Johnny Football Is More Gronk Than Brady
Johnny Manziel will declare for the 2014 NFL draft, leaving Texas A&M University on a high note after two sensational seasons that netted him a Heisman Trophy and two bowl victories. He's expected to be a top-five pick in a year in which many teams are looking to fill a gaping hole at quarterback, leading to much debate over whether he can succeed in the National Football League.
Manziel has great instincts and athleticism, and can scramble outside the pocket with the best of them. Still, his lack of size, arm strength and pocket presence worry quarterback traditionalists who doubt his long-term potential and ability to physically endure pressure by NFL defenses. These skeptics overlook professional football's capacity to evolve, demonstrated by the recent emergence of smaller, mobile quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III.
For teams like the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders that are in disarray on and off the field, taking a chance on Manziel is a smart bet, especially when you factor in his enormous star power. After he became the first redshirt freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, Texas A&M reported that it received 1.8 million media impressions in the two-month period from the award ceremony to the end of the 2012-13 season, translating to $37 million in exposure for the school. That doesn't include merchandise or ticket sales, which increased 22 percent over the 2011-12 fiscal year. (The Aggies contend that this had more to do with their move to the Southeastern Conference than Manziel, but he no doubt raised the team's profile, and the school's bookstore sold out of jerseys bearing his No. 2 a month after the Heisman.) He also has more than 700,000 Twitter followers and is touted as college football's most marketable player by Opendorse, which seeks to connect athletes with prospective brands for sponsorship deals. The company estimates the value of a Manziel tweet -- that is, the amount of compensation he could demand for a single endorsement over Twitter -- at just under $3,500.
Johnny Football's high profile, however, could be a concern for NFL teams. His marketability, coupled with his incredibly poor judgement, got him in trouble this past summer, when reports accused him of accepting payments to sign thousands of autographs in violation of the rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Last season, after he won the Heisman and led his team to a dominant victory over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, Manziel's name jumped from the sports page to the gossip columns, with reporters following his every beer-guzzling, dollar-bill-waving, firecracker-eating move. In July, sports blogs widely reported on his getting dismissed from the Manning Passing Academy when he didn't show up after a suspected night of heavy drinking. The attention hasn't let up -- in the last week, TMZ has filed dozens of posts detailing his pre-draft celebrations and the incredibly difficult and important decision of blonde or brunette.
Manziel's offseason antics irked many who thought his conduct was unbecoming of a Heisman winner and future NFL star, as well as those who saw the constant money flashing and unnecessary, rule-breaking autograph selling by the grandson of a wealthy oil tycoon as unsavory. In July, a scathing profile by ESPN's Wright Thompson argued that Manziel's excessive drinking and lifestyle could ultimately derail his career as the quarterback seemed to fall deeper into the trap of his own celebrity. Although his behavior was anything but smart, the criticism levied against him was a bit heavy-handed against a 20-year-old whose family's largesse allowed him to live as many college students dream. Now that he's entering the NFL, however, he needs to keep himself in check if he expects to be taken seriously as a quarterback.
Football may be changing, but it's still a sport of discipline and leadership, and the jury's still out on whether Manziel possesses enough of either for the pros. New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is largely embraced, not reviled, as a lovable meathead who loves to party. But Gronk isn't a quarterback, which, fairly or not, comes with a higher level of responsibility to one's team -- something Tom Brady, Gronk's teammate who often finds himself in the gossip pages as a result of his role in a celebrity power couple, can attest to. Except for a few (OK, many) hair and fashion faux pas, Brady has managed to keep his embarrassments out of the spotlight, maintaining respect in the locker room and his reputation as a somewhat boring celebrity.
Manziel doesn't need to completely abandon his personality; Peyton Manning is proof that a stoic quarterback can still let his freak flag fly from time to time. He does need to realize that he's not in college anymore, that more will be expected from him on and off the field, that the media scrutiny is only going to get worse, not better, but that if he plays his cards right, he can use the cameras to go from being Johnny College Football to Johnny NFL. Everything Manziel has ever wanted is within reach -- he just needs to grow up first.
(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)