Can Johnny Manziel Still Be Johnny Football?
At some point this weekend, in a location that remains undisclosed to the public, a quarterback named Johnny Manziel walked out of a drug and alcohol rehab facility. He was there for roughly 10 weeks, according to reports from ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler and others; what substance he was there to rehabilitate from is also unknown, as is the path Manziel’s career takes from this point forward.
Do you remember Johnny Manziel? Do you recall when he fomented the legend of Johnny Football, when he finished off what still remains the signature highlight of the decade in the college game, when he flummoxed an otherwise staid and impenetrable Alabama defense by improvising virtually everything on the fly? Do you remember when Johnny Football was a force of nature, a kid who so fully embraced the mega-wattage of his celebrity – and all the parties that came along with it – that he transformed into a source of generational Hot Take discord?
All that feels like eons ago, what with the way the modern media cycle tends to chew up celebrity and spit it out. Last year, Manziel went to Cleveland, and he played only briefly and badly, and in the offseason the Browns signed a quarterback named Josh McCown to a three-year, $14 million contract, which didn’t exactly bode well for their confidence in Manziel.
It’s possible that Manziel is one of those players who peaked in college. It’s possible that his game is too singularly improvisational for the regimented game plans that NFL coaches seem to demand. At Texas A&M, Manziel’s genius was in his ability to diverge from the norm, but now that he’s in the real world, he can’t do that anymore, and this is where it gets complicated, because the way Manziel acted off the field – as if he didn’t give a shit about propriety, as if he leapt straight out of North Dallas Forty – seemed to dovetail with the way he played on the field.
That, of course, can’t be the case anymore, at least not if Manziel was serious about rehab. But it made me think of something the boxing trainer Freddie Roach told me a few weeks ago, when I asked him about his fighter, Manny Pacquiao, getting clean and finding Christianity: Roach worried that Pacquiao would lose his edge. He worried that Pacquiao might have nothing to prove, nothing left to fight for. In the end, Pacquiao was able to unearth his own motivations; in the end, he still remained a top-tier boxer. But I wonder if Manziel will have to reinvent himself in a similar way.
This is not a bad thing, of course. This only seems like a good omen for Johnny Manziel as a human being. But his identity was so deeply tied into his off-field persona that I hope he doesn’t lose that sense of defiance and rebelliousness on the field. I still hope Manziel succeeds in the NFL, because he remains the most thrilling college quarterback I’ve ever watched; but I want him to succeed on his own terms, as Johnny Football, as the thrill-a-minute guy who somehow reconciles the notion of living on the edge on a football field, while simultaneously finding a more sensible existence off of it.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb