DETROIT — There was the pistol formation. There were option plays. There was Kyle Shanahan calling the shots from the sideline for a rookie quarterback with a Heisman Trophy on his college football resume and enormous expectations for his NFL career. There were postgame questions for the young quarterback and the head coach about how long the quarterback can last playing this way.
Scenes from the 2012 Washington Redskins with Robert Griffin III?
Nope. It was Saturday night at Ford Field with Johnny Manziel making his preseason debut for the Cleveland Browns.
Manziel 2014, at least on opening night, looked an awful lot like Griffin 2012. The common denominator, of course, is Shanahan, the former Redskins offensive coordinator who, along with his father Mike, designed the offense for Griffin’s rookie season in Washington that borrowed elements from the college game to take advantage of Griffin’s varied skills. After the Shanahans were ousted in D.C. following a tumultuous, three-win 2013 season, Kyle landed in Cleveland overseeing the Browns’ offense for first-year head coach Mike Pettine.
Last week, Redskins veterans wondered how closely Shanahan’s offense for Manziel as a rookie would resemble his offense for Griffin as a rookie. Based on Saturday’s early returns, the answer appears to be: rather closely.
“He liked getting me in looks that I’m a little more familiar with, and able to see the field a little bit better like I had the past few years in college,” Manziel said following the Browns’ 13-12 loss to the Detroit Lions. “I felt like the looks were what’s part of our offense. I think Kyle does a good job of helping me get some completions and putting me in some good situations.”
Pettine called it “part of what Kyle does.”
Manziel’s play Saturday wasn’t perfect. He missed some reads in the passing game. Not all of his throws were delivered on time. Even so, he showed promise. Playing with and against backups, he demonstrated elusiveness as a runner and he seemed to grow more comfortable and more confident in the pocket as a passer as the night progressed. He completed seven of 11 passes and he ran for 27 yards on six carries.
But he also took some hits and was examined on the sideline at one point by the team’s medical staff. Both Pettine and Manziel were questioned by reporters afterward about Manziel’s number of rushing attempts.
“That’s something that we’ve talked about that he’s got to adapt somewhat that he can’t always look to run,” Pettine said. “But I’m sure some of the situations tonight he didn’t have much choice.”
The Redskins won the NFC East in Griffin’s rookie season. He was the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year. But the season ended with him failing to finish a playoff game and then undergoing knee surgery. Those who supported the way Griffin was used pointed out that his injuries that season didn’t result from plays that were designed for him to run, but from his improvisations. Other observers who think a quarterback can’t last in the NFL as a regular runner maintained that wasn’t the point; the point, in their view, was that Griffin simply was being exposed to too many hits and facing too much risk of injury.
Mike Shanahan spoke in the offseason after Griffin’s rookie year about Griffin learning to protect himself better by developing an improved sense of when to slide, run out of bounds or throw the ball away to avoid hits. Manziel did demonstrate some savvy Saturday in protecting himself as a runner.
“Obviously that’s not the plan for me to get that many carries every week, I would say,” he said. “But at the same time, the more and more I get better at the progressions, the more and more I get comfortable with the play calls and the scheme and what we’re trying to do and pre-snap looks, the more and more I continue to get better over time… hopefully that’ll weed out. So I think obviously if it was a full game I would have had some more runs tonight, obviously. But the times I did take off, I felt like I got out of bounds, slid and tried to protect myself in the the best way that I could. I feel fine.”
Pettine wasn’t drawing any conclusions, at least not for public consumption, about his team’s quarterback competition based on the play Saturday of Brian Hoyer and Manziel. After Hoyer started Saturday, it would make sense for Manziel to get his turn as the starter in the Browns’ next preseason game a week from Monday against the Redskins at FedEx Field. But Pettine said Saturday night that decision hadn’t been made yet. Manziel said he’s focused on learning and improving.
“For me it’s all about getting better,” Manziel said. “If I’m the guy that puts the team in the best position to win, then we’ll see what happens. But if not, then I’m here and at the end of the day what I want is what’s best for the Cleveland Browns, whichever quarterback that is. Whichever way that I can help this team, that’s what I’m all about…. I just need to continue to get better as a player, continue to learn, soak everything in from this film to this experience I had tonight. And then things will play themselves out the way they’re supposed to.”