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July 22, 2018

O’Leary: Trade opens immediate playing time for Manziel

Arthur Ward/CFL.ca

In a span of three days, Johnny Manziel went from having his name chanted at Tim Horton’s Field in Hamilton, to being the quarterback-on-deck for the Montreal Alouettes.

As the Ticats played out the final minutes of a disappointing 31-20 loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, fans in their black and gold Manziel jerseys chanted his name, hoping to finally get a glimpse of the quarterback they’d waited over a year to see on the field.

The Ticats didn’t grant that wish. Manziel stayed on the sideline, sometimes wearing his helmet, sometimes not, occasionally squatting on the sideline watching Jeremiah Masoli finish out the game.

Even getting Manziel to this point, under contact, in uniform felt like a saga unto itself. Now, it ends abruptly with Sunday night’s five-player trade.

» Als acquire Manziel in five-player deal
» Timeline: Manziel’s pro football path continues to wind
» Bio: Johnny Manziel by the numbers

There may have never been a player so important to a CFL team that never actually recorded a stat in a regular-season game. In trading Manziel, the Ticats get immediately better with the additions of defensive lineman Jamaal Westerman and receiver Chris Williams. With the Als’ first-round picks in 2020 and 2021, the Ticats have the opportunity to add high-end Canadian talent down the road.

The fans’ chants for Manziel weren’t going anywhere and he was stuck behind a quarterback that, while struggling to find the end zone over his last three games, will have a career year if he stays healthy. Masoli doesn’t deserve to be a part of a QB controversy and the Ticats used arguably the most valuable commodity in the league to their advantage to get better.

Things are less certain on the Als’ end of the trade. Manziel has seemed to have said and done all of the right things since he arrived in Hamilton. He didn’t complain about his role behind Masoli and has seemed to be intent on learning the CFL game while he’s waited for his turn. There is no question that in Montreal, Manziel will see the field. Immediately after announcing the trade, the team invited fans to come to McGill on Thursday night to see his first game.

In Montreal, there will be no easing into a game that can take a quarterback years to learn and be successful in. There is no baby-stepping into water here; it’s baptism by fire, or in the case of Thursday night, the Edmonton Eskimos’ defensive line.

Manziel should be grateful that the trade includes tackle Tony Washington and guard Landon Rice. Washington has made a career of protecting the best QBs in the league — Henry Burris, Ricky Ray, Mike Reilly and Masoli — and should help allow Manziel the time to operate that Montreal’s quarterbacks haven’t had this season.

In the short-term, the Als may have addressed their biggest need. The team has changed its starting quarterback 14 times since Anthony Calvillo retired in 2014 and would love to be able to have the wheel stop spinning with Manziel. That’s not a guarantee, though. For all of the hype that’s come with him and the positive signs he showed in the preseason, Manziel has yet to see a regular-season snap. No one knows how he’ll do if he gets onto the field in Montreal on Thursday night.

The situation isn’t perfect. The Als are 1-4, are being outscored 148-69 this season and just sent one of their best offensive and defensive players away in this trade. All indications are that at the end of his contract after the 2019 season, he’ll want to get back to the NFL. The Alouettes will have a lot of work to do and a short time to turn themselves around if they’re going to maximize this opportunity.

Still, that opportunity is tantalizing. Manziel will bring a spike of interest on both sides of the border to a team that’s in need of it. If the Alouettes’ three-season playoff drought and slow start to this season dropped them out of your focus, this will make them must-see TV, or should nudge frustrated fans back to the stadium.

It’s not the way he pictured it, or perhaps how anyone who follows the CFL thought it might play out, but Johnny Manziel is going into the game and that’s exciting.