As debuts go, it was an unmitigated disaster.
Montreal Alouettes quarterback Johnny Manziel threw four interceptions in the first half of Friday’s game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats – including one on his second career pass – as the Ticats stormed out to a 35-point lead and won 50-11.
With a huge audience tuned in across North America, social media exploded with its unique brand of mocking cruelty as the picks piled up. Johnny Interception. Johnny Let-Me-Throw-You-The Football. Creative uses of Sesame Street characters laughing maniacally while counting to four. There were lots and lots and lots of jokes.
Already down 7-0, Manziel threw an interception on his first series as Ticats linebacker Larry Dean stepped in front of a pass. He threw a second while scrambling to evade the Hamilton pass rush. The next one came when he tried to force a throw downfield on third down. The fourth one… well, it’s hard to keep track of them all.
Blaming Manziel is easy (and, for some, fun) but the Alouettes, as a team, looked absolutely terrible. They dropped passes, failed to protect Manziel, couldn’t run the ball. On defence, they allowed Ticat quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and the offence to do pretty much whatever they wanted and the special teams gave up a blocked punt for a touchdown. Hamilton’s 28 first-quarter points tied for the most in CFL history.
This was the danger in starting Manziel less than two weeks after acquiring him from Hamilton and with just five practices under his belt. Pundits warned against it – so did his agent – and CFL history is littered with putrid performances from inexperienced quarterbacks pushed into action before their time. There was this crazy idea that Manziel would somehow prevail because of his innate Johnnyness. Nope. Not even close.
Early in the fourth quarter, he was pulled from the game: 104 yards on 11 of 20 passing and one, two, three, four interceptions ha ha ha ha.
While the quality of the competition must certainly be taken into consideration, playing the Alouettes was certainly an elixir for what’s been ailing the Ticats. They generated turnovers (that’s been an issue), scored points off them (so has that) while also converting their opportunities in the red zone (ditto.) They looked good in all three phases, though executing at this level against stiffer competition will be the real test.
Masoli threw for an even 300 yards with two touchdowns and ran for another, showing once again why the Ticats felt so comfortable in dealing Manziel to Montreal, along with two offensive linemen, in exchange for two all-star calibre players (receiver Chris Williams and defensive end Jamaal Westerman) and two first-round draft picks. It was, as Ticat general manager Eric Tillman put it the day after the transaction was announced, a “grand slam” for the team, a deal too good to pass up.
It looks even better now.
Masoli may have his doubters among the Ticat faithful – they were the ones decrying the Manziel trade – but there was never any question internally that this was the right move. There might be the occasional I-told-you-so from a Ticat player or two – there were a couple of “Money Manziel” celebrations by the defensive backfield – but the locker room knew all along that Masoli was their guy.
Meanwhile, the Alouettes must now try and put the pieces of Manziel’s battered psyche back together again. The real danger in starting him so fast wasn’t this performance, which was entirely predictable, but that it would damage his development in a more permanent way. Manziel showed flashes on what made him a great college player but it will need to be nurtured and developed – an adjustment all quarterbacks have to make at the pro level.
Manziel may still be great. But not today. And not, by the looks of it, any time soon.