Ryan Black commentary: Off-field lifestyle, not lack of height, biggest red flag with Johnny Manziel

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comMay 9, 2014 

Ryan Black

Johnny Manziel isn't perfect.

He doesn't have prototypical size for an NFL quarterback, as he measured in just a shade under 6 foot at the combine, standing 5-foot-11 and three-fourths. He doesn't have a rocket launcher of an arm, either. And of course, the off-field issues he had during his college career have been well-documented.

Ironically, despite his many shortcomings (pun perhaps intended), it's a perfect time for the whirling dervish from Texas A&M to enter the NFL.

He can thank Drew Brees for that. Michael Vick deserves some kudos from Manziel as well. Most of all, Manziel must express his gratitude to Russell Wilson, coming off a Super Bowl-winning season with the Seattle Seahawks.

The (obvious) factor linking these signal-callers together is their height — or lack thereof: Brees and Vick are both at 6-foot even while Wilson is 5-foot-10 and change. That hasn't stopped any of them from carving out nice careers for themselves.

Brees and Vick have been in the league for more than a decade, part of the same draft class in 2001. Brees is a Super Bowl champion and likely Hall of Famer. Those are the same expectations many once had for Vick. While he won't have a plaque in Canton, Ohio, he deserves credit for resurrecting himself — once he paid back his debt to society — after pleading guilty to felony dogfighting charges in 2007.

Then there's Wilson.

No quarterback in NFL history has more wins (regular season and playoffs combined) in his first two seasons as a starter, as Wilson has captured 28 victories in that span.

So let those who believe Manziel's height is a hindrance proceed with caution.

To this point, the Kerrville, Texas, native has done everything he can to prove he can play in the NFL. After he won the Heisman in 2012, critics said his completion percentage — even at 68 percent — wasn't good enough.

His final college season showed he had heeded their words. Manziel threw for more yards (4,114) and touchdowns (37) than he did during his Heisman campaign the year before. He also upped his accuracy level, completing 70 percent of his passes.

To address concerns about his mechanics and footwork, Manziel began to work even closer with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield after declaring for the draft in January. It paid dividends at Texas A&M's pro day, where Manziel impressed those in attendance by showcasing noticeable gains in every aspect of the passing game.

Are there still areas he can improve?

Undoubtedly.

The Aggies, a hurry-up, no-huddle attack, operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun formation. That means Manziel will still have to get comfortable playing under center and dropping back to pass. At the same time, expect Cleveland, which took him with the 22nd overall pick Thursday night, to meet Manziel in the middle, tinkering its scheme to take advantage of his improvisational skill set.

After all, a team doesn't draft Manziel to run a conventional offense.

If there are any reservations to be had about him, it should be focused on his off-field behavior. There are numerous examples to choose from.

His arrest two years ago prior to him becoming the Aggies' starter.

His lack of awareness that signing autographs for profit constitutes an NCAA violation, which led to him being suspended for the first half of last season's opener versus Rice.

His affinity for the bright lights. (See: His friendship with superstar rapper Drake.)

Even lighthearted attempts to have fun can be cause for worry for NFL executives. In a video he posted on his personal Instagram account last month, Manziel made an incredible one-handed catch — while riding a jet ski.

While the general public wouldn't give this a second thought, Marcia DiStaso, an assistant professor at Penn State and an expert in social media, thought it sent the wrong message to future employers.

"It's him on a Jet Ski," she told ESPN.com in a long-form piece on the quarterback earlier this week. "Not him doing something great in the community. Not him playing football. Right now, given how soon the draft is, I don't think that was appropriate. It was poorly timed. It was a big risk."

Decades ago, this wouldn't have raised any alarms. Not anymore. Players are now multi-million dollar investments. High-risk behavior like Manziel exhibited won't be tolerated, especially given how easy it is to name athletes — Jay Williams in the NBA, Ben Roethlisberger and Kellen Winslow Jr. in the NFL — who have suffered serious injuries in motorcycle accidents.

Maybe Manziel could use that trio as a reminder to himself: Taking those kind of gambles isn't worth it until your playing career is over.

Manziel's at the opposite end of that spectrum now, just embarking on his NFL journey.

Sure, he could end up being a bust. But if that comes to pass, it won't be due to his diminutive stature. It's far more likely his lifestyle away from the gridiron finally caught up to him.

One could say that's the long and short of it.

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