Don’t Cry for Johnny Football

Ben Teitelbaum
Don’t Cry for Johnny Football

The scene was confounding, even painful to watch at times: the star quarterback/cultural icon known as Johnny Football, née Jonathan Paul Manziel, stuck in the NFL draft green room as other players heard their names called, unable to escape the cameras.

During the first round of the 2014 draft at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night, Manziel waited nearly two hours and 45 minutes before being selected by the Cleveland Browns with the 22nd pick.

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He was passed over by at least five teams that needed a passer. University of Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles—“WHO?” you ask, if you’re not a draft nut—was chosen third by the Jacksonville Jaguars, but Manziel slid and slid…and slid.

Why did it take so long for Johnny Football to get a job?

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Off the field, the Texas A&M stud was the most hyped college football player since Tim Tebow. (Just substitute hard-partying for hard-praying.) By the end of his freshman year, Manziel was so ubiquitous and effervescent that the name of his sport had effectively replaced his surname, and he even managed to infiltrate the rapper Drake’s supposedly impregnable circle of friends.

Mr. Football was equally impressive between the lines. He set Southeastern Conference records for total offense, shredded Alabama’s vaunted defense multiple times, and was featured constantly on SportsCenter with weekly feats of athleticism and daring.

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But hype does not an NFL player make. (Somewhere, a no-longer-in-the-league Tebow is ruefully nodding.)

Although the ESPN-fueled sports-media-industrial complex had lionized Manziel as the next jockstrap-wearing Messiah, with ESPN blowhard and quarterbacks “guru” Jon Gruden predicting Manziel would be chosen second, it was never a foregone conclusion that he would be one of the first draft picks.

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First, doubts persist doubts about his size, throwing mechanics, and ability to run a pro-style offense. Some experts have called him a “project,” not nearly as NFL-ready as Andrew Luck was when the Indianapolis Colts took him first overall in 2012.

Unless scouts view a quarterback as a can’t-miss prospect, teams are often wary of overreaching. For every Peyton Manning or John Elway, there’s a Tim Couch, Akili Smith, or Ryan Leaf.

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Plus, teams have proved they can pick superstars later in the draft. Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl winner Russell Wilson was selected in the third round; the legendary New England Patriot Tom Brady was picked in the sixth.

This year, the teams that needed QBs also had sizable holes at other positions. The Jaguars clearly preferred the big, strong Bortles to Manziel, and other franchises decided to go with defensive ends, linebackers, and wide receivers.

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It’s actually somewhat refreshing that NFL front offices were impervious to the Manziel personality cult—and the dollars that would’ve come with it. They were drafting to build teams, not to appease fan bases or score easy ticket sales.

As for Manziel, the player who flashes a show-me-the-money sign after big plays might have lost about $14 million Thursday night. Last year, the first pick in the draft signed a $22.19 million contract, compared to $8.16 million for No. 22.

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Still, Johnny Football carried himself like a champion throughout. Even as the ESPN broadcast cut to him every time Commissioner Roger Goodell announced a name that wasn’t Manziel’s, he maintained his composure, just as he always does when blitzing defenders trying to wrestle him to the ground.

The cameras often caught him smiling nervously but never looking dejected or mad. And when he finally became the newest member of the Browns, he said: “My dream came true. For me there is no disappointment.”

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In 2005, Aaron Rodgers was thought to be a possible top pick, only to drop to 24. His excruciatingly long night in the green room was tracked almost as closely as Manziel’s. Now, the Green Bay Packers quarterback is a Super Bowl champion, most valuable player, and State Farm Discount Double-Check guy.

Aaron Rodgers has swag. So does Johnny Football. Chances are he’ll do just fine.

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