How Johnny Manziel's 'flair' changed pro day for future NFL quarterbacks

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·NFL columnist
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  • Johnny Manziel
    Johnny Manziel

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Uncut hip-hop tracks cascaded onto the field, well within earshot of a former U.S. president and first lady. Cameras whirred in a packed end zone. A standing room only audience crowded the boundaries for 100 yards on each side of the field. By the time a train whistle blared late into Johnny Manziel's pro day on Thursday, it was feasible that a Coors Lite commercial was about to smash through a practice field wall.

This is the theme park of Johnny Football. You won't leave without being thoroughly entertained.

"Johnny does things a little differently," Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith said with a smile. "… They do things a little differently in Texas."

Smith meant that in the best possible sense. He enjoyed the spectacle of it, which wasn't so much grandiose as stylistic, with the flavor that Manziel brings everywhere he goes. As much as NFL coaches and personnel men were pleased with Manziel's football display, they spent almost as much time talking about all the things they'd never seen happen in a pro day workout. Whether it was the attendance of former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, or the music, or the fact that Manziel threw in full upper-body padding, this was another reminder of the glitz that follows Manziel.

And as if setting the table, the former Texas A&M star kicked it off by gathering the NFL types together and thanking them for showing up, something no one could recall happening prior to Manziel.

All of this is notable because it lended to one of the most hyped and well attended pro days in NFL history. Something that has run somewhat contrary to the designs of Manziel's marketing camp of LRMR and Maverick Carter (who also advises LeBron James). The marketing team has been trying to dial back Manziel's media volume heading into the draft, hoping to avoid overexposure and make the process more about football, sources told Yahoo Sports. Manziel himself often repeated how "serious" he is taking the transition to being a professional, undoubtedly an effort to combat a highly social life in college that will resonate in the NFL vetting process.

But plenty of the football preparation came through Thursday, which was accompanied by familiar superlatives that grace high-level quarterback workouts. Many of the eight NFL head coaches in attendance – and several of the dozens of front-office veterans – rattled off the stock compliments. They gushed about Manziel looking good, completing 63 of his 65 throws, most of the work coming from inside the pocket, a skill that remains the primary question of teams looking at him. They praised his athleticism, leadership and pace, and that he made the choice to throw in a helmet and in pads. But at the end of the day, they all reiterated what everyone should know about pro day workouts: they're an important but small piece of the puzzle that will ultimately take a backseat to private workouts and interviews.

"Not for nothing, but we're throwing on air and chasing him with brooms [to simulate a pass rush]," said Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien, who missed a Catholic mass reading by his youngest son so he could attend the workout. "I understand the drills. But there's not a real rush here. There's no [defensive backs]. To me, now it's about, OK, now we get another chance; we met him at the combine, now we get another chance to sit down with him."

That's the important element that starts now with Manziel and the quarterbacks he's jockeying with for first-round real estate – UCF's Blake Bortles and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater. Most in attendance Thursday seemed to agree that this quarterback class has yet to develop a clear shelf at the top, leaving room for someone to separate from the pack. Interviews and private coaching is likely to create that space.

"I do think it's more of an even [quarterback] class," Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. "I really do."

All of which might explain Thursday, when Manziel made the scripted throws as expected, but threw in some twists by doing a few things that he didn't have to do. Gathering and speaking to the NFL attendees at the start was a tweak. As was the shoulder pads and helmet, which will likely be overblown, but was seen as a nice gesture that Manziel is willing to make things at least fractionally more difficult for himself than necessary. Nobody had done it before, now Manziel has opened the doors for NFL types to expect such added difficulty in the future. And make no mistake, teams love that. Even if they downplay it.

Manziel's accomplished passing coach, George Whitfield, said the willingness to wear pads was actually born well in advance of the workout, when he and Manziel shared a meal two weeks before the NFL scouting combine.

"His question was, 'What do [NFL teams] respect?'" Whitfield said.

"… I told him it was the challenge. People respect a challenge. They want a challenging workout. They want to see a hard-driving pace.

"He said, 'So what more could we do?'

I told him, 'Make it more like an interview. If you're going to Wall Street, you wouldn't wear a T-shirt and shorts. You'd put a suit on.'

"He grinned for maybe a minute, finished his sandwich, and he goes 'Well, that's what we're gonna do.' "

While it won't make or break him, it delivered something different than anyone before Manziel. And some of that will stick on draft day. Some of it will become part of the equation – some of the added flair – of his résumé.

"You said Johnny had a little flair. Johnny has a little flair," Smith said to a reporter. "… That's what you want in your quarterback. Some positions, some guys can blend in with the group. The quarterback can't blend in with the group. You want a guy that's ready to take center stage."

By all accounts, Manziel is already there. Where he takes that stage now will be the story of this draft.