Gambling on a Gambler

Johnny Manziel is one of the hardest evaluations I’ve ever encountered. Even before ever turning on the tape, the sort of pop culture fame that has followed Manziel creates preconceived notions that must be ditched before evaluating his play on the field.

Before evaluating Manziel, it’s important to get rid of all of the biases that surround him. Remove the hype. Remove the personality off the field. Tear down the portrait of idolism that some fans have of him. I want to focus on specifically what he is on the field and what traits he possesses that are translatable to the NFL.

It’s also vital to point out that I won’t evaluate who Johnny Manziel is off the field. I don’t know him and I’ve never met him. All I’ve ever seen are a few interviews and some TMZ reports and none of that is enough for me to extract any kind of an opinion on the type of leader, drive, work ethic, or person that Manziel is. I’ll leave the personality evaluating to the professionals.

Hype and personality are what caused the Broncos to draft Tim Tebow in the 1st round of the NFL draft. Instead of evaluating how Tebow was as a passer – the most important trait of being a quarterback in today’s NFL – they liked that he was a winner and a leader. These traits are important, but there has to be a base level of proficiency as a passer for a quarterback to be successful.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the important part: evaluating Johnny Manziel on the field.

I’ve watched a lot of “film” on Johnny Manziel. Unfortunately, it’s mostly been broadcast footage as I’m not privy to the all-22 film that NFL teams have access to. It’s incredibly hard to grasp the defensive concepts and coverages when I can’t see what the safeties and deep coverage players are doing.

It’s also hard to evaluate route concepts and combinations when I can’t see the full route of every wide receiver. These combinations identify how an offense wants to attack a defense. They can cause a quarterback to have to go through either a very simple or very complex progression reading to determine where he wants to throw the ball.

This process starts in the pre-snap phase where a quarterback will try to identify the coverage and pressure concepts of the defense based on certain cues or tells. Knowing what the defense is going to do before snapping the ball is a major advantage, and it’s something that every great quarterback can do on a regular basis.

In the post-snap phase, the quarterback will have a key defender or two in which he will read at the snap. Based on the defender’s movement, it will either solidify his pre-snap read or alert him to a shift in coverage or pressure. If a defense shows one coverage pre-snap but drops into another coverage post-snap, then it is on the quarterback to quickly adjust his read, know the routes his receivers are running, understand how they match up with that coverage, and then know where the open receiver will be.

Without the use of all-22 film, it is extremely difficult to identify all of these elements on every single play. This means that I am limited to a small sample of plays to evaluate the complexity of scheme and Manziel’s proficiency of reading defenses and responding to the intel that they give him. I can infer based on experience, but even then, it’s a small jump that incurs some assumption on my part.

Instead of going through the positives and negatives of Manziel as in a similar format as most NFL scouting reports, I wanted to go game by game so that I can more clearly present some of the main points I see on film. But first, I like to look at some statistics of the player to get a general feel for the player that I’m about to evaluate.

Formulating a Foundation

I’m not a huge statistics guy. Stats can lie, and they often do. Volume statistics like yards and touchdowns can vary greatly based on other aspects of football that have nothing to do with a player’s skill set. With those metrics, style of offense, time of possession, and leading or trailing can dictate how high or low those numbers go.

Instead, I’m more interested in efficiency stats. I don’t want to know how much the quarterback does his job, I want to know how well he does his job. Because Manziel started in both 2012 and 2013, I can also compare these numbers to see if there are any indicators of growth or any red flags.

Manziel threw 434 passes in 2012 and completed 68 percent of his passes, with an average of 8.5 yards per attempt. In 2013, he threw 429 passes, completed 69.9 percent, for an average of 9.6 yards per attempt.

These numbers indicate a significant growth from 2012 to 2013. Manziel not only increased his completion percentage, but he did it while throwing farther downfield. This seems to show that Manziel progressed in his passing proficiency from one year to the next.

This then leads me to see how often he turned the ball over. While Manziel threw 11 more touchdowns in 2013 than in 2012, he also threw 4 more interceptions. This seems to imply that he began to take more risks in his sophomore year over his freshman year (after a redshirt year).

Risk versus reward is a common theme with Johnny Manziel.

Finally, looking at his rushing stats, Manziel ran significantly less in 2013 – about 25 percent less – and finished with slightly over half the yards in 2013 than he did in 2012.

There could be a couple of different explanations for this that only watching the film could reveal the answer: either teams played more containment of Manziel so that he couldn’t run (his yards per rush dropped by 1.7 yards), or Manziel chose to be more of a passer than a runner in similar circumstances (increased productivity in the pass game).

Overall it looks as if Manziel grew as a passer and played slightly more from the pocket than as a runner. This gives us a baseline on which to form an opinion. Now it’s time to reverse engineer from those results to see how they were achieved – and without allowing any biases to influence our opinion.

