THERE IS NO MORE POLARIZING PLAYER IN THIS NFL DRAFT—MAYBE IN THE LAST FEW DRAFTS—THAN TEXAS A&M QUARTERBACK JOHNNY MANZIEL. THAT MUCH WE KNOW.
But suspend your judgment about Manziel the person and focus on the 5'11 7/8" lightning rod of a player, and what do you have? What exactly does the tape show—the tape that the Texans and Jaguars and Browns and Raiders and Buccaneers and Vikings have been watching this spring?
I took that coaches video—the Aggies' 2013 games against Alabama (a very good outing for Manziel) and LSU (a mediocre game)—to five men whom I've come to know over the years as smart quarterback evaluators. We watched those two games on some big screens and some small ones, and they analyzed how his performances would translate to the NFL.
All five men ran love-hate with Manziel. They loved the improvisation, the courage and the accuracy downfield. They hated the sloppy footwork, the throwing without proper passing sets, the bailing out of the pocket before he could analyze defenses. They were skeptical of his becoming a great NFL player. But they were also intrigued by his almost uncanny ability to pull plays out of his hat against the types of players he'll see on the next level.
"I'm not that impressed with his throwing; too playground, too freelancey," said Mike Holmgren, the man credited with developing Brett Favre. "But the way he plays, some of the things he does ... he's Favre-esque."
"His lower-body mechanics are awful, but wow, he makes some throws," said Kevin Gilbride, who coached the offenses of six different NFL teams in 24 years (and won two Super Bowls with the Giants) before retiring this year.
"If you're as accurate as he is and as functional as he is at a high level, who gives a rat's ass about his mechanics? I would love to coach this kid," said David Cutcliffe, the Duke coach (and Manning brothers mentor) whose Blue Devils lost to Manziel in his final college game, in January.
"His instinctive play is phenomenal. But I see some of the hiccups, some of the things he has to fix," said Doug Flutie, the similarly undersized former NFL and CFL quarterback.
"There's no question he can play outside the hashes and be one of the best in the game," said Rich Gannon, who won the NFL's 2002 MVP award as Oakland's quarterback. "But most of the game is played between the hashes. Can this guy function in this world? Can he live and thrive?"
Those are the types of questions that the higher-ups in Houston and Jacksonville and Cleveland and Oakland and Tampa and Minnesota must answer between now and May 8.
The genesis of this story dates back to 1998, when I visited six quarterbacking experts with a videotape showing 30 throws apiece from Tennessee's Peyton Manning and Washington State's Ryan Leaf, the top two passing prospects in that year's draft. I watched the tape with, among others, Bill Walsh and Sid Gillman, and asked which guy they favored. All six named Manning, and Manning, of course, was selected No. 1 by the Colts. You know the rest.
Sixteen years later every quarterback in the draft has flaws. This class of passing prospects could well turn out to be similar to 2011, when teams overdrafted Jake Locker (No. 8), Blaine Gabbert (10) and Christian Ponder (12), and underdrafted Colin Kaepernick (36). There is intense interest about the prospects of Central Florida's Blake Bortles, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Fresno State's Derek Carr. The head coach of one QB-needy team told me the deliberation over which one to take was "torturous."
But none is tougher to grade than Manziel. Teams don't know whether his technical shortcomings are worth the risk of a high first-round pick, and it's possible that the combination of on- and off-field questions could drive him into the second round.
So let's go to the videotape and analyze Manziel the player.
ON THE FIRST series against Alabama, Manziel made two perfectly placed sideline throws to 6'5" wideout Mike Evans. The first, a back-shoulder heave, traveled 35 yards in the air and was precisely placed. The second, for 41 yards, led Evans perfectly and dropped into the receiver's hands as he was pushed out-of-bounds near the Alabama goal line.
Gannon: "Those are two pretty good deep balls, but he locked his front foot, so he couldn't get his hips through."
Cutcliffe: "What is most critical is to throw on time. You see how quiet his lower body is. He doesn't have to step. He's not relying on just arm strength; that's torso strength. I like a torso throw."
LATER IN THE game against Alabama, Manziel was flushed from the pocket. He floated right, still looking downfield, saw no one and took off. As defenders converged, he had the opportunity to duck out-of-bounds for a gain of four. Instead he pushed upfield. A safety readied to lower the boom, but Manziel slid underneath him; he was barely hit. Gain of 13.
Four of the five QB men said, in effect, You're not going to get away with that in the NFL. But Manziel's instincts—knowing he could grab 10 free yards, with the confidence that he wouldn't take a big hit—impress Gannon. "He's got the balls of a burglar," he said. "He's so competitive; he reminds me of Jeff Garcia."
Manziel too often abandons the pocket early—all five men commented on that. But they also all made note of his command of the offense. Cutcliffe doesn't mind that Manziel fades away from the pocket, because he keeps his eyes downfield. Holmgren sees a similarity to Russell Wilson, who fades left or right not necessarily to scramble for yards but so that he can see past linemen who stand half a foot taller.
WHEN QUARTERBACK TUTOR George Whitfield took Manziel to San Diego in January to refine his technique, the two concentrated on pocket presence, awareness and, especially, lower-body mechanics. And for good reason; in the two games we watched, my panel spotted flaws. For starters, Manziel hops when he throws. It's the kind of thing that when you first notice it, you say, Run that back, because it looks so odd. He also often uses all arm, contrary to proper mechanics. Even when he has time, he arm-throws without setting his legs.
Holmgren: "Every once in a while he plants and throws, one-two-three; it's good. But the arm throws and the hops.... Too often he's all arm."
Flutie: "I'm not that bothered by it. Those are things that NFL scouts don't like. But I think he can make a lot of throws with his feet out of position. He's athletic enough that he could be on the wrong foot, or drifting, or he could drop down sidearm and make throws. I see that as an asset, but NFL guys are going to say, He should have his feet set."
Cutcliffe: "That hop—that's a freaking nightmare. I don't know what got him started on that."
Gannon: "Watch his feet. Really sloppy. His body angle is too far back. He's not stepping into and driving his throws. His hopping—that tells you he doesn't trust his protection; he's not willing to step up and drive the ball."
Holmgren predicted that it would take a full season to fix Manziel's lower-body mechanics. Of the coaches, Cutcliffe was least bothered; he believes that plenty of QBs have mechanical flaws, some that need to be fixed and some that you can live with.
"I'm on record as saying it's hard to fix a throwing motion," said Holmgren, "but you can fix your feet and your hips with hard work."
IN THE SECOND QUARTER against Alabama, Manziel had a third-and-eight from the Crimson Tide's 34-yard line. Texas A&M lined up trips right (three receivers split wide) and two left. Alabama rushed five defenders against five blockers. And what happened next raises an important question about Manziel the player: Is he too riverboat gambler, too freelance, for the NFL? And if so, can it be fixed?
At the snap Manziel almost immediately bypassed two in-cutting receivers from his right: one marginally covered at the 29, one uncovered but in front of the first-down marker at the 31. The second receiver certainly would have been able to reach the first down with a quick Manziel throw. But the QB passed on both. Instead he faded back to Alabama's 45, where he was pressured by the right end, causing him to spin left. The Tide end got Manziel's jersey in his grasp, but he fought free, way back at his own 46.
"Jeez, throw it away," said Gilbride. But then there was more pressure up the middle. Manziel scrambled to his right, still looking downfield. Falling back at his own 40 while being contacted by another Bama rusher, Manziel heaved the ball up like a punt. It traveled 38 yards in the air, falling to earth in a scrum of players from both teams—right into the hands of freshman A&M wideout Edward Pope. Gain of 12. First down.
Cutcliffe: "Horrific. He had a sure completion on the first receiver. He had a completion on the second receiver.... Then, that was a big, powerful man that got a hold of him—but it takes discipline to [accept] a sack when you have to, or to throw the ball away."
Gannon: "The [second receiver] can't be more wide-open. Freakin' throw it to him! Late down the middle—he won't get rewarded like that in the NFL. We kid about this [and call it] Cover Five: five of their guys on one of ours. As [my former quarterbacks coach with the Chiefs] Mike McCarthy would say, 'Minus decision, minus footwork, positive outcome.' "
Holmgren: "He's at the playground, really. Here he has a 6'5" receiver who goes up and gets [the ball], but that's usually an interception. It should have been. Brett [Favre] had an epiphany after a few plays like this. We were 9--7 and 9--7 our first two years together. I said, 'We're gonna have to tone down some stuff.' He said, 'Mike, that's just the way I play.' I said, 'O.K. But do you want to go to the Super Bowl or do you want to be 9--7?' To his credit, he worked with me, knocked down the interceptions.... Oh, God; I aged many years in that relationship. Someone's going to have to do that with Johnny."
I asked Gilbride, who coached a similar wild colt, Kordell Stewart, in Pittsburgh, what his staff would have said on the sideline to a quarterback who made a play like Manziel's desperate heave.
