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CLEVELAND – It was just one game. That's what everyone kept saying here after the much-hyped first NFL start for Johnny Manziel ended with a scoreboard reading Cincinnati 30-0. The Cleveland quarterback finished with two picks, three sacks taken, no touchdowns and little promise.
It was just one game, and you can't write off a career in just one game. That's what everyone kept saying. How about three games, though?
Manziel is going to remain the starter now that Cleveland's playoff hopes are all but over. If he shows as little at Carolina and Baltimore as he showed here Sunday, can the Browns then make a clear evaluation of what they traded up to draft in the first round?
"Yeah, you'll be able to tell," coach Mike Pettine said. "I see your point [about] not having a full season, but three games, plus the experience he got [coming off the bench] in Buffalo, I think, will be a decent sample. It's not obviously as big of a sample size [as] we could have, but it's a good amount."
So Johnny Manziel is officially back on the clock, and unlike draft night in May, an alpha-dog text to a Browns assistant about wanting to "wreck this league together" isn't going to do much to sway emotions now.
He's going to have to deliver at least a little bit or this could break bad in a hurry.
Sunday's effort wasn't all Manziel's fault. Not even close. The entire team owns this disaster.
The defense couldn't get off the field and put the team in an early hole as the Bengals' ground game dominated time of possession. Wide receivers dropped a couple of catchable passes. The running game was pointless, with just 40 yards gained by the backs. Pass protection was porous. Still, this is the NFL. The quarterback gets too much credit and too much blame.
Despite going up-tempo to utilize Manziel's skills, the Browns gained just 107 total yards and ran a meager 38 total plays, lowest in the NFL this season. Just five of them were in Bengals territory and just one in the red zone in which Manziel promptly threw a terrible interception. He finished 10-for-18 for 80 yards passing and with 13 rushing yards on five carries.
"We didn't play complimentary football," Pettine said. "When you're not running well, you've got longer yardage. When you're trailing, you've got to throw it more. To me, it's more a function of the team than the individual."
Manziel "didn't play well," Pettine said. "Looked like a rookie, played like a rookie. …He made some obvious mistakes that typically a veteran quarterback won't make."
Pettine went on to say Manziel looked indecisive "a couple of times" and suggested some of the plays where he was most natural, using his agility to scramble, may have been the byproduct of poor decision-making.
"Some, it just didn't need to happen," Pettine said. "I know that's what he does and that's what you fall back on very quickly, but there were plays that were there where [he has to] make a decision, make a read, throw it and we're on to the next play."
The more Pettine talked, the less it felt like just one game.
Manziel said he wasn't confident enough at times to just throw it when he saw an opening. Other times, he said he tried to make a play where one wasn't. A particularly ugly pick he declared, "You can't throw … whether you're playing in a Pop Warner league or if you're 6 years old playing in the driveway."
There were other concerning plays. The couple times he completely misread the read option, he was maybe surprised by the speed of an NFL defender. Or the pass that was blocked, a reminder that Bengals coach Marvin Lewis mocked his (listed) height of 6 feet.
It was just one game, his teammates repeated in quiet tones across the losing locker room. And yet as much as everyone took blame, or tried to focus on the offensive line errors, it was abundantly clear that everyone is going to be watching the rest of the season hoping for more, hoping for better too. This wasn't the Manziel they were expecting either.
"Everything was on point at practice," wide receiver Josh Gordon said. "Everything was smooth at practice. You get out there and thrown to the fire. …It's not going to look like practice."
"We just didn't execute," offensive lineman Joe Thomas said. "We have to execute the plays that are called. …I mean, if you don't execute and don't run the plays the right way, we're not going to do much on offense."
There's a downside to Manziel, too. The hype he brings to the game, based off his exciting play at Texas A&M and bold off-field personality, clearly drew the focus of the Cincinnati defense. Just about every single big play saw another jacked-up Bengals defender mocking Johnny with his "money" hand gesture.
About the only positive was when linebacker Rey Maualuga went too far and got flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The 15 yards represented the Browns' second-longest gain of the game.
"Johnny Manziel's going to do this, do that," Maualuga said. "The whole hype was on him and what he was going to do to this defense. …It felt good to not let them score any points."
Cincinnati, now 9-4-1, avenged a 24-3 drubbing to Cleveland earlier in the season and now moves forward in playoff contention.
Cleveland will spend the season evaluating the quarterback position. Again.
"I'm not using the rookie excuse," Manziel said. "[That's] not me. Yeah, I'm a rookie but that's out the window. I need to play better. I felt comfortable coming into today, that I was absolutely prepared for today. Being out there, I never felt overwhelmed or that it was too much for me."
For the Browns, that is either reassuring or terrifying.
"I need to see the tape," Pettine said.
For Manziel, that is either reassuring or terrifying.
In the end, the day of great promise, the hope that caused so much buzz to ripple across downtown pregame, ended with a nearly empty stadium, ended with another lost game, another lost season, ended with more questions and concerns than answers and expectations. This was supposed to be the start of something. Sixty minutes later it felt familiar.
Manziel could only throw a bag over his shoulder and some headphones on his ears and walk out of the locker room quietly. He posed for a picture with a fan, a member of the military. Others screamed for his autograph no matter the performance. He just trudged on, looking desperate to get out of here, get to next week.
He needs to make sure this was just one game.