In Monday night’s nationally televised preseason game between Cleveland Browns and Washington, rookie QB Johnny Manziel flipped his middle finger toward the Redskins player bench. The telecast had the second highest overnight rating ever for an ESPN preseason game, and the gesture ran repeatedly on local news and spawned a series of Internet memes. It reinforced the imagery of Manziel as a spoiled rebel, operating to the beat of his own drummer. He had not played particularly well in the game and he continues to create more obstacles to a smooth entry into the NFL.
The Browns have now named Brian Hoyer as their starter for opening day. This may well have been their plan all the way along. It is certainly easier to go with a veteran who was playing well last year before injury. Had they named Manziel the starter and he then had performance issues, replacing him would have been a nightmare that might have broken his own, and the team’s, confidence in him. The supporting offensive cast for the Browns is not especially strong. Their best wide receiver, Josh Gordon, will be suspended, possibly for the whole season. Their running backs are untested. It is likely to be a season of frustration for whoever quarterbacks the Browns.
This all may be a blessing in disguise for Manziel’s career. Traditionally, rookie quarterbacks sat behind older, wiser starters for a year or two. They learned from the older quarterback. The transition from college to professional football is challenging. The game is faster, the playbook more complex, the defenses are confusing, the degree of separation is smaller, and the players are better. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre for three years and has had a sensational career since.
The NFL saw Tommy Kramer and Wade Wilson on the same Viking roster. Doug Williams was backed up by Jay Schroeder for the Skins. Joe Montana was backed up by Steve Young and Steve Bono. All the non-starters benefited from it. The salary cap changed all that. A first-round rookie with a high cap contract could no longer sit behind a highly salaried vet – there simply was not enough cap room.
The freakish success of Colts’ Andrew Luck, Redskins’ Robert Griffin III and Seahawks’ Russell Wilson created the illusion that it was easy for a rookie to step right in his first season with field command. The reality is that it takes time to read defenses correctly -- this only comes with experience. The Seahawks have an outstanding running game and defense -- exactly what Ben Roethlisberger benefited from his rookie year. Without these components, it is difficult to succeed in the first year.
Johnny Manziel has a unique ability to extend plays and bring his team back from a deficit. He will need to learn how to operate from the pocket. Hopefully enough time will have passed from his Monday night gesture so that he is not target No. 1 for every defensive player in the NFL.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.