Johnny Manziel wants to return to the NFL.
His fall from grace since entering the league in 2014 as a first round draft pick for the Cleveland Browns has been well documented. It's the classic story of the big name bust - lots of partying, a few scrapes with the law, and zero dedication to his job, all culminating in his career ending before it even began at just 23 years of age.
Now, at 25, he wants to right his wrongs and make an astonishing return to the league after two years in exile, where he has spent most of that time compounding his reputation as more of a serial partier than a person serious about being a professional football player.
Back in his college heyday, Manziel transcended college football unlike anyone before. At Texas A&M, he had over 100,000 people on the edge of their seats every week, and millions more at home. He was a superstar before ever entering the NFL and became a massive commercial gravy train – with merchandise in his name, packed-out stadia just to catch a glimmer of him in action, and a novelty nickname “Johnny Football” that became part of popular culture. Media empires rode this train until it was time to jump off – leaving Manziel alone as he headed for the cliff edge.
On the field, Manziel was known for his mazy, escaping runs through defenders twice his size, making them look foolish as he whipped over and across the field like a hare. Now, Manziel is planning his greatest escape yet – from the clutches of the NFL purgatory that has captured many players before him and making an unlikely return to the sport.
Since his departure from the league, Manziel would stick his head up for air every so often and claim he’s on the comeback trail, before disappearing into the abyss again.
This time, though, his goal of returning appears a little different. It may even seem permanent.
He has never been so active on social media, posting clips of his training sessions and rubbing shoulders with NFL players and upcoming draftees, including superstar-in-waiting Saquon Barkley. He appears to be undergoing a draft-player-style training camp, working with some top coaches in this field, readying himself for his own private draft this spring. Fancy PR-spin, yes, but it suggests he’s active and serious about coming back.
— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) March 9, 2018
— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) February 24, 2018
He also recently opened up about his mental health issues, highlighting a problem that isn’t spoken enough about in sport. If one good thing comes from this venture, let it be this.
He has his own clothing range and a funky brand name to reflect his ambitions - #COMEBACKSZN. He’s recently got married. The party seems to be over for Johnny Football and the Football Player is emerging.
Feels good just to have the ball back in my hand again. Grind time every single day til we make it back. I appreciate the love I feel you guys in my corner. Let’s go #ComebackSZN pic.twitter.com/F7y7TwH9qh
— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) February 18, 2018
Obviously there are some major obstacles in his way.
We are a month away from the 2018 NFL draft, which has a handful of starting calibre quarterbacks that will all be going to QB thirsty teams. When Manziel was entering the league he was competing against Blake Bortles, Derek Carr and Teddy Bridgewater for teams’ attentions.
In comfortable retrospect, the 2014 class of quarterbacks wasn’t overly enticing. Since then, the quality of quarterbacks entering the league has been getting better and better. Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Carson Wentz and Jared Goff have all fit in seamlessly, along with the likes of Deshaun Watson and Mitchell Trubisky last year, leaving a player of Manziel’s predicament way down in the barrel of potential quarterbacks.
He’s also a major “distraction”. This word gets bandied about when teams need to find an excuse not to sign a player, but if Colin Kaepernick’s case is anything to go by, who has proven to be a much better quarterback than Manziel during his time in the league, teams will not even humour the thought of giving the former Brown a shot.
This will probably cause an uproar, but I’m tired of the @Kaepernick7 vs myself comparisons and anger. Kap is doing amazing things right now changing lives and donating millions of dollars. His impact off the field from a societal standpoint is legendary and straight admirable.
— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) March 24, 2018
Then there’s the question; is he even good enough anymore? If he manages to prove to teams that he’s dedicated, healthy, clean and of the right mindset to play football again, does he have the basic skillset to even compete? His first foray into the league was riddled with claims that he wasn’t dedicated and his play reflected that. His own teammates were critical of his dedication to the cause and probably turned their back as a result. He bowed out of the league with just seven touchdowns in 15 appearances.
If we glance back to his own draft, he was extremely polarizing; a top five pick or an undraftable risk. But that was a long time ago. If his actions back-up his words that he has matured and grown as a person, the Manziel of 2018 is completely different to that of 2014. In essence, we really don’t know if he has matured as a player or if his lack of playing time has made him lose some of his unquestionable natural talent.
His first chance to win us over is in the Spring League next week, which is a a sort of developmental arena for free agents to showcase their abilities. Manziel is by far the biggest name going and the only high profile quarterback attending, but a solid performance will be a huge stride towards possibly getting invited to an NFL training camp, and potentially getting signed for the 2018 season.
Alternatively, the Canadian Football League may come calling, where he would instantly become its biggest name.
He’s even stated he’ll play for free, or indeed for no guaranteed money. A noble claim, for sure, but a sign that he’s willing to play for the love of the sport rather than the size of the check.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Manziel let is be known he knows he has one more chance, and that's it, and that he's blocking out some of the influences that may have led him astray in the past.
I let them know, 'Hey, I gotta be selfish in what I'm doing. I gotta do this for me. Listen, I'm not gonna block your number but if I don't text you back and I don't answer your calls, don't be offended. I'll call you when I get bored and I wanna say what's up. But don't invite me on any trips. Don't tell me to go to Texas to go to [friggin'] Sixth Street. None of that.' The people I know that are in my life that by no fault of their own are going to want to do something that I just don't have the luxury of doing anymore. When I first got in the league, did I have some leeway? Sure I did, but I have exhausted all leeway and all second chances. This isn't the second chance. This is the 35th chance. This is the last of the last chances to show people that I've made a drastic change in my life, and it's for the better and I'm happy with where I'm at.
We don't know what the future holds for Johnny Manziel, but let's just hope he’s on the right track. He has the power to do a lot of good and a return to NFL action, even if it’s playing second or third fiddle, it would be an amazing achievement for a player we thought was lost to the game.
We all love a redemption story - Johnny Football might just have one in him.