AUSTIN, Texas – If Johnny Manziel’s return to football was anything Saturday night, it was very cold, very sparsely attended (by his standards, anyway) and a much humbler spotlight than he has seen in many years.
But even after sitting out of football for 832 days, the flickers of what made Money Manziel a headlining college football attraction were still there. From a sandlot touchdown that seemed to come straight out of his Texas A&M heyday, to the something-from-nothing scrambling, to the occasional trash talking, there was a distinct residue of Manziel’s best qualities. It was enough to draw in over 2,000 fans on an unseasonably frigid 40-degree afternoon in Austin, many wearing some kind of Aggies gear. And enough to crash the Bleacher Report live stream, which suffered a sudden collapse under an online crush of fans logging in to watch a feed of Saturday’s Spring League scouting game.
The reality of where Manziel finds himself is unmistakable. He is attempting a resurrection with two huge questions weighing on him: What is left of his game, and can the remainder of his skills take him back to the NFL?
As he walked off the field at Kelly Reeves Stadium – which serves four Austin high schools – the answer to those questions, and to what the NFL needs to see, seemed no closer than a neighboring solar system.
“I think [the message] comes with just my everyday behavior,” Manziel said after going 9-for-15 for 82 yards and a touchdown in an 11-7 South team loss to the North squad. “Being around these guys, being in the locker room again, this has my first real taste of going to meetings, being there early, staying and watching film with the guys after. …
“I can’t control what’s going on and I don’t know what’s going on in NFL locker rooms or NFL meetings. If that’s the case – if the NFL is something that pops up, cool. If it’s not, I’m going to work until I get back there. We’ll see how things play out. I can’t really tell right now.”
Nobody can. But eight NFL teams were on hand Saturday night, albeit in clandestine fashion as observers weren’t wearing the typical franchise gear that makes it obvious which eyes are watching from the sideline or press box. Including the first week of Spring League practice, 17 teams have seen Manziel in some form this week. And after next week’s slate of practices, that number is expected to swell to above 20.
Exactly how real the interest is remains to be seen. It was notable that Manziel’s publicist was on hand Saturday night, but not his agent, who couldn’t make the event. If there is some kind of hot-stove moment where teams are lining up to sign a player, the agent is front and center at an event like this. If it’s more of a wait-and-see process, then you get a situation like the one that presented itself, where it’s more important for someone to be there regulating statements than striking up a contract market.
In that sense, what happened Saturday night was an accurate depiction of where Manziel is at now. He’s far away from the NFL, scratching together whatever he can on the field, measuring his words off it, and simply trying to stay on his feet. On occasion, he’s going to flash the Money Manziel flair that made him so popular.
He’s going to roll to his right and manufacture a touchdown out of thin air, tucking a pass into the back of the end zone. That was his highlight of the night Saturday – coming in a mixed bag of sacks, fumbles, short completions and a potential game-winning drive that fell flat.
At the very least, Manziel was entertaining enough to keep several hundred fans deep into a meaningless game when temperatures had plummeted below 40 degrees. On his first day back in organized football in 832 days, he answered curiosity with some familiar moments. But he also looked as far away from the NFL stage as he ever has. Wherever he goes from here, the trek back to relevance began as humbly as it could have.
And above all, that might not be the worst thing for Johnny Manziel.