After Johnny Manziel likely closed out his college career with a dizzying, dazzling, and daring performance in a 52-48 victory against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Monday that showed the world he possesses skills that cannot be taught and signs of maturity and leadership, he was compared to everyone from Houdini to Fran Tarkenton.
Scouts said Manziel reminded them of Tarkenton or Doug Flutie for his elusiveness. Others remarked that Manziel was like Larry Bird for his ruthless “clutch” gene. Brett Favre also came to mind. Some (including many in Tuscaloosa, Alabama) threw up their hands and said he was just Houdini.
I’m going with Allen Iverson. If Eagles coach Chip Kelly’s offense is described as “basketball on grass,” then Manziel is Iverson on grass.
Practice? Off-the-court-or-field distractions? Children, please.
Manziel doesn’t have cornrows. He doesn’t have the tattoos that may need to be whitewashed. He comes from a much more privileged background.
But on the field of play, my goodness he is a disrupter like Iverson. A creator. Someone whose motivation to win and heart can never be questioned on the field and who lays it all out on the line for his teammates. He leaves opponents in the dust with his scrambles like Iverson broke ankles with his crossover. Manziel is generously listed at 6′ 1″ like Iverson was at 6′ 0″–and Manziel, like Iverson, plays bigger than his listed height, especially because he has bigger hands than someone typically does at his height. He also, like Iverson, has a Texas-size swagger and gestures that drive opponents crazy.
Coming into the season, Manziel faced so many distractions from his alleged drinking and partying that may have gotten him kicked out of the Manning Passing Academy to autograph scandals. His off-the-field stories made Alabama’s quest for a three-peat an afterthought. But when he gets on the field, which must be the closest thing he has to a sanctuary since he became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy last year, Manziel just, like Iverson did, blocks out all the distractions and just plays ball, which is what he did in a sophomore season in which he may have arguably been better than he was during his Heisman-winning campaign.
Most importantly, he is “box office.” Must-see TV. And someone people will pay their hard-earned money to watch live in an age when NFL teams are thinking of even more creative ways to draw people to the stadium. He is the poster boy for the age of reality TV and social media like Iverson was for the hip-hop generation.
In his signature moment on Monday that still has the college football world abuzz, Johnny Football was being Johnny Football when he may have even outdone himself. With his team trailing by three touchdown, there he was, hurdling into a defender, escaping, and then scrambling to buy himself time to find an open teammate for a touchdown pass.
After the game, Manziel was asked to describe how he pulled the play off.
“I don’t know,” he said. Neither does anyone else.
And that’s why he’s good. That’s why he’s captivating and mesmerizing. And that’s why we watch. Because nobody–not even Manziel–knows what will happen next with Manziel in an era when everything feels so scripted.
This year, Manziel, who already could make NFL throws from sideline to sideline, has developed into a better pocket passer. He’s matured as a leader. And the fame that came after he won the Heisman may have prepared him to deal with the white-hot spotlight that will follow him around for most likely the rest of his life.
There were three specific instances in Texas A&M’s win over Duke that showed why Manziel will succeed at the next level and, was in many ways, reflective of his maturation process combined with a “Jeter-flip”-like instinct that cannot be taught and for which no game plan is available. You don’t bet against people like that. And you want them on your side.
First, the Manziel scramble that everyone is talking about even though they do not have the words to do so is remarkably more the norm than the exception.
Trailing by three touchdowns in a game he desperately wanted to win, Manziel leaped over a Duke defender on the line when the pocket collapsed, ran into his own lineman, escaped the pile–and then found Travis Labhart for a touchdown in a play that seemed to leave A&M and Duke players in disbelief on the field. Manziel has done things like that before–the scramble against Alabama that he turned into a touchdown last year when Alabama’s Vinnie Sunseri vacated his spot in the zone to try to recover what he thought was going to be a fumble. But this play was crazier and defied logic even more.
Second, in the fourth quarter, in a moment that made Manziel seem like a poor man’s Brett Favre, he hit a near 50-yard strike (officially 44 yards) to wide receiver Derrel Walker to bring the Aggies within three
That pass showed how much Manziel, who was already a pretty good pocket passer (see his performance in the second half against Alabama the last two years), had developed as a drop-back passer. He also made numerous throws from the pocket in the Duke game–outs to the sideline and lasers up the middle–that were “NFL throws.”
Third, Manziel showed he had the intangibles–being a leader on the field and deftly handling interviews–to succeed in the NFL.
Manziel was the team’s emotional and spiritual leader during the game. He implored his defense to “take it from them.” And they did, picking off Duke quarterback Anthony Boone twice in the fourth quarter–and returning one of those back for a touchdown–to seal the game. He reined in a frustrated Mike Evans after he took some boneheaded unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that cost Texas A&M. And after the game, Manziel was Tom Brady-like in his interviews. He’s grown, as can be seen in the post-game interview where he says all the right things about loving his coach and teammates and deflecting the question on whether he will enter the NFL Draft. He showed that he is ready to handle the “interview game” that is becoming an even more important part of the sports culture in an age of 24-hour media and social media.
Manziel will need to find a the right team, of course, that buys embraces his style of play instead of trying to shackle him into someone who he is not. But he’s a top-10 team, and someone teams may be willing to build their franchise and brand around–on and off the field, betting that the huge potential payoffs and and off the field outweigh the risks.