The ruby slippers are on, and they're clicking. No place like home. No place like Texas. No place like the Dallas Cowboys, where the spotlight is blinding and the tolerance for drama is beyond compare.
The league's hip-shootin', spotlight-devouring franchise is now the chief desired destination of two of the NFL's biggest … well … choose your preferred descriptor: Disappointments? Bargains? Reclamation projects?
At this point, Manziel and RG3 could fit snugly inside any one of those titles. And sources close to both are saying some very similar things about each quarterback and the Cowboys. Chiefly that each player would love to end up in Dallas, and that there is a real possibility (or hope) that team owner Jerry Jones will make that dream happen.
So two Texas guys want to come home and both have their hopes pinned on regrouping in the same house. It's not big enough for both, but that doesn't automatically mean it's suitable for even one of them, either. That's the intriguing bit of analysis awaiting the Cowboys, who have to figure out if the future dividends of these once-elite draft picks might be worth potential headaches in the interim. Or moreover, determining if there are any dividends to be had at all.
It will be one of the more interesting dramas of this offseason, when Manziel and Griffin are expected to become available, Manziel via trade or release by a new Cleveland Browns regime, and RG3 via a salary dump by the Washington Redskins. That each is aiming for the Cowboys is not a sudden revelation. Sources close to each player have maintained since the beginning of last offseason that if either was cut loose from his franchise, there was a belief that Jones would be interested. That remains to be seen. Regardless, the same sources have told Yahoo Sports that both Manziel and Griffin have Dallas atop their preferred destinations should they become available.
Of course, Jones stoked a great deal of those aspirations. He rarely hid his interest in Manziel in the run-up to the 2014 NFL draft, and if left completely to his own personnel vices, Manziel would be a Cowboy now. But while Manziel had Jones spellbound in the past, there was some overt winking at RG3, too. You don't have to look far – barely a year ago, actually – to find Jones enthusiastically talking up Griffin's talent.
"I'm a fan of RG3" Jones told NFL Network in November of 2014. "Right on this [Dallas] field two years ago, or maybe it was three seasons ago, he put on a show and had a great game that just floored me. And [the Redskins] won – and they won in large part because of his play at quarterback. I thought, 'My goodness, we're going to have to be playing this guy for years and years.' So he's got it. … Once you see a player do it, especially if you see him do it two or three times, you know he can do it. And of course he's a driven young man. I'm a big admirer of RG3."
Opinions can change, of course. And if they were going to in Dallas, there was plenty of ammunition to make that happen. Griffin's relationship with his head coach and parts of the executive branch in Washington cratered. The leaks of a "diva" attitude and inability to function in both a locker room and a pro-style offense intensified. Whether it was propaganda or reality, it hurt the perception of Griffin across the league. And Manziel? Well, at this stage he has raised more red flags than a Chinese military parade. His on-field performance showed progress. But off the field, his stubborn indulgence in partying – a blonde wig became a talking point about Manziel this week – has been troubling and his effort to deceive his franchise about his behavior has bordered on pathological.
Part of that is what makes it easier to look at San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and see him as a better option for a ground-up rebuild in Dallas (should he become available). Kaepernick has a bigger frame than either Manziel or Griffin. He has elite arm strength. He has had more starting experience and also had success in bigger games. And for a time in his career, he showed significant growth in his game. That's a lot of ammunition for a Kaepernick argument.
But when an owner or front office truly loves a quarterback as he enters the draft, that franchise is often among the first suitors to step up when the player fails and is cut loose a few years later. It's a streamlined part of personnel arrogance that exists in many NFL franchises. The smartest guys in the room, whether it's an owner, general manager or head coach, can love a guy, watch him crash and burn, and still preach with complete confidence, "They screwed him up. They had a bad plan in place. We would have done it better."
Pair that unblinking confidence with a cheap price tag, and it's easy to see how a player like Manziel or Griffin will get other opportunities. It's the NFL's version of an open-box item at a high-end retailer – the discounted gadget with all the bells and whistles can be yours, so long as you can stomach a few scratches and the reality that someone else used it first. It's part of the reason why guys like Jeff George, Daunte Culpepper and David Carr each played for at least four different teams.
And it's why Jones' son Stephen, the Cowboys' director of player personnel and a voice of reason inside the franchise, reacted in similar fashion during a radio interview when he was asked a question that could be applied to either Manziel or Griffin.
Here's the context of the exchange:
Q: "What's the organization's look – after having the experience with [quarterback] Brandon Weeden – on other players who kind of match that profile; [players who] were first-round picks and now they're finding their way out onto the market. Are you averse to that? Do you think there's value in there? Or do you feel like maybe that it's too risky or not a good enough chance for a payoff on that strategy?"
Stephen Jones: "You can't just say because one situation didn't work out, it doesn't mean another one won't. [Offensive tackle] Marc Colombo was a first-round pick with the [Chicago] Bears and he went on and had a great career here for the Cowboys. Every situation is different. We'll continue to evaluate people that we had on our draft board high and had reason to believe that they could be good players. The [previous] situation may have been that it just wasn't the right situation for that particular player. We'll continue to go down the road of looking at players that we had high on our draft board that didn't work out for other teams."
Manziel and Griffin both fit into that box. But that doesn't guarantee the Cowboys will be hot on either player's trail. Manziel has proven he is selfish, immature, dishonest and tethered to deep-rooted vices. He's short for his position. He hasn't had a great deal of opportunity to show what he's capable of on the football field (partially because of his own undoing). Griffin hasn't been durable. He allegedly wore out two coaches and lost his locker room and many teammates. He's been labeled as a loner and an awkward leader.
To put it mildly in the words of Stephen Jones, the current situation has most certainly not been the right situation for either player.
But there is also this: the Cowboys desperately need a backup quarterback with the right mixture of youth and experience. And if a high draft pick isn't going to be dispensed on Tony Romo's heir apparent, then the franchise needs either a top-flight veteran who has proven his worth or a younger player who has room to grow within the system. In 2015, they had neither. And that cannot happen again.
At the very least, both Manziel and Griffin meet some of the criteria Dallas will be seeking. Each has been admired at one time or another by scouting elements in the building. Each is still young. Each has starting experience. And each has shown skills that suggests potential to either reset their game or mature beyond their struggles. And lest we forget, the recruitment of either player was over before it started. Both already want to be a Dallas Cowboy. They want that star on their helmet. They want that spotlight, for better or worse.
That latter point is where this challenge begins for Dallas. Can a change be a pivotal part of what makes Johnny Manziel or Robert Griffin III better? Or will giving one of them what they want – a home in Dallas – just take an already bad career track and steer it into something much worse.