Johnny Manziel has left the place he never wanted to be

On the day of Johnny Manziel’s introductory press conference last May, I wrote about the look on his face, one I’d seen many times before on American players. It’s terribly gauche to quote oneself but this is a piece about Johnny Manziel so I’m going to have the second-biggest ego no matter what I do. Here’s what I said:

It’s not as dramatic as “what the hell am I doing here?” Nor is it quite deer-in-the-headlights. It’s the slightly vacant stare of a man who is not quite sure how his once promising football career has led him to the CFL, to this city, to this country. Holy crap, the look says, this is really happening… Now, many players get over it. They quickly realize the football is good, the locker room is the same and that fans are rabid but, generally, respectful. The communities are nice, if sometimes a little boring by their previous standards. The CFL life, with its shorter days and less intense media scrutiny, is pretty darn good. A lot of them come not just to like it but to love it.

Yeah, that wasn’t Johnny Manziel’s CFL experience.

Now, he talked a good game and said all the right things. He knows how to look a reporter in the eye when answering questions, how to strike the right tone, craft the compelling narrative. Johnny Manziel’s media game – and more impotantly, his social media game – is all world and that means he’s going to be rich and famous long after this foray into football ends.

But, to steal a phrase from another sport, ball don’t lie. And film don’t lie. And a team dumping you for a king’s ransom in a hot second don’t lie. Four picks don’t lie. A former NFL coach – one fully embracing his CFL experience – who says you aren’t putting in the work don’t lie.

Johnny never wanted to be here, I’ll always believe, and it showed from day one until Wednesday, when the CFL kicked him out.

About that. There’s going to be speculation and rumour of every sort regarding the hows and the whys of Manziel’s departure. There’s been some reporting on the issue and my feeling is there is more to come. But there was a quote from Montreal GM Kavis Reed buried within all the spin that stuck out to me.

“We worked with the league and presented alternatives to Johnny, who was unwilling to proceed.”

Unwilling to proceed is a euphemism for “get me the hell out of here.” With the Alliance of American of Football up and running (for now), the XFL in the pipeline and NFL camps on the distant horizon – and as unlikely as that seems, never underestimate a player’s self-belief – Manziel is undoubtedly looking at the next opportunity as being more favourable than his current one.

Getting banned from the CFL means nothing to Manziel if he has no intention of returning, which he clearly doesn’t. The AAF, the XFL and the NFL don’t have to respect the ruling (and they won’t.) The AAF needs to put asses in seats, eyeballs on screens and money in pockets in the worst kind of way and Johnny has proven that, if nothing else, he can do that. He’ll get another shot because he’s Johnny Manziel and he knows it. It’s already happening.

Personally, I’ve come to believe that Manziel won’t be a successful quarterback no matter what league he’s in. He has incredible natural gifts, which was enough to earn him a Heisman Trophy and carry him this far as a professional. It’s what makes coaches continue to take chances on him. But to be a competent – never mind elite – pro quarterback you have to embrace, even love, the entire process: the workouts, the meetings, the film study, the never ending commitment to greatness. Go read Travis Lulay’s farewell piece if you need an example of what true love for all facets of the game – in all its complexities – really looks like.

Manziel definitely loves being “Johnny Football” but that’s different than wanting to put in the time, effort and sacrifice it takes to be a great quarterback. He certainly hasn’t shown it yet, not in college, not in the NFL and not in the CFL. I don’t think he ever will.

When Manziel arrived in Hamilton, I felt the best hope for him was to fall into the relative anonymity of a backup quarterback, learn from Jeremiah Masoli and June Jones and just take a break from being Johnny Manziel, the brand.

And somewhere in that process, Manziel may not just accept where he is but fully embrace it. Maybe he’ll come to love it. And if he does, he might just have some success, even become great. But if he doesn’t there’s absolutely no hope and he’ll become just another great American college player who couldn’t shape his dreams into something just a little bit different.

That didn’t happen, clearly. And know he’s moved on to whatever comes next in football. Maybe he’ll find success and happiness there. But it sure doesn’t seem like it.

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