That’s the word Johnny Manziel’s agent used to describe the Montreal Alouettes’ decision to name his client as its starting quarterback for Week 8 of the CFL schedule.
“If you saw what he was doing in practice and the way he (commands the group), not only on the field but off the field, and how the guys are responding to him, I think it would be natural to think that he should be playing,” Als offensive coordinator Khari Jones countered in an interview with theScore.
“I understand the concern, I understand all of that, but I think (head coach Mike) Sherman is correct in thinking that he’s ready to go.”
The difference of opinion between agent and team is a window into the polarizing commentary preceding Manziel’s first regular-season snap. Everybody – football insiders, media, fans – seems to have an opinion. Few, however, can offer insightful football advice to the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner.
Jones, a former longtime CFL quarterback, is certainly qualified to give guidance. Hall of Famers Damon Allen and Matt Dunigan are, too, and theScore spoke to all three this week to discuss Manziel’s debut.
Consider the following a cheat sheet for Manziel as the 25-year-old takes a giant step forward during his so-called Comeback Szn.
Channel your inner Johnny Football
Above all, the experts say, the “very excited” but “not nervous” Manziel must fall back on his natural abilities Friday at Percival Molson Stadium.
“If you watch any of his video highlights from wherever he played – whether it was in the NFL in Cleveland, whether it was for Texas A&M, whether it was in high school – he brings a lot of creativity and athleticism to the table,” said Dunigan, now an analyst for TSN.
“He’ll be working with a small package, a limited package of offensive plays that he’s familiar with, and with a very limited understanding of the CFL game because he’s only been here for a short period of time.”
Manziel, the key name in a seven-player trade between the 2-4 Hamilton Tiger-Cats and 1-5 Alouettes on July 22, has been around the league for months, not years. After settling a contract dispute, the 2014 NFL first-rounder watched five Ticats games from the sideline before doing the same last week during the Als’ loss to the Edmonton Eskimos.
Practice and exhibition games have provided the 6-foot, 210-pounder with his only Canadian reps.
“Calmness,” Allen said when asked for a takeaway from Manziel’s one-touchdown, 21-for-37 showing over two preseason games. “It was his ability to buy time and still throw on the run.”
Toss in a smile and that competitive drive, and you have vintage Johnny Football.
Allen points out coaching can be incestuous across the nine-team, three-down league, with sometimes as many as half the clubs running identical or similar plays. Theoretically, then, Manziel’s inexperience with the Als’ playbook – only 12 days will pass between the trade and his debut – does not guarantee failure, especially since his skill set suits the pass-happy CFL. Plus, the Als are facing Manziel’s former club on Friday.
“The difference in all of the teams is the terminology,” said Allen, one of the greatest QBs in league history. “Really, they’re the same route combinations and the (Ticats) defense isn’t changing. It’s just a matter of getting comfortable with the terminology and going from there.”
If Dunigan were running the Als, he’d advise Manziel to “trust your eyes, have fun, and pull the trigger. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.” Similar sentiments have been stressed internally during the lead-up to the Tyler, Texas native’s first pro start since Dec. 2015.
“I think, the biggest thing is, he doesn’t have to carry this team and he doesn’t have to do anything other than the things he knows how to do,” Jones said. “I want him to just go out and enjoy himself, and have fun playing football. That’s the key.
“One of the things that people love about Johnny, and how plays the game, is that he plays it with a joy that you don’t often see.”
Embrace the (flawed) environment
On Friday, Manziel will become the 14th QB to start a game for the Als since franchise legend Anthony Calvillo hung up his cleats in Jan. 2014. This season alone he’ll be the club’s fifth starting pivot over just seven games.
It’s a messy situation, but Manziel has the on-field knowledge, mined from a decade living under the microscope and 15 games with the Browns, to compartmentalize this latest challenge as crucial to reaching the top of the mountain again, yet minor compared to previous pressure-filled environments he’s faced.
“He’s been in bigger situations than starting for the Montreal Alouettes after four days of prep. This won’t be too big for him,” Dunigan said. “But, I’m not just concerned he won’t have enough ammunition at his disposal, I’m afraid that he could be set up for failure.”
Montreal is the league’s lowest-scoring team, having accumulated only 92 points in six games, and there is no overnight fix. Easing in Manziel – who has become better known for his laundry list of off-field issues rather than playing football – by giving him the odd series as a backup, and getting him more comfortable with the playbook, his receivers, running backs, and offensive linemen in practice, would have been the safest approach.
Throwing him into the fire against his old teammates is a whole different animal.
“If you can’t get up for this game, I don’t know if he can get up,” Allen said, laughing. “I know I would be motivated. … I guess we’re all going to see what the hype is about.”
The starting role, snatched from Vernon Adams Jr. amid “we want Johnny!” chants, is basically Manziel’s to lose. The Als have stated repeatedly this week they expect Manziel to go through growing pains. Gaffes are expected by both Manziel – “there’s going to be some mistakes made, that’s just the facts of this,” he told reporters, according to The Associated Press – and the coaching staff.
“We don’t want to put any more undue pressure on him. Everybody in the world is talking about him,” said Jones, whose boss, Sherman, coached Manziel at the NCAA level.
“Fortunately for him, he had that in college and in the NFL, so he’s used to that kind of hype. I don’t think that’s affecting him, and now it’s about going out and playing every play. Regardless of what happens, he’ll be fine. He has the ability, and that’s the biggest thing.”
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)