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Like many others, I was a Johnny Manziel skeptic from the get-go, which is why last week’s news didn’t come as a massive shock. The CFL instructed the Montreal Alouettes to release Manziel, ending the quarterback’s tenure north of the border at one season. Just because I was skeptical doesn’t mean this isn’t disappointing, because it is.
As my podcast-mates Hannah and Jeff would attest to, I gave Manziel credit as he showed improvement as his 2018 campaign progressed. I’ve never once denied the amount of athletic ability is there and fully understood how much potential was there, especially in translation to the CFL game.
In fact, Manziel had started to convince me to the point I viewed him as one of the most interesting and potentially exciting stories heading into the 2019 season. Unfortunately, though, the thing that worried critics the most is what ultimately led to the end of Manziel’s time in Canada: off-field issues.
Despite being presented with options to avoid an outright release, Manziel opted not to do what would have kept him in Montreal. That’s his choice, but it just serves to reinforce one of the largest Manziel narratives: he wasn’t fully committed to playing in the CFL.
I’m not saying Manziel didn’t try and I’m not saying he didn’t take things seriously, but many, including myself, questioned whether he was truly ready to commit for the long haul. What if the NFL didn’t come calling right away? What if he wasn’t an instant success? And what if he ran into challenges, on or off the field?
You and I will never actually know how committed Manziel was, but at least one of those questions wasn’t fully tackled, even if getting to the answer was going to be difficult. It’s too bad, because Manziel had the chance to be a real difference maker with Montreal. And now the team he leaves is left picking up the pieces.
Giving up a big haul for Manziel was a big risk at the time for Alouettes’ general manager Kavis Reed, and unfortunately it has left the team empty-handed. For a team that has struggled mightily to find anything close to a steady quarterback since Anthony Calvillo’s retirement, this was an outcome they didn’t need.
Montreal can’t do anything about it now, though; what’s done is done and they have to make the right calls from here. So much of 2019 now rides on the shoulders of Antonio Pipkin, who shares a lot of Manziel’s on-field qualities.
I strongly encourage you to go read Marshall Ferguson’s outstanding breakdown of both Manziel and Pipkin, because it gives a ton of insight into Montreal’s likely 2019 starter. Pipkin has ridiculous raw ability, can extend the play with powerful and athletic runs, but also struggles in many of the same areas as Manziel did.
Pipkin’s biggest problem is accuracy, which is not unusual for a raw, young pivot. He burst onto the scene in a positive way but regressed as expected once opposing teams got more tape on him. Pipkin finished with just three touchdown passes compared to eight interceptions and his accuracy steadily dropped. But, as Ferg points out, he’s very likely the guy and won’t have to look over his shoulders as he works at being a better quarterback.
Regardless of what happens with Pipkin, or any other Montreal quarterback in 2019, Manziel has left them in a tough spot. The Alouettes gave up a lot to bring him over from Hamilton and invested heavily in him. It really is too bad the most likely outcome came to be.
Putting on a good face and selling your league is an important part of being a professional sports commissioner. But intellectual honesty about where your product is at is just as crucial, though it isn’t anywhere near as common, at least publicly. That’s what I find so refreshing about CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie.
The guy is extremely intelligent and eloquent, which are important traits in his position. But what he lacks is that “professional polish,” and I say that only as a compliment. Instead, he comes off as genuine and knowledgeable while still inspiring confidence in his ability to head up a multi-million dollar business.
Case in point comes from a chat I had with Ambrosie a couple weeks ago. I asked him a fairly broad question that could have gone any number of directions: how would you evaluate the 2018 season? His answer was honest and important.
“2018 was a great success, but like everything, you know you’ve got to sit back and learn,” Ambrosie told me. “Not everything we touched turned to gold. We have to work on the issue of player safety.
“We had one instance in particular with Zach Collaros where, you know, we didn’t do a good enough job of getting him off the field fast enough. There was some learning there, so, you know, I think for as many good things there were a few that need some attention as we…move towards 2019.”
Let’s be honest: the issue of player safety, and specifically head trauma, in professional football is not an easy or comfortable one to talk about. But it’s one Ambrosie feels strongly about, likely because of his long career, at least in part. While the CFL has taken big steps in understanding and preventing head injuries, Ambrosie knows they can still get better.
“We had league meetings in January and this was a subject of quite a bit of discussion,” Ambrosie said. “I think everyone feels strongly that we need to think about options. How we detect those head-to-head hits and should we use the Command Centre is a question that’s on the table. We had an additional official in our playoff games; we thought that was an appropriate way to…put in place something that might help. I think we need to put it all on the table and think about how it can help us.
“We also had a medical conference. All of our team doctors from across the league came together; we talked about that incident in particular. What signs and what signals might we have observed that would have led to getting Zach off the field more quickly?
“We’ve got a great group of doctors across the league that really love the players and they want the players to be safe, as well. It’s collaboration with the medical guys and with our coaches, GMs, and team presidents that I think will lead us to something different than what we did in 2018. I know our fans want us to improve in this area.”
Tackling the issue of head injuries is one of the most important issues in professional football, at any level and in any country. It’s not something the CFL, or other leagues, can sweep under the rug. In being proactive and intellectually honest about the situation shows Ambrosie’s administration is doing exactly the opposite.
It’s just another reason to feel confident the league is in good hands.