Since we've all spent so much energy deconstructing Johnny Manziel's gestures and body language these past few weeks, what's one more amateur analysis? Let's zero in on a moment from last Saturday's shootout in College Station.
The moment came a few seconds after Manziel spun out of the grasp of Alabama's 290-pound defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan. A few beats after he stared down five oncoming rushers and threw a pass from 27 yards behind the line of scrimmage that he had no business throwing. A few breaths after linebacker C.J. Mosley decked him. It came while receiver Edward Pope celebrated a third-down conversion that never should have happened.
Manziel popped up and jogged down the field. Then the Texas A&M quarterback turned toward his sideline, tilted his head toward the sky and yelled. A smile followed. Not an I-can't-believe-I-just-did-that smile. Not an in-your-face-Alabama smile. It was a half-shocked, half-amused I'm-so-lucky-I-got-to-be-alive-for-that smile.
If every talking head on TV and every writer of every hot sports takes can be so sure that Manziel's "cash out" touchdown celebration against Rice was a thumbing of his nose at the NCAA or that his brush-by of enraged Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin during that same game was a sign of a deep-seated disrespect for authority, then it seems only fair that those of us who witnessed that smile can be certain it was the by-product of unbridled joy.
During the Alabama game we remembered why so many people care whether Manziel goes to the NBA Finals or whether he got paid for his autograph. He plays the game in a way we've rarely seen, and he seems to enjoy it as much as we hope we would if we had the speed to outrun an SEC defense and the arm strength to throw a deep post. He's an undersized, underrecruited dynamo gliding among giants without an inkling of fear. We can't take our eyes off him, and that obsession continues after he leaves the stadium.
The buildup to the Alabama game suggested that Saturday was all or nothing for Manziel. If he lost, we would forget him and the Aggies. We would move on to the next big thing, and Manziel would play out this season and shuffle on to the NFL—where his size and his devil-may-care style would either make him average or get him splattered.
Well, he did lose on Saturday. He threw two interceptions—including one returned for a touchdown—and Texas A&M lost by seven. The Aggies lost because they couldn't stop Alabama's offense. Manziel can't help them there, but he did account for 562 yards of total offense. He threw five touchdown passes. He led his team to 628 total yards and 42 points. Against Alabama. The last team that cracked 600 yards of total offense against the Crimson Tide was LSU—in 2001.
Johnny Football will factor into this season's Heisman race—never mind that some voters swore him off after the off-season. And Manziel may yet factor into the title race. Sumlin reminded his players in the locker room that Texas A&M beat Alabama last year but the Tide rebounded to win the national championship.
Remember how Manziel was supposed to be a flash in the pan? How Alabama's Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart were supposed to figure him out with the benefit of a season's worth of film? How hanging with Drake and LeBron in the off-season was supposed to stunt Manziel's development?
None of that came true. Manziel knew it wouldn't. In July he asked a pointed question: "When is the day going to come when people stop doubting me?" That day will never come. And that will likely elicit a smile from Manziel. He knows better.
He plays the game in a way we've rarely seen, and he seems to enjoy it as much as we hope we would.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED