Friday, May 9, 2014

NFL pundits scrambling after teams decided that "Johnny Football" was more "show" than substance

The first round of the 2014 NFL draft was one of the most uninteresting in years, or at least more so than last season. “Draft experts” are telling us that talent is “plentiful,” but when isn’t it? South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was picked first overall by the Houston Texans; he has all the size, speed and fundamentals a team would want for that position. However, all the highlight reels of him are just that—peaks of a career of tremendous highs that naturally stand out in the midst of a flat line. This is explained by a tendency to put in less than maximum effort on plays when forced to overcome significant obstacles in front of him. Time will tell if he can overcome this motivational obstacle. 

In a line-up that lacked any obvious “franchise” quarterback possibility (much like last year), with the third pick in the draft the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars selected no-name quarterback—or rather the unlikely named—Blake Bortles, out of Central Florida, hardly a college powerhouse but one of those annual “surprise” teams last season. Bortles developed a reputation as quarterback who “performed” under pressure, which might be helpful playing for a team like the Jaguars. He is also big and physical, like Ben Roethlisberger (and Jake Locker). Not that everyone is sold on his “franchise” potential; despite his size, he was a dink and dunk passer whose long throws tended to “wobble”—not good against faster NFL secondaries.

My team, the Green bay Packers, drafted Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round. This seems like a good pick for a position in need; according to scouting reports, Clinton-Dix has good field instincts and is a sure tackler, and no doubt that this is critical for a defense bereft of the backside tackling needed whenever these new “read-option” or “zone-read” quarterbacks decide to take off running. An early test will be when the Packers take on defending Super Bowl champion Seattle on the road. 

But what about the name that was on every NFL analysts’ lips during pre-draft discussion? The only name that “stood out” among all the rest? What about “Johnny Football” Manziel? Most of the opinion seemed to center around whether Dallas Cowboys’ owner/general manager Jerry Jones was going to trade up for Manziel, since surely a team that must secretly desire to jettison Tony Romo (since the world was blaming him for 90 percent of the Cowboys’  recent difficulties), was salivating at the public relations possibilities. A Texas star drafted by the team with a star on its helmet. A no-brainer. Right?

As opening night progressed, the “experts” found themselves befuddled as team after team passed on Manziel. Perhaps the Cowboys would win their bluff and land Manziel without wasting a pick by trading up, and lo and behold, there was Manziel just waiting there to snatched up with the Cowboys’ 16th pick. But Jones seemed surprised to find him still on the board, expecting someone else to pick him to save him from having to answer questions later. The media had read Jones’ mind wrong, never suspecting that he had no intention of drafting Manziel. He not only intended to stay with Romo, but drafted yet another offensive lineman in the first round in order to protect him. 

Media darling Manziel continued to fall until selected by the Cleveland Browns, who passed on him with the ninth pick, but moved up to draft him at 22. Naturally the media had to make the best of their embarrassing miscalculation, declaring that the Browns were suddenly “relevant,” a team to “watch.” Oh no, all of a sudden it was a “good” thing for Johnny to have fallen so far, it was decided. Now he had a “chip” on his shoulder, and being passed on by so many teams only added “fuel” to his “fire.” ESPN’s Ashley Fox was even comparing him to Aaron Rodgers, who had dropped to 24th before being drafted by the Packers, motivating him to be one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. Given time, Manziel would be the next Rodgers. 

Forgive me for being cynical, but even in a quarterback class lacking in obvious top-flight talent, Manziel doesn’t even appear to have the needed physical tools to be a starting NFL quarterback. Looking at him from a distance, he seems remarkably slight of build, especially for being under six feet tall. His one physical positive is his big hands to grip the football, like Russell Wilson who is even shorter than Manziel—but has a compact, well-muscled build. 

Admittedly, Manziel wasn’t the Heisman Trophy winner for nothing in his rookie season; observers marveled at his amazing “feel” for the game, making play after play out of thin air with nifty footwork and a “sixth sense” of what was happening on the field. This was the kind of thing that would “wow” those who drooled over Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and even Geno Smith.

So why did so many teams—including the Cowboys—pass on him? Let’s be honest: He is not Aaron Rodgers, not by a long shot. His slight build will make him a tempting morsel for hungry defensive linemen. This suggests that his play will become even more undisciplined than it already is, as he attempts to escape their grasp—even if no one is actually there, as observers have noted his fear of phantoms. Manziel also never played from under center while at Texas A&M, and was never known to step into the pocket—a sure sign of an inability to see over the offensive line (admittedly a charge also made against Wilson). He has questionable mechanics, especially when throwing the deep ball. But perhaps worse is his lack of leadership qualities, a me-first prima donna who lacks work ethic. 

Time will tell, of course. So many red flags sprouted around Geno Smith before last year’s draft that he dropped from being a high first round pick to the second round; to those outside the East Coast media, Smith turned out to be just as bad as suspected, having the worst passer rating of any starting quarterback last season. In fact, it seemed that Jets’ fans and the media felt compelled to find something positive to say about Smith to justify replacing Mark Sanchez, who never had a season as bad as the one Smith had. But the media and Jets’ fans loved him, so who knows. Manziel might be one of those “exciting” players who is more “show” than substance—and that may be all some fans want.  

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