Johnny Manziel's preseason debut was pure Johnny Football

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

DETROIT – Anthony Armstrong came off the field after catching the first pro pass from Johnny Manziel and reveled in the Johnny Drama.

“I’m immortalized!” the Cleveland wide receiver told teammates. “Going down in history!”

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Only Manziel can create such theater during a boring preseason game in Detroit. The delight of watching him play is in knowing there’s always another web to tangle, always another predicament. There he was, on only his third play from scrimmage in the second quarter, hopping outside of the pocket and running into three Lions. He was stuffed for no gain – the Road Runner getting caught by the Coyote – and the haters reveled.

Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) escapes diving Lions outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy (95) in the second half Saturday. (AP Photo)
Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) escapes diving Lions outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy (95) in the second half Saturday. (AP Photo)

But then there he was again in the third quarter, taking off on fourth-and-1, staring down oncoming linebacker Travis Lewis, and getting the first down by a whisper.

“It was short,” sniffed Lewis, who held up a fist after the play, indicating what he thought was a turnover on downs. Nope. Sorry. First down, Browns. More theater.

And after the game, even more intrigue: Nate Burleson, one of Cleveland’s top receivers, gave his honest opinion on whether this is a real quarterback standoff between Manziel and Brian Hoyer.

“I think it’s legitimate,” Burleson said. “There is hype there. There is hype in this battle. It’s legitimate. Two guys can be our starter.”

As for who would win the starter’s job, Burleson said: “It might be by a hair.”

Of course it will be by a hair, because everything is by a hair in Johnnyland. He seems to get into trouble immediately, on many plays if not most, and then there’s either the comeuppance or the daring escape. “Take away his first read,” said Lewis, “and he’ll start running.”

This, according to most football experts, is poor judgment. Quarterbacks who decide to run that quickly rarely succeed over the long term (or even the shorter term) in the NFL. Big hits threaten to put an end to a play and sometimes to a season. Lewis shares an agent with Manziel, and he sent a playful text to his representative before Saturday’s game that said, “I’ll try not to kill your boy.”

Lewis and the Lions, like all defenses that face Manziel, had their chances. There were several uh-oh moments for Manziel, and he survived with a move or a pass or a slide. He went 7 for 11 passing for 63 yards and rushed six times for 27 yards. He thrilled and frustrated pretty much everyone at one point or another.

“I’m fine,” he said after the game, answering a question about whether he can endure pro football with all that scrambling.

He is fine. Manziel always does what he needs to do to keep the chains and the conversation moving. He never convinces anyone that he’s going to remain out of a quandary – on the field or off it – yet he never stays out of harm’s way. He never makes exactly the wrong decision or exactly the right one.

The best example came on that fourth-and-1 play in the third quarter. Manziel rolled out and had an open target in fullback Ray Agnew. Pretty much any seasoned quarterback would simply lob the ball to the open man and enjoy the first-down conversion. Manziel did not. He tucked it and ran for his life. He barely made it.

His explanation for not throwing to Agnew after the game was utterly Johnny. He said the field ahead was “a little stacked” and so he “went through his progressions and exhausted all options.” Um, not really. He ran like his hair was on fire.

Johnny Manziel rushed for 27 yards on six attempts Saturday. (AP Photo)
Johnny Manziel rushed for 27 yards on six attempts Saturday. (AP Photo)

But that’s OK. He got the first down. He survived and advanced. That’s what he does. And until he consistently fails to do that, he’s got a real shot to lead the Browns as a rookie – maybe sometime during the season, maybe sooner than that. It’s easy to complain about his process, because his process is so haphazard, but it’s harder to complain about his results. And yes, that also applies to Manziel’s life off the field.

Manziel made it through the offseason, and made it through his first pro game. It was not perfect, and it was not pretty. But he wouldn’t be Johnny Football if he took two-step drops and found the nearest check-down. We all came into this game having little idea what to expect, and somehow we leave the game with less of an idea of what to expect. He could win the starter’s job; he could remain behind Hoyer. One report said he’ll start the Browns’ next preseason game, and head coach Mike Pettine refuted that. What would it mean if he does start a preseason game? Nothing … unless he does.

On Saturday night, in an otherwise forgettable preseason contest, Manziel didn’t do terrific and he didn’t do terrible. He did what he always does: just enough.

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