The Film

I like to watch film of the most recent year first so that I get a better impression of who the player is right now. This is just a personal preference but for me it is harder to let my evaluation and opinion of a player evolve as quickly as his play does. But by starting with the most recent season, I can form an idea of the player now and then go back to previous seasons and see where the player has grown or regressed with more distinction.

I try to watch games against the best competition and always make sure to try to include the player’s best and worst statistical performances. All of this allows me to get a well-rounded picture of the player. The evaluation starts from a very high level and then begins to narrow to a clearer definition of who that player is based on these games.

By looking at the best and worst statistical performances, the idea is that I will get to see the player at his best and at his worst. I can see the gap between those performances and it also helps me to delineate different characteristics where a player fails and succeeds.

Most importantly, it helps me to identify the situations and circumstances where a player performs well and doesn’t perform so well. For the poor performance, I ask the questions, “Why did he perform poorly in this game? What did the opponent do to cause this? What did the player do to cause this? What did the coach and scheme do to cause this?” For the good performance, I ask the same questions but framed so that they allow me to attribute accountability to the proper place. It also helps me to project a player into the NFL with a slightly better focus because I can identify the likelihood that a defense will replicate these conditions of poor performance and how likely the individual player is to overcome them.

2013 – Texas A&M vs. Alabama

Alabama has the best defense in the country. I know that Johnny Manziel is an athletic quarterback. I always assume that these coaches are smarter than I am so I want to see how Nick Saban game planned against Manziel. Did he try to keep him in the pocket with containment? Did he play mostly coverage concepts or did he blitz? How did it all work?

I’m also a huge fan of this game because it’s shot from a high camera angle and basically functions as an all-22 angle.

Manziel’s first pass was a go-route down the right sideline to Mike Evans from the opposite hash mark. Alabama showed a single-high safety in pre-snap, which meant that Manziel could easily identify that Mike Evans was in a one-on-one situation on the outside.

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This is an easy read for Manziel and at the snap he knew where he was going with the ball. He took a quick drop and lofted the ball down the sideline for Evans to go up and get it. Manziel’s 50/50 ball was slightly underthrown but still allowed Evans to go up and win over top of a corner who could never get turned around to find the ball. Because Manziel threw the ball to the outside shoulder, the safety was never an issue.

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It should be noted that Mike Evans is a high-caliber receiver and one of the best at high-pointing the ball when it’s in the air. Depending on an evaluator’s overall opinion of Manziel, they could say that Evans was the reason this pass was completed or the person may attribute credit to Manziel for trusting a big play receiver like Evans and putting the ball in a place where he could win over top of the corner.

But this is the very first play we’ve evaluated. We shouldn’t be looking for an answer, we should let the answer find us. It’s important to see this type of play happen many more times (and it does) and when we have a large enough sample size, the answer will reveal itself.

Two plays later we see the same look from Alabama. The view of the deep safety is obstructed by the lineup graphic but he’s there in the middle of the field. This is basically the same play as the last one. Bama blitzes their inside linebackers with a single deep safety. The visible safety drops down into man coverage on the slot receiver. Mike Evans streaks down the sideline on a “go” route.

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Manziel against wastes no time after the snap. He immediately turns and throws the deep ball to Evans who has beaten his man by a step. This time, instead of the ball being slightly underthrown and Evans have to jump for a contested ball, Manziel makes a throw that leads Evans up the field, in stride, and down the sideline. Perfect placement.

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Manziel follows this play up with a short throw to the tight end (after running into his own running back on the play action) in the end zone for a touchdown.

While the throws on this first drive against Alabama were really good, I haven’t seen Manziel have to read through a progression yet. All of the reads – if you could even call them that – were very simplistic. See Mike Evans with single coverage on the outside? Throw him the ball. No read necessary.

So far we’ve seen some very good physical display from Manziel but we haven’t seen him tested mentally yet. The two runs that Manziel had on this first drive were called runs so there were no pocket-escape plays. Manziel has also gotten rid of the ball so quickly that he hasn’t had to deal with any type of pocket movement.

On the next drive however, Manziel displays his athleticism and speed when Bama’s C.J. Mosley shoots through a B-gap untouched on a blitz. Manziel turns and runs to his right and gets the edge around Mosley and another defender for a gain of about 12 yards and a first down. This is the first non-designed run of the game for Manziel.

On this next play, this is a good display of a “hole shot” throw where Manziel has to fit the ball in between a dropping cornerback and a safety in deep-half coverage. The ball must have some velocity and good trajectory or else it could bring either defender into the play. Manziel lays it in perfectly.

