Johnny Manziel played 27 snaps in his first preseason action for the Cleveland Browns and earned a +0.4 PFF grade overall, but what exactly does that mean? Ostensibly it means his performance was marginally above average, but the first action for rookies in the preseason is often not about the net of their play-by-play grades but about flashing ability and letting the league know that they belong at this level.
In all honesty, PFF grades can be something of a blunt tool over so small a sample size. Had Manziel ended up with the same grade over 1,000 snaps of the regular season that would mean something entirely different and significant, but over just 27 snaps it could mean one bad decision torpedoed his grade or one fantastic play rescued an inauspicious outing. So let’s take a closer look at the first game action from ‘Johnny Football’.
Manziel came into the game with 7:32 left in the second quarter and the first thing we need to do is give credit to the Cleveland play calling for setting him up with a nice pitch to settle him in. His first play was a quick one-read, three-step pass that he hit in stride for a gain of 6 yards. This is a routine throw for a quarterback, it’s backyard pitch and catch, but it gets him into the rhythm of the game right from the outset, and sets the team up ahead of the chains. In short, it’s just smart coaching.
The next play was a run up the middle for three yards that set up 3rd-and-1 on his opening drive. The first drive from Manziel came entirely from the pistol formation, a marked departure from the first team offense Brian Hoyer was running.
48.1% of Manziel’s snaps came from the pistol while Hoyer appeared in that formation just three times despite playing only two fewer snaps. Hoyer ran a far more conventional ‘pro-style’ offense, lining up under center for 60% of his snaps. Johnny Football was under center just seven times (25.9%), and when he did it was often just to give him the ability to roll out after a play-action fake.
This is another positive sign from the coaching staff, tailoring the offense to Manziel’s strengths; athleticism and comfort playing from the shotgun/pistol.
On 3rd-and-1 in that opening drive the Browns broke out their first play designed to exploit that athleticism. They showed option mechanics with Manziel reading the attack of the strongside linebacker to the left of the formation. He made the correct read, with Kyle Van Noy crashing inside, but his TE Gary Barnidge did a poor job of even slowing down the defender and Manziel was forced deep and wide to avoid him, blowing the play up.
So that first drive went three and out, but there was some Johnny Football magic to come later. His second drive was full of running plays and we didn’t get to see much from Manziel other than an 8-yard run on another option play, but his third drive saw him open up his arm a little hitting Taylor Gabriel for a 14-yard gain on an in-breaking route that beat the coverage and moved the chains.
An incompletion later in that drive brought up 3rd-and-8 which saw Manziel get quick pressure in the pocket. He burst through the middle, breaking through the arm of a defensive lineman on his way to a 16-yard gain before, crucially, sliding rather than taking an unnecessary hit in the open field.
The remainder of his snaps showed some positive and negative throws, but Manziel was overall very accurate, ending the game completing seven of his 11 attempts (63.6%) for 63 yards and though he couldn’t generate a touchdown, he did move the ball at times and more importantly demonstrated some legit NFL quarterback abilities.
This play is perhaps the most significant from his day’s work despite being on the face of it an insignificant 8-yard dump off to his running back.
After losing three yards on first down the Browns were in a passing situation facing 2nd-and-13. Manziel took the ball from the pistol and needed to work through to his third read before getting the ball away from a collapsing pocket, accurately hitting his running back in stride. This, in a nutshell, is what being quarterback at the NFL is all about. It’s often not about the flashy plays, the deep touchdown scores, but about working through the system to turn a potential negative play into a positive. If you can do that consistently then you will lead a productive offense and help your team win games.
Manziel could have tried to force a pass in to one of his first two reads. He could have waited longer to let somebody uncover. He could have tried to shake the pressure and make something happen with his legs. Instead he stayed within the system, located his dump off option and was able to get the ball to him despite bodies in the throwing lane.
It won’t make any highlight reels, but this is the play that should give Browns fans hope that Johnny Manziel can indeed be a viable and successful NFL quarterback. This is the play that shows he isn’t just lightning in a bottle, but has the quantifiable, textbook traits that NFL quarterbacks need.
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