The thing Johnny Manziel had going for him is the same thing that worked against him, which is that he never seemed to adhere to football’s enduring sense of order.
There was an organic correlation between the way he played football and the way he lived, fast and free and unfettered, and this is what rendered him a cultural phenomenon – this is what made him Johnny Fucking Football (JFF) – in the first place, and this is why it always felt as if Manziel was consistently on the verge of either revolutionizing the quarterback position or flaming out under the burgeoning weight of his own celebrity.
It’s all there in plain sight: The hints, the cues, the very public sentiment that Manziel has been living on a knife’s edge for years. The thought among those of us who observed him from the outside was that he was just a kid, that the moralists needed to lighten up, that eventually he would find himself and mature. But the sentiments among those who knew him best hinted at a darker possibility: That Manziel’s troubles were about something far deeper than mere youthfulness. That they were buttressed by addiction and pain and an underlying anger that could not be sated.
“Yeah,” Manziel’s father Paul told ESPN the Magazine‘s Wright Thompson back in 2013. “It could come unraveled. And when it does, it’s gonna be bad. Real bad…It’s one night away from the phone ringing and he’s in jail. And you know what he’s gonna say? ‘It’s better than all the pressure I’ve been under. This is better than that.'”
Nearly three years on, that dark prophecy is on the verge of being fulfilled. The affidavit a woman named Colleen Crowley filed against him is replete with horrifying allegations: Manziel, says Crowley (a former girlfriend), slapped her so hard in the ear that she temporarily lost her hearing. He followed that up by reportedly threatening to kill them both. The picture Crowley paints of an erratic and potentially suicidal and overtly threatening Manziel is the exact thing Manziel’s father fretted about back before Manziel left Texas A&M and got drafted in Cleveland and went through a rehab program; it is the exact same thing Paul Manziel fretted about recently, when he wondered if his son might wind up dead before his 24th birthday.
It may still not be too late for Johnny Manziel to get his shit together, but if it’s not dark yet, it’s getting there. His agent terminated their partnership; his father appears unable to get him back into rehab. Manziel keeps insisting he’s totally fine – or at least well enough to retweet Charlie Sheen – and he has certain high-profile friends standing up for him, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to trust those voices given the extremes of Manziel’s behavior. ESPN reported this week that Dallas police have surveillance video of the incident at the Hotel ZaZa that prompted Crowley’s complaint. Police are still putting the case together and haven’t decided whether to charge Manziel yet, but if the video is as bad as Crowley purports it to be – if Manziel winds up facing charges – it could render him radioactive enough that his NFL career may at least wind up (deservedly so, if he’s found guilty) on extended hiatus, if not dead altogether.
Manziel is due to be released by the Browns in March, and even if the investigation in Dallas wasn’t looming, there are questions about his commitment to sobriety and his overarching nonchalance toward the situation he’s in (he recently showed up at former Texas A&M teammate Mike Evans’ wedding). Beyond that, there is the question of whether Manziel’s skills translate to the NFL – whether a quarterback who prefers to exist outside the relative comfort of the pocket can ever find a place in a league that tends toward stasis over movement. It is rare to find a quarterback who was potentially so magnetic both on and off the field fall this far so quickly, but this is where Manziel finds himself: In a place where the football element seems to matter less and less. In a place very near a dead end.
All of this obviously renders Manziel’s future murky and complex. The longtime scuttlebutt is that another flamboyant personality, the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, would love to take a shot at him, if Manziel can ever get himself clear of his own issues. But it’s hard to know if the Cowboys could ever feel comfortable enough to do that, and it’s hard to know if Manziel even wants that. It’s hard to know what he wants anymore. He’s in a terrible place, and he’s potentially guilty of doing terrible things. It’s unraveled for Manziel. It’s gotten real bad, and maybe jail is on the horizon and maybe it isn’t, but either way, Johnny Football is long gone.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb