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Johnny Manziel leaves you wanting more in CFL debut

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Pirouetting out of the pocket as it crashes down at his heels, launching deep balls off his back foot into the outstretched arms of receivers, flashing his patented ‘Money’ sign.

The Johnny Football signatures that made him the most exciting player in college football and a first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns weren’t on full display on Friday night in Hamilton, Ontario. But in his Canadian Football League debut, Johnny Manziel’s performance provided hints that those staples could soon become standard north of the border.

Manziel finished with nine completions on 12 throws over 23 snaps for 80 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions in the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ preseason loss to the Toronto Argonauts at Tim Horton’s Field.

Here’s what he did in five drives behind starter Jeremiah Masoli:

Drive 1: Manziel’s first snaps were predictably simple. Three short, scripted throws yielded three completions, his most impressive play being an escape from the pocket to avoid the sack and a 12-yard pick-up on the scramble with a completion to Felix Faubert-Lussier. After starting 3-for-3, a short run forced a third down and Manziel was sacked, turning the ball over.

“I kept it real simple,” Ti-Cats coach June Jones said about the strategy for Manziel early.

Drive 2: Manziel’s second series was downright Browns-esque. A low snap forced a bobble and a hurried throw to the flat, where the receiver failed to corral a low pass. Then on second-and-long, Manziel found a receiver over the middle for a short gain, only to see him immediately fumble.

Two series, two turnovers for Manziel’s offense.

Drive 3: Manziel handed the ball off to run out the remaining seconds in the first half, only to realize that the Canadian Football League demands that a play is run to close out a quarter or half. So he kept the ball on an option and scampered to the sideline for an eight-yard pickup — while banking material for the post-game presser.

“I’m still learning a lot of these things up here. I was jogging into the locker room for halftime with zeroes on the clock. We got another play,” Manziel said, shaking his head.

Drive 4: Pressure found Manziel on first down and he was just able to get enough air under his throwaway to clear the chalk on a Canadian sideline (which is considerably further for panicked pivots). Manziel completed his next pass but it was short of the sticks.

Drive 5: Johnny Football’s last series was certainly his most interesting. He used 12 plays to march the Ti-Cats 62 yards, while eating almost 7:30 off the clock. His best completion came on the third play of the drive when he escaped the pocket and, as he put it, played a “two-man game” with a receiver that had broken off his route. His patience and a strong throw set the table for a 21-yard completion to Damarr Aultman, his longest of the night. Manziel picked up modest, but positive yardage on the next six plays, until (literally) running into trouble. Scrambling, Manziel ran backward on a diagonal away from a pass rusher, lengthening the field considerably. He turned and threw the ball to the sideline before the pressure arrived, but was called for intentional grounding after it was ruled that the ball didn’t reach the line of scrimmage. This, he didn’t agree with, calling it the “worst call of the century”. Manziel had another chance inside the red zone on third down but was tripped up by a shoestring, just as he was exiting the pocket.

“We had something there had I got out of that.”

Overall, Manziel turned in a positive performance in a sheltered introduction to Canadian football, and came away pleased with it himself.

“I was just going out and letting the ball rip.”

But while he showed flashes of how dangerous and effective he can be on the run in the CFL, he was often too eager to dart out of the pocket. And though he finished with a strong completion percentage and threw the ball away when he should have, finer precision would have gone a long way in avoiding the mistakes receivers made to stall Hamilton’s drives.

However, while he may not have completely shown it on the field, with one postgame press conference Manziel made it abundantly clear that he’s going to be of tremendous value to the CFL by just being Johnny Manziel, sports celebrity.

After a mid-season-level testy three-question newser with the incumbent starter Masoli (which abruptly ended with an inquiry about what he and Manziel spoke about on the field), Manziel was engaging, entertaining, intelligent, honest and discernibly upbeat about playing football again with his time at the podium.

In addition to openly questioning the ruling on his intentional grounding and showing a little self-deprecation over not understanding the quirks of the CFL rulebook, Manziel mentioned Hamilton’s rivalry with the Argonauts and the interactions that come with it and how much he’s enjoyed being a part of team again.

Then he dropped the mic, insisting that no one will use his name to elevate their own.

“Listen, I’m not here to be pushed over. You can come at me because my name is in the papers and because it’s on TV,” he said. “You can come at me. But I’m not backing down. I’m here for a reason. I’m here to play ball.

“I’m not going to be treated like s–t.”

Hamilton will play its second preseason game next weekend in Montreal.

Date’s already circled.