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August 9, 2018

Ferguson: More to Manziel’s debut than meets the eye

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

He played bad.

I’m not here to be a Manziel apologist. We all saw the game. We all saw the four first-half interceptions. We all know it was a worst-case scenario debut for a polarizing player who has generated unique discussion for over a year now despite only starting one game.

A week ago in Montreal at least three of his four interceptions were atrocious decisions or nowhere near the intended target. His decision-making was questionable and he just looked generally uneasy. All of which was a bit shocking to the educated football fan’s eye considering the mental image we all have of Manziel as a college football player laughing, smiling and out running everything in a different colour uniform.

With all that being said, there were building block moments in the Alouettes’ one-sided home loss to Hamilton which I believe show there is potential for Manziel to improve.

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I find we see what we want to when watching a game. If you mute the TV, stay off twitter and make your own assessments it’s amazing how differently you perceive the outcome.

I watched the game first live in person working radio for TSN 1150 Hamilton. I thought Johnny was consistently rattled from snap to throw.

I watched the game back once I got home. I saw a quarterback rushed into action in a manner which left little to no room for error, and there were plenty of errors.

Then I watched the game a third time with the purpose of ignoring all the noise and looking at the small details that make assessing quarterback play both such a challenge and so fun. I did this in order to figure out if the narrative of Manziel being as awful as everyone says right now is true, or if we are snowballing his initial failures for entertainment value.

What I found was a quarterback who made massive mistakes – interceptions, poor decisions at critical times – and cardinal QB sins – turning the ball over deep in your own end, locking onto receivers that aren’t open – but I also saw a variety of little moments that make me believe Manziel’s opening night was a basement bottom anomaly, not the status quo.

When people talk about Manziel’s performance Friday and try to see positives, most resort back to his natural scrambling ability, with good reason. The guy is really damn elusive.

Several times throughout the game Manziel made defenders miss point blank but what many don’t appreciate about Manziel’s ability to escape the pocket due to his natural running ability is his mature mindset when breaking the tackle box.

Manziel runs to throw. He rarely runs to run, blind to his surroundings.

That’s a massive difference in approach that can take coaches years to instill in a player’s psyche but it’s a natural part of Johnny’s game.

Manziel is best when improvising on the run. He is not a Tim Tebow or Dan LeFevour type — quarterbacks who will smash their way between the tackles bouncing off bodies to grind for an inch. It’s why he has never and should never handle short yardage responsibilities in any offence.

He is not the type you call designed runs for because as his then-head coach in Hamilton June Jones told me in training camp this past June, “why would you build a package for Johnny when Johnny can take the plays you give him and make them so much better without restricting him?”

What does this mean to Montreal? Scrap the QB draw stuff. Call something that doesn’t put one of college football’s most dynamic playmakers ever in a box like they did Friday to zero success:

He loves to work from a deep pocket. At A&M, the Aggies consistently put Manziel at seven yards back from the centre rather than the typical 4-6 yard depth, allowing for more space to read the pass rush angles and make decisions like this:

When the Alouettes’ offensive line had a complete communication failure and allowed Ticats defensive tackle Jason Neill to rush without a hand touching him, Manziel again avoided the pressure, kept his eyes down field and found an answer to a question he could never have anticipated just seconds earlier:

Can’t imagine many other current CFL quarterbacks being able to dig themselves out of this hole.

There were points in the game when Manziel looked confused where to go with the football, leading to slow progressions and blockers having to keep defenders off him for longer than should be expected.

When pressure is the fault of the quarterback for holding onto the ball to long there is no better way to apologize than to escape the self-created mess and give your receiver a chance by putting the ball where only they can catch it:

One of Manziel’s best throws – unsurprisingly – came from him being forced from the pocket as well Friday. Here Ticats defensive end Adrian Tracy throws former Hamilton left tackle Tony Washington back into the quarterback’s face the same way Tracy did in the pre-season to former Ticats, then Alouettes left tackle Xavier Fulton.

Regardless, Manziel evaded pressure, kept his eyes down field ready to throw and hips square to the line of scrimmage, which allowed a quick flick of the wrist to produce a 37-yard completion, locating the ball about as well as you could with that degree of difficulty.