"When I had Kordell," Gilbride recalled, "he would do something wild and it would work out; then he'd come back expecting to be praised. I'd say, 'You got away with it, but you'll never be consistent if you're just playing by the seat of your pants. You lucked out. Don't think for one second that you did the right thing.' And he would be crushed. But you're not doing your job as a coach if you're not making a quarterback do the right thing."
"I would have been extremely upset," Cutcliffe said. "I would have said, 'That is a lack of discipline.' You've got to be tough to throw the ball away, to take a sack when that's the best thing you can do. Once you're out of the pocket, it's always a first-and-10 decision: On first-and-10 you be conservative because you've got two more plays to get a first down. You have to try to win the play, not the game."
LATE AGAINST BAMA, Manziel—tiring in what would be a marathon 71-offensive-play game—appeared even more mechanically flawed. But he made one spectacular play in the final minute: He evaded a sack near midfield, spun out to his right and whipped the ball across his body on the run to find Evans again, inside the five. A perfect throw in traffic. "His instincts, his creativity," said Gannon, "those are special."
This play was right up Flutie's alley. "I love his situational awareness," he said. "His ability to rise to the occasion is good, understanding that he's got to get two more scores in the last two minutes so we're going to hurry up and take a few more risks. He has a feel for where people are around him—all those instinctive things that you can't teach."
HOLMGREN WAS PARTICULARLY bothered by how late Manziel was on some throws, noting that the QB often released the ball after his receiver had made a cut, not before. And in the NFL, most throws are made with anticipation.
"At the NFL combine in 2012," said Holmgren, who was then the Browns' team president, "I was watching some tape with [rookie-to-be] Robert Griffin III. He was completing balls and doing some great stuff, but everything was just a little bit late. I said, 'Robert, everything seems a little late.' He goes, 'Well I've got to wait until [the receiver] runs his route.' I said, 'You do? Talk to me about that.' He goes, 'Well, he can run any one of five routes: He can run post, corner, go, hitch, in. I've got to wait and see what he's doing, then I throw it.' I asked, 'Like at the playground?' That was so different from my passing game, or Bill Walsh's passing game. I told him, 'You know, you're probably going to have to adjust and anticipate because if you wait like that in the NFL, it creates interceptions.' That's some of what I see with Johnny."
Gannon: "You see a lot of these throws where he's late. It affects his rhythm, his accuracy. He's got to be earlier. If you wait, you're late."
ALL OF MY PANELISTS agreed: Manziel will need to learn to take snaps from under center, then watch the defense and make decisions while backpedaling. But Cutcliffe praised Manziel for his ability to mimic that in shotgun—he can process information while the ball is on its way back, and he can catch it in a position such that he's ready to make a throw. Once, against LSU, he caught a shotgun snap high and to his right, and almost in one motion threw a quick spiral to his left for a first down.
"Catching a shotgun snap is an art," said Cutcliffe, pointing out Manziel's head and eye alignment. "He's a great middle infielder. What does a middle infielder do? Look: His eyes are on the defense. That's a middle infielder's skill. If you don't do that, it's difficult to play gun. I do drills where I have quarterbacks look at me and catch snaps; I know they're not taking their eyes off coverage. Manziel—he's outstanding at that. [It's like] turning a double play. He may not even know he does it, because some coaches don't coach it. They just luck into it."
ALABAMA OFTEN RUSHED four, and Manziel got to the outside on them frequently and easily. LSU took a different strategy—one with a bit of a Bill Belichick tinge to it. The Tigers rushed four defensive linemen plus a fifth player, and they built a semicircular halo around Manziel, all the while keeping good gap discipline. And against LSU, whose two ends were more concerned with making sure the QB didn't get around them to the outside than they were with trying to sack him, Manziel found it harder to wriggle through holes to daylight. (It's also worth noting that Evans, the A&M receiver, had a clear physical advantage over Bama's mediocre cornerbacks, but LSU's corners beat him up a bit and the results showed. He had 279 receiving yards against the Tide; 51 yards and a bad drop against the Tigers.)
"If I was coaching a defense to play against a quarterback like Russell Wilson or Manziel, I would do exactly that," said Holmgren. "I would have my outside pass rushers always maintain leverage, always keep their outside arm free."
Flutie: "I think the No. 1 thing to do is bring five guys. And—this is a Belichick thing—you tell your defensive ends, Don't go deeper than the quarterback. His only escape is out the backside of the pocket, not up and through. It makes him stand in there and throw the football, and it creates a wall in front of him. I struggled against that at times as well. What I always did against that is I picked the one receiver matchup that I liked and I put the ball on a spot where I thought my guy could make a play. Against the four-man rush, Johnny reads coverage well. He'll come down to the back if he has to, but he'll find a play."
