By Jim Weber
NFL.com columnist and former NFL player Bucky Brooks recently created a stir by leaving Texas A&M quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel off his Top 30 players for the 2014 NFL Draft. Brooks said Johnny Football “doesn’t look like an elite NFL quarterback prospect” because he’s an unpolished pocket passer and doesn’t have enough arm strength – to which I say:
Let’s start with Brooks’ first point about Manziel, which seems to dog any quarterback with wheels:
Whether he’s brilliantly executing zone-read concepts or dropping jaws with a scramble-and-toss, Manziel is one of the most electrifying college players I’ve seen…. I’m concerned about his ability to play the game effectively from the pocket. Defensive coordinators will eventually adjust to his spectacular “sandlot” game, and he’ll be forced to win with his arm instead of his feet. Just as they’ve done to athletic playmakers like Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton, NFL defensive play callers will use various strategies to keep Manziel confined to the pocket, taking away his fastball (his athleticism and improvisational skills). The Heisman Trophy winner must show opponents that he can string together completions on drop-back throws, and that he isn’t always looking to flee the pocket at first opportunity.
First things first: Texas A&M doesn’t run a zone-read offense that you now see in the NFL with the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks. A&M runs the “Air Raid,” an entirely different system also run by the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots. That makes me wonder up front what film Brooks was breaking down.
Second of all, I’m tired of the closed-mindedness that continues to surround the NFL over new and exciting things despite the proliferation of college offenses at the pro level.
And third, someone get this man a tape of the Alabama football game last November. Nick Saban is unquestionably the greatest defensive mind in college football, and the Crimson Tide had the top-ranked “D” in the country last year.
After Manziel ran circles around the ‘Bama defense in the first quarter, Saban followed Brooks’ blueprint of making Manziel beat the Tide with his arm. What did Johnny Football do next? Shredded ‘Bama through the air by completing 77% of his passes (24-of-31), including several gorgeous deep balls in the fourth quarter with the game on the line:
For the season, Manziel completed 68% of his passes. This isn’t to say that Johnny Football will be the next Peyton Manning. Any team that drafts Manziel to run a traditional pro-style offense would be foolish. Whoever drafts Manziel should run an “Air Raid”-type offense that allows Manziel to line up in the shotgun almost every down and play the “sandlot” style of football in which he thrives.
Brooks acknowledged the comparison to the also-undersized Russell Wilson but followed it up by saying Wilson was the more polished passer and was better prepared for the NFL by playing in traditional pro-style offenses at NC State and Wisconsin. The irony, of course, is that Seattle exploded as an offense after adopting the read-option late in the season (150 points combined in Weeks 14-16) to accentuate Wilson’s strengths.
As for the lack of arm strength, I’m so tired of this banal criticism of college quarterbacks.
It feels like anyone who can’t throw the ball 80 yards off one knee gets hit with this label. It was the lone criticism of Andrew Luck in college before he blew scouts away at his NFL pro day, and the same knock was lobbed against the likes of Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers when they were draft prospects. Those are arguably the four best quarterbacks in the league, and Rodgers is now considered to have one of the strongest arms in the NFL.
No, the ball doesn’t come off Manziel’s hand like a rocket, but there were plenty of throws he made last fall when his feet were set that showed a solid arm:
Did I mention Manziel was just 19 years old last fall? There’s ample time for him to further develop his arm strength.
Look, if you want to rank Manziel behind the likes of Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd on draft boards, I’m fine with that because they are both great NFL prospects. But with all the teams that could be looking for new quarterbacks next spring (i.e. Jacksonville, Arizona, Oakland, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Cleveland and Tennessee), they’d be absolutely crazy to let Manziel slip to the second round if Johnny Football repeats the success he had as a freshman.
That’s because the NFL has changed. Instead of being forced into a pro-style offense, Johnny Football will be much more than a “marginal pro” if the team that drafts him is smart enough to run an offense built around his strengths, like the Seahawks and Washington Redskins recently did with their new franchise quarterbacks, Wilson and RGIII.
So, as Vince Vaughn would say, my message to Manziel’s critics like Bucky Brooks is, “You bite your tongue!”