By Steve Silverman
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If you have been following all the mixed signals coming out of Cleveland this summer, you know that Johnny Manziel’s first year in the NFL will be a worthwhile follow.
Manziel was the 22nd rookie selected in last April’s draft. Despite that status, he is probably the most scrutinized of all the rookies who were selected, including No. 1 draft pick Jadaveon Clowney.
Prior to the draft, many NFL experts criticized Manziel as some kind of novelty. They looked at him as some kind of media creation/darling, but not as an NFL quarterback because he was too small, lacked impressive physical characteristics and didn’t have a dependable arm.
Ron Jaworski, Greg Cosell and Charlie Casserly were among those that offered pointed criticisms of Manziel’s playing ability. Many more criticized his fast-lane personality, including Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who thought the rookie quarterback needed to act with more maturity and reflect better on the organization.
Haslam was apparently reacting to the inordinate amount of publicity that Manziel was receiving for enjoying the nightlife. Perhaps Haslam should clean up his own act if he wants a better image for the Cleveland organization.
Manziel is not the first NFL prospect to face obstacles from within his own organization. It has been going on for decades. Perhaps the most difficult journey any rookie quarterback ever faced took place more than a half-century ago in Minnesota.
The Vikings were an expansion team in 1961, and while New York City was caught up that summer in a historic home run duel* between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle (*without the stain of the Steroids Era), the Minnesota Vikings were preparing for their first season in the NFL.
The Vikings had participated in the NFL draft, and they made diminutive Fran Tarkenton of Georgia their third-round choice.
Tarkenton had made a name for himself at Georgia with his speed, quickness and escapability along with his ability to fire the ball deep down field. Some of those passes were high-arching balloon-type throws, so there was some question about his arm strength. However, there were no questions about his intelligence or competitiveness.
Tarkenton had some ability, but he did not impress Vikings rookie head coach Norm Van Brocklin, who had been one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks throughout the 1950s.
Van Brocklin had played the bulk of his Hall of Fame career with the Los Angeles Rams, but he finished his career with the Philadelphia Eagles. He led the Birds to the NFL championship in 1960, and he gave Vince Lombardi the only postseason defeat of his entire career.
Van Brocklin was one of the most cocky players the NFL has ever known, and he believed he knew more football than any of his coaches. The Vikings were more than happy to give him a chance to show off that knowledge as the team’s first head coach.
Van Brocklin came in with guns blazing, and he made it clear that he did not like Tarkenton. Van Brocklin was a tough guy and a pocket passer. He didn’t like Tarkenton’s scrambling ways and his tendency to take off from the pocket.
Even though Tarkenton was clearly the best quarterback in camp, Van Brocklin made life miserable for the quarterback every chance he could.
Tarkenton overcame his first coach’s disdain for him. He also overcame outside criticism that a scrambling quarterback could not win in the NFL. He carried the expansion Vikings on his shoulders and then lifted a terrible Giants team to respectability when he was traded to Big Blue. When he was sent back to the Vikings, he led them to three Super Bowl appearances.
While all of those were losses, Tarkenton was one of the most productive quarterbacks in NFL history and he was among the career leaders in many of the key statistical categories when he retired following the 1978 season.
If Tarkenton had not been as physically talented and mentally strong as he was, his career would have ended ignominiously within a year or two of being drafted. He didn’t care what any of his critics thought and he knew he could play.
Manziel has the same kind of self-confidence that Tarkenton had so many decades ago. While many around the NFL have tried to diminish his college football accomplishments, Pittsburgh Steeler defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau admires Manziel. LeBeau is among the most respected coaches at any level of football.
LeBeau pointed out that Manziel was at his best throughout his college career whenever Texas A&M played its toughest opponents. LeBeau believes that means Manziel will be up for any challenge and he won’t be intimidated in the NFL. He expects Manziel to start for the Browns when they open the season against Pittsburgh in Week 1.
Manziel completed 7-of-11 passes for 63 yards in his first preseason game against the Detroit Lions and also ran for 27 yards. His superior quickness and instincts were on display.
He will win the starting quarterback job in Cleveland and he will compete hard for the Rookie of the Year award. He doesn’t care what any of his critics think, and he just wants to play football.
Just like an ancient warrior named Tarkenton.
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