It’s never just football when the subject is Johnny Manziel, not with the Cleveland Browns, not at Texas A&M.
With Manziel come the distractions involving his behavior and lack of accountability. The latest was a video of him partying in Texas during an off week last month after assuring the Browns he wouldn’t party after being named the starter.
But the Chiefs don’t care about that. That’s Cleveland’s problem. Kansas City’s problem is scheming to defend a talented and mobile quarterback whose improved performances this season are mindful of his “Johnny Football” days in college.
Manziel showed poise in last week’s loss at Seattle. He threw for 372 yards earlier in the season against the Steelers. He clearly has the Chiefs’ attention, and not for the off-field headlines.
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“He’s a heck of an athlete,” Chiefs linebacker Frank Zombo said. “The way he can throw on the run is really spectacular, and it’s up to us to keep him out of his element.”
Zombo could find himself chasing Manziel at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. Starter Tamba Hali suffered a broken thumb at Baltimore last weekend and had surgery. He hasn’t been ruled out this weekend, but Zombo said he’s ready to assume a starting role.
If that happens, the Chiefs would be without their outside linebackers who were voted to the Pro Bowl roster this week. Justin Houston is expected to miss the game while recovering from a hyperextended knee.
The dual-threat Manziel will test whoever plays the edge for the Chiefs.
“He’s a unique guy,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “One, he’s got a great arm. Some of the throws he can make when running to his right or his left and back across the field, not a lot of people can do that.”
That’s not all.
“His ability to move in the pocket, to escape,” Sutton said. “That’s the hardest part of defending him because he breaks down a defense the way he can extend … so the pressure on the defense is really intense. You have to keep playing.”
Nobody was quite sure how the skills that carried him to the 2012 Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M — the first freshman to win college football’s most prestigious award — would translate into the NFL. The Browns made Manziel the 22nd overall selection in the 2014 draft and hoped he’d left his off-field antics behind. They were disappointed and his rookie season, which included two starts late in the season, was a waste.
This year has been different, Browns left tackle and Pro Bowl regular Joe Thomas said earlier this week.
“What I’ve noticed is his sense of urgency this season,” Thomas said. “I think he understood that his rookie year was so abysmal and the level of commitment he showed in his rookie year was insufficient for an NFL quarterback.”
On a conference call with reporters who cover the Chiefs earlier this week, Manziel sounded like a player ready to create a new reality for himself.
“I have a certain perception that I’ve built over the past couple of years, not making great decisions and being young and dumb at times, one I’m probably not proud of and wish, if I could go back, I could go back and change a lot of things,” Manziel said.
“Over the course of this past year, I’ve been in a position here and in this building and coming here every day to do the right things and show that I’m in here to work and that this is my job and I take it seriously. I think that the guys who are around me have seen that.”
What the Chiefs see is a threat to their march to the playoffs. A 9-5 record built on an eight-game winning streak has not guaranteed the Chiefs a postseason spot. They need to win Sunday and have a loss from either the Jets or Steelers to make playoff plans.
They’ll have to defeat a team with a quarterback who is showing signs of living up to his promise.