The Spring League is Manziel’s Hail Mary for the NFL

There was a brief moment on Wednesday when it looked like quarterback Johnny Manziel was moving on to a fledgeling football entity called The Spring League and finally putting an end to the endless, will-he-or-won’t-he saga that is, for many Ticats fans, long past its expiration date.

No such luck.

Manziel’s extremely well-documented “Comeback SZN” will indeed get its start in The Spring League, which charges players $350 to apply to play – yes, apply – while dangling the (extremely) remote possibility of a lucrative pro career. It had its inaugural season in 2017, and will play a four-game season in Austin, Texas from March 28 to April 15 this year. Manziel is from nearby Tyler and played his college football at Texas A&M and just single-handly vaulted The Spring League into relevance. Did they make him pay the $350?

Players, needless to say, do not get paid. But what they do get is one more desperate attempt to showcase their talent in front of NFL scouts whose job it is to unearth that diamond in the rough by any means necessary. It’s a two-week long Hail Mary.

Which makes it perfect for Manziel, who is doing absolutely everything he can to get one final shot at the NFL. This week has been the official start of the Comeback SZN Media Redemption Tour which has featured interviews on Good Morning America and a Barstool Sports podcast and featured an acknowledgement of mental health issues, poor judgment and some light apologizing.

If Manziel can show he’s back on the straight-and-narrow, then demonstrate decent football skills in The Spring League, perhaps he can parlay that into an invite to an NFL training camp or, hope against hope, an actual contract offer. The blueprint, such as it is, isn’t hard to follow.

There are risks, of course. An injury in what amounts to an unpaid internship would be catastrophic, though likely not as bad as a woeful performance against players who have, quite literally, paid for the privilege to be there. The media circus will unquestionably follow him, as it always does, demonstrating yet again what a colossal distraction Manziel will be for anyone that signs him (including the Ticats, by the way.)

But it only takes one NFL owner hell-bent on selling tickets or a general manager who likes to see his face on ESPN – Manziel generates attention like few forces in the sporting universe – to get a deal done. Like everyone else in The Spring League, what does he really have to lose?

The alternative is, of course, committing himself to two years in the CFL and that is, at least for now, an even less attractive alternative than The Spring League. The quality of football, coaching and – this is new – even they pay is vastly superior in the CFL but the time commitment is not ideal. Nor likely the idea of sitting on the bench and having to actually earn a starting job.

But that doesn’t mean the Ticats are done with Manziel.

The team put out a statement shortly after the news emerged (on Twitter of course) of Manziel’s plans that wished him well, the kind of obtuse sentiment that led some to believe the team was issuing a don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-in-behind decree. Not so vice president of football operations Kent Austin clarified in an interview with TSN1150.

“We understand that for Johnny, this is the next opportunity for him to put on the uniform, put on a helmet and play the game that he loves. It’s just a couple of exhibition games so we wish him well in that endeavour,” Austin said. “We’ll continue to monitor that, scout it, watch it like everybody else and continue to have an open dialogue with him and his agent going forward.”

Indeed, there’s nothing here that precludes Manziel from playing with the Ticats in 2018. Off-season workouts don’t take place until late April and rookie camps don’t open until May 16 so the timing still works. If anything, the team will get another chance to evaluate where Manziel is physically and mentally while holding the trump card of his CFL rights.

Hamilton is already well set up for the season without Manziel. They have a proven starter in Jeremiah Masoli and two backups with some CFL experience in Vernon Adams and Bryant Moniz. All have some connection to their head coach. If Johnny doesn’t show, they’ll be just fine.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t.