The Manziel-Tebow Connection

The differences between Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow might be best summed up by simple images — Manziel’s “show me the money” gesture and Tebow’s famous kneeling pose.  Yet the two share striking similarities.  They are fierce competitors who seem to be able to inspire teammates.    In college, they exploited defenses as much or more with their legs as with their arms, thrilling fans, capturing media attention, but also creating questions as to the amenability of their skills to the NFL.  They won the Heisman trophy as SEC quarterbacks, and stepped into professional football as celebrities with a spotlight unusual even for the NFL.

The celebrity status places huge pressures on them and on their coaches, no matter what the coaches may say.  The comments of Houston Texans owner Bob McNair on why they passed on Manziel speak volumes:

 ””I knew with Manziel it would be a frenzy,” McNair told ESPN “And probably even if he didn’t succeed at being an outstanding NFL quarterback for a couple years, the fans would have been frenzied.”

Normally, one would think that fans worked into a frenzy is a positive thing for a franchise, especially one like the Texans who won only 2 games in 2013 and decided to unload their starting QB, Matt Schaub.   Instead, they have opted, at least in the short term, for Ryan Fitzpatrick — a journeyman, sometimes starter, sometimes backup.  Fitzpatrick is better than frenzy?

The bypassing of Manziel for Fitzpatrick parallels the ongoing bypassing of Tebow for a variety of pedestrian backup quarterbacks in the NFL.  For teams with passing only offensive schemes for their quarterbacks, that probably makes sense.  Tebow’s passing skills cannot carry a team.  For teams like San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington, or others where QB running is part of the plan and the backup QB isn’t exactly great, the avoidance of “frenzy” must play a role.  The 49ers’ backup is now Blaine Gabbert — the worst starter in the league the past three years.  His passing performances Jacksonsville fell below even Tebow’s but without the compensation of a strong running threat.  Tarvaris Jackson in Seattle is Tebow without the frenzy.  Even an out-of-the-box coach like Chip Kelly in Philadelphia whose offense works best with a QB who can run has avoided taking on Tebow and opted for Mark Sanchez as his backup.

Johnny Manziel Wants The Money

Johnny Manziel Wants The Money

Back to Manziel, these episodes point to the fact that Manziel, when and if he becomes the starter in Cleveland or elsewhere, will have to excel from the outset or else he may not get many other opportunities.  Blaine Gabbert can be bad, really bad and land as the backup on a top flight team.  The same goes for Sanchez.  In Tebow’s case, his play (legs and arms combined) ranged from great to awful in his short stint as starter in Denver, but his team won more than it lost and won a thrilling playoff game in which he completed less than 50 percent of his passes but averaged 30 yards per play on the ones he completed with two touchdowns and 50 yards and touchdown thrown in rushing.  His performance the next week against the Patriots was poor and was his last start as a professional.  When frenzy accompanies you, the tipping point between success and being cast off is very unstable.

Why would Bob McNair and coaches be so afraid of frenzy?  It ties their hands and puts them under extra scrutiny in world in which scrutiny already runs high.  Coaches like to say that they don’t care what fans think.  That may be true for a single fan or a few, but when an entire stadium and fan base starts demanding something, the impact is felt.  When Kyle Orton struggled in Denver, John Fox hand was forced.   Although reluctant, it is to Fox’s credit that he adjusted the offense to maximize Tebow’s chances of succeeding.  Nonetheless, other coaches and general managers could easily see that if you take on Tebow, the focus can quickly turn to him.

Only the Cleveland coaches really know their plan.  Starting Brian Hoyer likely increases their chances of winning in the short term, plus it provides Manziel with an opportunity to learn and practice more.  If Hoyer and the team plays well and wins games, Manziel may not get a chance.  Odds are, Cleveland will struggle at some point, and when they do, their will be tremendous pressure to bring on Manziel.  That may well be their plan.

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