Finally in the wild scramble category of Manziel’s first start we had the masterpiece below. A ridiculous show of natural ability and playmaking followed by what would have been the highlight of the night if not for Tyrell Sutton’s hands.

The five plays above show what you remembered Manziel for, what has people buying his jersey at a unique rate and what has fans in Montreal excited about the next year and a half.

What we don’t talk enough about with Manziel are the little plays he has the ability to make and more importantly the little plays he missed in his debut that, with time and repetition, he’ll come to understand better.

These are the types of plays that rarely, if ever, make a SportsCentre top 10, but they do win you football games if you can string enough of them together.

Johnny’s primary battle will be to learn CFL nuances and how to apply his Mike Sherman-designed offence to 12-man concepts. This play is a perfect example.

It’s the simplest of Canadian receiver motion concepts and the type of short field read Manziel would have been using since high school or even earlier but with a CFL tweak. The wide receiver waggles down the line of scrimmage where Hamilton declares man coverage by having cornerback Delvin Breaux follow the motion and halfback Carriel Brooks trail the slotback – BJ Cunningham – out wide:

Cunningham gets a nice cushion and Johnny sees the defensive leverage. Pitch and catch for a solid first down completion and gain. It’s not sexy, but it gets the ball out of his hands quickly and shows an example of Manziel processing defences pre-snap and delivering from within the pocket.

The next play is one of Manziel’s biggest missed opportunities from his first start in my opinion. With the game already out of hand and Montreal putting together a drive of consequence for the first time in several attempts, Manziel takes the snap, stares down his left side of the defence to hold the backside defender away from the hash marks the ball was snapped on before rushing his body back to the right and trying to throw a missile while leaning backwards into Earnest Jackson’s underperforming mitts.

Manziel understanding to look off a backside defender is good – the inability to do so led to his first interception to Larry Dean – but if Johnny had more time in the playbook or practice reps to his name maybe he would have progressed through his read to Montreal receiver George Johnson who was running free through the Hamilton secondary near the six-yard-line at the bottom of the clip.

I’m no fan of yelling at a quarterback for missing an open receiver. Hindsight is always 20/20, but with more time I think Manziel gets to that read and I believe Johnson walks into the end zone untouched.

The next play is Manziel’s greatest learning lesson from Week 8. On third-and-three, Montreal head coach Mike Sherman conceded to the fans frustration and went for it. Ignore for a second the extremely American style reverse pivot from under centre to play action bootleg. That was clearly a Sherman favourite he rushed to call due to the short play clock and comfort level of decades calling it in short yardage or two point conversion situations.

Instead focus on the situation for Manziel. He only needs three yards, he can’t run due to pressure and he believes his easy throw to Tyrell Sutton in the flat is eaten up so – forever the gunslinger – Manziel ponies up and rips the ball between his two deeper routes directly into the arms of Hamilton corner Jumal Rolle.

Just like the play above, I believe with more practice and understanding of the Canadian game, it’s unique angles and concepts Manziel could have waited out the pressure, bought himself time moving backwards and dumped the ball off to Tyrell Sutton in the flats who runs for much more than just a first down.

He just needs time.

I saved the best for last in this single game over analysis. Unquestionably Manziel’s best throw of the ball game.

On second-and-20, Manziel takes a five step drop, and a couple quick hitches while working the middle of the field with his eyes before snapping to the left and putting the ball in the only spot it could go for a gain of 21 yards to Eugene Lewis.

Amazing what a quarterback can do with a clean pocket when they’re able to step up confidently and throw a strike.

It’s plays like this in combination with the learning that will occur given time and his natural athletic ability shown above which continue to make me believe things will get better for Manziel in Montreal.

The reality in all this upbeat hopefulness is that Montreal has several roadblocks to accessing Manziel’s full potential.

Limited practice time, an offensive line trying to figure themselves out in the middle of the season – in last week’s case the middle of the game – and a group of receivers attempting to understand scramble rule chemistry with the most unpredictable quarterback in the CFL right now.

It won’t be easy to do, especially when compounded with limited reps to figure each other out, but if Manziel finds his game and grows together with his offence, improvement will follow closely behind.