I HAD SOME extra time after seeing the two games with Holmgren, and we decided to watch Manziel's pro day workout from late March. After having had 12 weeks to work on his weaknesses, how did Manziel adjust? Quite well, it turns out, based on the 62 snaps of that workout.
"It's a whole different thing," said Holmgren. "In games he was all over the place. Here he's doing the stuff that you're supposed to do. His drops need to be quicker, and he has to stretch them so he gets back farther than 6½ yards on the five-step. But he's so quick. And he's got good movement. He can throw running. He's much more precise in his movement, I think. He's right on the money with the ball."
When it was over Holmgren said, "That's about as good a pro day as you'll see out of a quarterback."
"What are his chances of being a good long-term QB in the league?" I asked.
"I think it's a long shot," Holmgren responded. "He's most effective moving, scrambling; he gets a little lucky, but a lot of those throws are throws that most guys can make. When he really has to throw accurately, I don't think he throws well enough. Now, he had a really good workout, but there aren't [defenders] flying around; he doesn't have to read things. Physically, he's not exactly what I want. He's not tall enough. That doesn't mean he can't make it—Russell Wilson made it. But Russell also stepped into a perfect storm, with a power running game and a great defense to help him."
Cutcliffe didn't need to see the tape as much as the other four men; he'd watched every game of Manziel's from last fall while preparing for the Duke-A&M Chick-fil-A Bowl. He already knew Manziel well.
"But being on the same field with him changed my perception," he said. "He had total command of that football—his ability to spin it, put it where he wanted to; his ability to keep his eyes downfield. His awareness downfield far exceeded what I expected. His strength shocked me. Our middle linebacker is a strong kid, and Johnny hit him and knocked him down. Johnny was fine; just kept going."
"But is he worth the risk?" I finally asked.
"It would be a challenge in some areas," said Cutcliffe, "but he's got so many gifts. He's the kind of guy you want to get your hands on."
Flutie—as you might expect of a kindred spirit—likes Manziel's chances in the NFL. "Because of the success of spread guys like Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, as well as shorter guys like Drew Brees, Johnny's going to be given a legitimate shot," he said. "When I played, you had to be 6'4" or 6'5" to be given a couple years to screw up and still be around. [Some team] will hang with him because he's dynamic. His instinctive play is phenomenal."
Summarized Gilbride, "He's made too many good throws—even with the awful mechanics—to say he's not worth the investment. I think [drafting him] is contingent on how you feel after spending time with the guy: Does he want to be coached, to be reined in? He's obviously an incredible athlete; he's obviously not intimidated by the big stage. There are enough positives."
It took Gannon much longer to sum up his feelings, and at the end I wasn't sure if he'd draft Manziel or not. The bad: his throwing mechanics and carelessness with the ball while running, his abandoning the pocket early, his footwork. The good: the instincts, the accuracy on the run, the obvious command of his offense and his troops, the—ahem—guts of a burglar.
"I like him. I just don't like him in the top 10," Gannon said. "But I'll tell you one thing: He's going to be fun to watch. There will be some crash-and-burn plays. It's hard to compare too many people to Brett Favre, but this guy has some Favre in him—his innate ability to create and to do some very unorthodox stuff. I wouldn't discourage that if I was his coach."
Whoever that mystery coach is.
Holmgren sees Russell Wilson in Manziel when he scrambles while looking upfield. Others hate his footwork: "A freaking nightmare," Cutcliffe said of the QB's hop-throw.
"He won't get rewarded for that in the NFL," Gannon said of Manziel's busted play against Bama. Holmgren: "He's at the playground."
"He's made too many good throws—even with the awful mechanics—to say he's not worth the investment," said Gilbride.
JOHNNY MANZIEL • P. 38
THE TROUBLE WITH RUNNING BACKS • P. 41
CHRIS BURKE'S MOCK DRAFT • P. 46
FOUR SOUGHT-AFTER SKILL SETS • P. 50
Photograph by ERICH SCHLEGEL for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
PAUL DRINKWATER/NBC/NBCU PHOTO BANK/GETTY IMAGES (FLUTIE)
TAYLOR HILL/FILMMAGIC (GANNON)
JASON MILLER/GETTY IMAGES (HOLMGREN)
NFL/GETTY IMAGES (GILBRIDE)
JEREMY MCKNIGHT/ICON SMI (CUTCLIFFE)
TODD ROSENBERG FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DARREN CARROLL FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED