It was as if I had hit the ejector button. Sitting in the garage of the man who would later be the best man in my wedding, I remember watching the corner of his television and seeing that orange, logoless Cleveland Browns helmet take the place of the silver and blue star which had inhabited that very space. The 22nd pick was on the clock and the Browns, led by then general manager Phil Savage, put their steel balls on the table for the rest of the NFL to see. They sacrificed a first-round pick for the subsequent season’s draft for the rights to draft Brady Quinn, a quarterback who was in the discussion at No. 1 only to later spend the next two-plus hours with cameras in his face as 21 other men were selected before him. One of those men was named Joe Thomas, an offensive tackle from Wisconsin, who the Browns had selected with their third-overall pick just hours earlier, but all eyes were on the Notre Dame product who came equipped with the perfect marriage of a league-ready arm and a marketing team-ready face. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would read the Quinn’s name off of the notecard which had been handed to him just moments before, the Cleveland Browns had their quarterback of the future, and in a moment that could best be categorized as involuntary, my feet planted into the cement floor and my body shot out of the chair as if it had been pumped full of an electric current. The dozen or so of us who had been sitting in silence in the seconds leading up to the moment raised our hands in unison, high-fived for what felt like hours and discussed the future of a team that would undoubtedly provide greener grass and brighter sun.
They may play on opposite sides of the ball, but Justin Gilbert, the supremely athletic cornerback who was selected eighth overall, should introduce himself to Thomas. Sure, Joe Haden, a fellow cornerback, will be the man in terms of peer-based guidance, but it will be Thomas who can provide the Oklahoma State product with some insight on what it’s like to be selected first yet given very little in the way of attention until the team actually takes the field. Like Thomas was in 2007, Gilbert was the first player taken at his position. Left tackles have been integral in NFL team success for quite some time, but as the league becomes increasingly more focused on passing, the value of the lockdown cornerback has skyrocketed1. Like Thomas, if Gilbert truly excels at his job, it will not show up in a box score—Mike Pettine’s defense thrives on physical corners who knock wide receivers off of their route, allowing the pass rush more time to get to the quarterback and eventually record a sack. Like Thomas, if the team flourishes, it will be because of the quarterback play; if it fails, well, it will be because of the quarterback play. Justin Gilbert can show up to work every day, play every snap, and eventually have his own time share in Honolulu. But when he comes back, the cameras and voice recorders and pen-and-pad types will all be standing outside of the locker likely to be emblazoned with a giant No. 2.
There’s a fatalistic aspect to Manziel before he even takes his show touches down in Berea. Numbers are already against him. He’s the first quarterback to have ever been selected in the first round despite being under six feet tall. Taken with the 22nd-overall pick, Manziel is instantly in the same class as Quinn and former starting quarterback Brandon Weeden. In 2007, the Browns traded up to get Quinn; they did the same seven years later to get Manziel, giving up considerably less the second time around. He’ll likely have a No. 2 stitched to his jersey, the number he wore in college, but also the same number worn by Tim Couch, the first player (also a quarterback) selected upon the Browns’ return to the NFL.; Couch is also a player whose resume includes one playoff appearance, a Playmate wife, post-game tears and an embarrassing HGH suspension in a last-ditch attempt to return to a level prominence.
Once the superstitions are cast aside, Manziel is, after all, a quarterback. Quarterbacks haven’t exactly thrived in Cleveland what with the revolving door of executives and head coaches and schemes and play-callers. Quinn was statuesque and sturdy; the measurables made front office executives salivate. Weeden’s arm was one for the ages, and the bonus was, at age 29, he was mature enough to handle the mental rigors of the professional game. Colt McCoy, a third-round selection who found home in Cleveland in a time period which was bookended by the two No. 22 picks, was also to be savior. There was a cute video, sung by collegiate teammate Jordan Shipley, which praised the short-but-sinewy quarterback. His legend was fueled by wins over top flight teams—the Browns shocked the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints—as a rookie. This was until he fell victim to coaching decisions, an incredibly mishandled concussion scandal and the drafting of Weeden.
And then there are the allegiances. When LeBron James called Cleveland home, his circle included hip-hop mogul Jay Z (Sean Carter). Following every national anthem, James gestured in the form of Carter’s Rock La Familia, placing his hands together at the thumbs and forefingers to make a diamond. He was represented by a group of high school friends who called themselves LRMR who were to be in charge of James’ marketing decisions—the advertisements, the commercials, the appearances. Manziel’s first Nike ad is already making its way around the web. He’s represented by LRMR and it was Nike who took the opportunity to capitalize on Manziel’s Pro Day by fitting him with swoosh-branded gear to place over his shoulder pads. The quarterback is good friends with Drake, one of today’s biggest hip-hop stars. In addition to having the Canadian’s music blare during his introduction, Manziel frequently does the two-handed gesture that represents Drake’s Topszn Regime—it’s pictured above; it looks like the player is gesturing for money. And one look at Manziel’s right wrist and you’ll see the OVO tattoo which stands for “October’s Very Own,” a record label and brand founded by Aubrey “Drake” Graham. Manziel surely isn’t your father’s quarterback.
Nevertheless, on Thursday night, when that green and silver Philadelphia Eagles logo was abruptly swapped out for that logoless orange helmet, you could hear a pin drop in any location that housed a group of Cleveland fans. Seriously: Listen to the eruption from the fans that occurs before Goodell could even get out the quarterback’s last name. Sure, there are plenty of reasons to be guarded—they’ve all been writ large. But in the same, who can blame anyone for being excited? It wasn’t all that long ago that we watched him slice up the Alabama Crimson Tide defense like a southern surgeon. Down late in a Bowl Game against Duke, Manziel found a way to will his team to a win with highlight reel play after highlight reel play.
“When he gets in the building—and we talked about this at length when we visited with him—what accompanies him isn’t really him,” said Browns head coach Mike Pettine. “He’s a competitor. He’s a great teammate. He loves to get in and he’s passionate about football. I don’t think that [celebrity] comes in the building.”
Manziel comes to Cleveland with a skill set ripe for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s picking. He’s not afraid to dub his style of play as “exciting.” For years, it seemed as if opposing defenses could dial in on an immobile Brandon Weeden, rushing him into submission. It won’t be long before defensive coordinators have to have one of their linebackers spy the Cleveland quarterback, taking a defender out of the schematic equation—one fewer player in coverage, one fewer player in a blitz package. The Nike ad, while reminiscent of those that featured a Christ-like LeBron James, aren’t all that far-fetched.
It may be a roll of the dice, but the Cleveland Browns officially have a quarterback of the future. There’s no telling what the next few months have in store in the way of depth charts and decisions2, but the Browns will enter the 2014 season with one of the most-discussed players in recent history. In 2007, when they were rattling off win after win (behind Derek Anderson), the Cleveland Browns were one of the few teams who were often relegated to standard definition television3. Even when they were on their way to amassing a double-digit win season, there was little in the way of respect and attention being paid Cleveland’s way.
Fast forward to 2014 and all of the lights will be shining on a market that, just months ago, was dwindling in the way of fandom. There are no guarantees that the future will be different than the one we thought we were all getting seven years ago. Fans are still widely split on Manziel as a person and as a player, and with good reason. But you can guarantee that this experiment, fueled by the courage and draft wherewithal of Browns general manager Ray Farmer4, will be fascinating as we watch it all unfold. My feet may have finally hit the ground, having lept off of my couch just 12 hours earlier. My head, however, is still in the clouds.
- The 2014 NFL Draft had nine defensive backs go in the first round—two more than any other draft in the history of the league. [↩]
- I’m just going to go in and get a chance to meet Brian [Hoyer] and work with him,” Manziel said. “We’ll be together a lot. That’s a teammate of mine.” [↩]
- This was before every stadium was outfitted with HD cameras, which seems crazy to even think about [↩]
- “If you want something, you have to go get it,” Farmer would say. “Either you evolve or you get left behind.” [↩]