Browns defend Manziel from critics who say he can’t be trusted despite improved play

In the aftermath of Johnny Manziel helping the Browns snap a seven-game losing streak Sunday with a 24-10 win over the visiting San Francisco 49ers, some of the polarizing quarterback’s critics have been quick to point out he still can’t be...

Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel reacts Sunday's game with the San Francisco 49ers in Cleveland. The Browns are now in the mode of defending controversial Manziel.

In the aftermath of Johnny Manziel helping the Browns snap a seven-game losing streak Sunday with a 24-10 win over the visiting San Francisco 49ers, some of the polarizing quarterback's critics have been quick to point out he still can't be trusted.

Still, the Browns insisted Monday they have his back.

On NBC's Football Night in America, former Pro Bowl safety Rodney Harrison explained why he doesn't consider Manziel a legitimate franchise quarterback.

"I still think you have to find a starting quarterback," Harrison said. "He's good. He's a really good athlete, so I'd keep him on the roster. But if I'm a guy in that locker room, I don't want to play with Johnny Manziel because I simply can't trust him."

Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy added, "And that's your biggest problem as a head coach when you draft Manziel. You're three years down the road, and you don't know what you have. You don't know if you have a guy you can depend on. That's why I would not have drafted him."


But the Browns (3-10) did draft Manziel — they even traded up four spots to select him 22nd overall last year — so they're going to defend him despite his flaws.

Coach Mike Pettine benched Manziel for the previous two games after the former Heisman Trophy winner partied during a bye-week break, then lied to the Browns about it.

So Pettine knows Manziel is far from perfect — his off-field issues and trip to an inpatient rehabilitation facility this past offseason have been thoroughly chronicled — but the coach doesn't agree with Harrison's assessment.

"The bottom line is [Harrison's] not in our locker room," Pettine said during a conference call. "He doesn't see [Manziel] every day, and I think he'd have a lot more respect for him [if he did].

"Talk to a guy that's in the locker room like [tight end] Gary Barnidge, who sees how he prepares, who sees how he is on the practice field, sees the noticeable difference from a year ago, the improvement there, the commitment, the dedication, the wanting to get it right, making sure that the details are right. So it's hard for me to really lend any credence to any opinions that are outside of our locker room."

Barnidge said Manziel is starting to understand what it means to be a professional.

"I think it has shown in the way he is playing on the field, in practice and in the game and everything else," Barnidge said during a conference call. "I think he is just going to keep learning. He is a young guy. He is going to keep learning and keep maturing as he gets older. I think that is a credit to him, too. We are going to be behind him no matter what, too."

Why are veteran players like Barnidge determined to stick with Manziel despite his persistent problems away from the field?


"You have to stick behind everyone on the team. You can't just alienate certain people and say, 'Oh, we are not dealing with you because of this, this and this,'" Barnidge replied. "Altogether, we are a team. We are going to need everyone on the team to succeed. When it comes to all the other stuff, that is what the coaches help with. We talk to him and we do all that type of stuff as well, but he has to hear it from the coaches and from us. He is going to learn."

Pettine thinks it's easy to see why Manziel's teammates haven't written him off.

"Most of the time they spend with him, the vast majority is in the building. They see what we all see," Pettine said. "Here's a guy that shows up to work every day excited. He puts in his preparation, so he grinds in the meeting room. He asks great questions. He brings up good points. Guys respect that. They can tell when he talks that he's getting into that information when he's out of the building and it carries over onto the practice field.

"They see a guy that's competitive, that wants to win, goes out and works hard on the practice field and it carried over into the game. They see him in game, in the huddle, his presence and what he's been able to do. That gets our guys going. When they see him frustrated after throwing a boneheaded interception and get after himself a little bit, there's some respect there because they see how competitive he is."

Of course, Pettine was alluding to Manziel, 23, throwing his helmet down on the sideline, then smacking himself five times in the head with a Microsoft Surface tablet on the bench after he threw an interception late in the first half against the 49ers (4-9).

"That is part of the game," Barnidge said. "Guys get upset. Nobody says anything when [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady slams his [helmet] down on the ground or anything like that, but because Johnny is always in the media with that kind of stuff, it becomes something that gets brought up. He is just passionate about it. That is something you want. You want someone who is passionate about the game."

The good news for Manziel is he didn't let the turnover or his frustration about it affect him negatively in the second half. He completed 8-of-11 passes for 108 yards with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Barnidge late in the third quarter. He finished 21-of-31 passing for 270 yards and a rating of 92.1 in his first start since his demotion.

"I thought it was a solid performance," Pettine said. "The [interception] before the half is well-documented — that's glaring. Overall, I just think he made good decisions. He was accurate with the football. When he could stay in the pocket, he did and made plays. There were times, we all saw, where he has that special ability to extend the play and was able to do that numerous times with solid success."


Barnidge said Manziel's knack for extending plays from four seconds to six or seven makes him special.

"That is tough for a defense to cover anyone that long," Barnidge said.

It can also energize other players on the offense.

"There might be that excitement underneath, knowing, 'Hey, I'm going to run my regular route. If I don't get it, I have keep this play alive because this play could end up being extended. I could catch the ball dead on the other side of the field,' " Pettine said. "So there's probably some of that to it."

But Pettine was most impressed with the way Manziel used his mind to gain an upper hand against a defense coordinated by former Browns coach Eric Mangini.

"He had great command of the plays being called and then assessing the defense, diagnosing what they were in whether it was pre-snap or post-snap," Pettine said.

Manziel improved to 2-4 as an NFL starter, including 2-2 this season with the other win coming against the Tennessee Titans (3-10), but his audition will soon become more challenging. The Browns' last three opponents — the Seattle Seahawks (Sunday on the road), Kansas City Chiefs (Dec. 27 on the road) and Pittsburgh Steelers (Jan. 3 at home) — are all 8-5 and in the playoff hunt.

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