On the next drive, Manziel has a play where he waits patiently but is then flushed from the pocket to his right. He doesn’t sprint out, but instead keeps his eyes downfield. He waits until he sees Mike Evans break from his route where he then throws to an open spot on the field and gets a big gain. The play looks great on Manziel. He was patient, kept his eyes up, and the result is a big play. It’s easy to attribute this all to Manziel but the throw wasn’t really great. Evans had to come back about 7 yards on the throw to get it. There wasn’t a lot of zip on the ball either.

Take a look for yourself here at the 2:29 mark:

On the replay you can really see how far back Evans had to come for the ball. It’s a good play on both parts but I don’t walk away from it going, “Wow, what a play by Johnny Manziel.” Instead, I think, “Good play, but any receiver not as intelligent and athletic as Evans and that could have been a pick.”

Again, maybe Manziel understood who he was throwing to and that was a calculated risk. At this point in the evaluation, it’s hard to know.

A few plays later, Manziel makes another throw off his back foot that sort of sails showing a real lack of velocity on the ball. This keeps showing up. If Manziel doesn’t have room to step into his throws, his velocity really suffers. With a clean pocket and space to step and drive, his arm strength is good enough.

The issue that I have with this is that in the NFL the pocket gets tighter, spaces get smaller, windows get narrower, and coverage gets better. I highly doubt a few of the throws he’s made in this game are completed in the NFL, and more likely, end up intercepted.

And then there’s this play at the 5:36 mark:


It’s important to note that it’s 3rd and 8 on the Alabama 34 yard line. We haven’t gotten that far in the evaluation of Manziel, but one thing that stands out to me is that he always seems to be aware of the situation. I don’t think he attempts that throw in a different part of the field, but again, that’s an inference.

After the snap, Manziel has a receiver open to his right 3 yards past the line of scrimmage. He forgoes that opportunity which I think is an alright move considering they need 8 yards on 3rd down. Manziel then makes a u-turn in the other direction. I’m not sure why he spun because there wasn’t anyone bearing down on him. This is a sign of poor pocket tolerance by Manziel.

The u-turn takes him into a defender who really has a shot at getting Manziel down for the sack. Manziel backpedals and somehow escapes the grasp of the defender, a la Eli Manning in the Super Bowl helmet-catch play. Manziel then rolls right and throws what is essentially a jump pass into 2 of his own wide receivers and 3 Alabama coverage guys. Amazingly, Edward Pope comes down with the rock and the play goes down in football lore.

And here is where the hype can dilute the facts. This is an amazing play to watch as a football fan. It still gives me chills to watch it unfold. Even the announcer gets into the hype with, “Can you say magic?!” The problem is that as scouts, we should be evaluating every element of the play to determine who gets credit, who is at fault, and what really matters in the play.

Too many fans are stuck on the result. It was a completion and a big play on 3rd and 8. But was it a good decision? Was it the right play by Manziel? The result doesn’t negate everything that happened before it. Results can be fluky while a solid decision making process can lead to more consistent results.

What I notice on this play is that even though Edward Pope came down with the ball, that’s not who Manziel was throwing it to. He was throwing it to Mike Evans – his safety valve.

This shows up on film over and over and it’s where people will begin to diverge on their analysis of Johnny Manziel. This was a calculated risk by Manziel because he was throwing a jump ball to a guy he trusted to come down with it. Instead of Evans coming down with it, Pope just happened to get there first. See how stats and results can lie?

The biggest issue that I have with this play is the way Manziel threw the ball. He was falling (jumping?) backwards when he threw it. His body and the way he flung the ball up in the air tells me that it was a prayer more than a calculation. While there was some thought involved in whom he was throwing to, it was more of a hope than a calculation.

That’s taking a lot of inference out of that play based on cues that I’ve identified. This is where scouting gets subjective. When scouts are reasoning why players took certain actions, the scout is now leaning on his own opinion of the events that occurred. This is where evaluations split off and 2 people watching the same film can extract two different evaluations.

That’s the problem with evaluating Johnny Manziel. Only he knows why he did the things he did. Everyone else is just guessing. All we can do is evaluate his play on the field and try to pinpoint who he is going to be in the NFL.

Manziel is a gambler. He takes risks. But just because he hits on 20 and gets an ace doesn’t mean that it was the correct decision.

The decision that teams will have to make is whether they are comfortable with who Johnny Manziel is on the field or not. If they’re not comfortable with him gambling so much, do they believe that they can change his DNA as a player? How much can you rein in a player like Manziel without inhibiting his instincts, which in my opinion, are extremely advanced? Or can you rein him in at all?

In a league where the structure comes before the player, it will be interesting to see if anyone takes a shot early on in the draft with Johnny Manziel. If they do, are they falling victim to the hype or are they believing in the film? Would you be willing to gamble on a gambler?

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