act very much like a 20-year-old—the partying, the selfies, the front row seats for an NBA Finals game all well-documented. But while he was “disgracing the Heisman” in the eyes of the pious, he was using what would be his final summer as a kid to his advantage because once Tuesday night rolled around, Manziel, and everything he will do, is solely focused on his future in the NFL. His competitiveness puts him in a class of his own. He can, as seen above, improvise like very few before him. What he may lack in the way of pre-snap reads is trumped handsomely by his eyes and abilities to recognize opportunities that countelss others would never see. His arm strength may have some ways to go, especially in the waning months of an NFL season in Cleveland, but timing (as opposed to strength) is becmoming considerably more vital when it comes to passing the football effectively—just ask Brandon Weeden.
An unabashed supporter of the Tennessee Volunteers, Jimmy Haslam has a fondness for the Southeastern Conference. In his documentation of the Browns during the most recent NFL Draft, Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman discussed Lombardi as a man who seemed enamored with the SEC from a talent perspective2. The Browns front office selected linebacker Barkevious Mingo with the sixth-overall pick in 2013. While his grade could best be described as “incomplete” at this stage in his career, it’s not far-fetched to assume that his positioning on the Berea-housed draft board was not aided by the school he attended.
This time around, the Browns possess the fourth-overall selection. They also have a pick later in the first round, acquired in the deal for Trent Richardson—this could conceivably be used in any situation where the team would desperately want to move up in the pecking order. When Haslam and Banner discussed the firing of Rob Chudzinski this past Monday, it cemented that the pocket-passing, vertical attack of Norv Turner would also be on its way out, thus opening the door for an element of the read-option making its way to Cleveland. Manziel may not be the most NFL-ready quarterback in the draft. He may have an attitude that makes old men in porch-bound rocking chairs shake a rolled-up newspaper. But as the dust continues to settle, it’s clear that it’s Johnny Manziel who not only possesses a level of star quality that has managed to avoid the Browns for the last 14 years, he’s the kid who makes the most sense for Jimmy Haslam, the undeniable ringleader, and his rip-roaring parade of bold, brash and (potentially, hopefully) brilliant moves.
(Photo: Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY Sports)
- Or Doug Marrone and the Bills, or Mark Trestman and the Bears, or Bill O’Brien and Nick Saban and their respective collegiate teams… [↩]
- “The main reason this deficient lineman is even being considered is because he happened to play his best game against an opponent from the Southeast Conference, the most secure pedigree any potential pick can offer. That partially explains why the Browns are so enamored of Barkevious Mingo. “The SEC is a whole different animal,” says Lombardi.”‘ [↩]