Johnny Manziel's road to CFL stardom won't be easy

Manziel sacked to cap off first drive in CFL (0:38)

Johnny Manziel's first drive with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats ends with a turnover on downs as he is brought down for a sack. (0:38)

Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was first published on June 1.

The wider field won't impede Johnny Manziel in the Canadian Football League. Neither will the 20-second play clock, the 12-man defensive looks, the punts on third down nor the pre-snap motion. It's all of it, all at once, all while Manziel is in a hurry to master this league so he can move on to the next.

Most American quarterbacks need a year or more to adjust and thrive in the CFL. But if Manziel is to return to the NFL when his two-year contract expires, he must speed up the traditional timetable and put extended periods of high-end play on tape right away. That process will continue Saturday in what is expected to be his second preseason appearance, in Montreal against the Alouettes, scheduled for a noon ET kickoff on ESPN+.

"Some guys come up here and they can have success right away," said Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly, the CFL's Most Outstanding Player in 2017. "But it takes some time to really understand what's happening. It's hard. It's hard to be successful here right out of the gates. That's definitely going to be a challenge."

To be fair, most quarterbacks who migrate north don't have Manziel's athletic skills and pedigree. Reilly, for example, went undrafted in 2009 out of Central Washington. He was released by four NFL teams over 18 months before moving to the CFL, and only after spending two seasons on the bench did he get a chance to start in 2013.

Current Tiger-Cats starter Jeremiah Masoli spent three seasons on the bench after signing in 2013 out of Mississippi. Hamilton coach June Jones has said he is committed to Masoli as the starter, but some of Jones' other public comments -- such as when he said last winter that Manziel would be the "best player to ever play up here" -- suggest he is eager to get Manziel on the field.

"I think Johnny will come fast because we're not going to change things from here on," Jones said last week. "He has the whole offense in, and he's been running it on the field. Now, does he know what he's doing with it yet? No. But because we're repping it all with him now, he's going to come faster than what is typical."

Manziel has acknowledged the steep learning curve but told reporters before his first preseason game that he has "a pretty good grasp on almost everything that we're doing." He said he has played Jones' run-and-shoot scheme "a million" times on EA Sports' "NCAA Football," and Jones said his approach in many ways mirrors the three- and four-receiver sets Manziel utilized at Texas A&M.

"I looked at every pass he threw in the NFL out of a four-wide, a three-wide, out of an empty set," Jones said, "and he threw the ball just like he did in college out of those. What the NFL did to him is put him in something he had never been in before. Never in high school, never in college, he had never run what he was asked to do. But when he was asked to do the things he had done, which is what he'll be asked to do here, he looked like an All-Pro."

Indeed, 97 percent of Manziel's throws in college came out of sets with at least three receivers on the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That number dropped to 70 percent over two seasons with the Cleveland Browns.

But Jones' enthusiasm for his scheme, and Manziel's fit in it, glosses over the more fundamental challenges of this transition. People I spoke with last week reinforced what others said during a trip to Hamilton in 2016: American visions of Manziel mirroring the success of Doug Flutie, another Heisman Trophy winner who moved north to find success, are outdated. Rather than scramble madly from wide sideline to sideline, successful CFL quarterbacks must now throw accurately and efficiently from the pocket, above all else.

If anything, the league's three-down structure discourages quarterbacks from taking chances on unscripted runs or off-schedule throws. Lost yardage on first down, or even a minimal gain, leads to the NFL equivalent of third-and-long, effectively quashing drives. Historically, according to league data, CFL teams convert first downs on second-and-10 or longer between 12 and 14 percent of the time. In 2017, they converted 35.9 percent on plays of second-and-7 or longer.

"A lot of guys start out up here by extending the play and trying to make things happen downfield," Reilly said. "That's how you can make up for a lack of seasoning. But that's only going to take you so far. Defensive coordinators aren't stupid. They can take that away and keep you in the pocket. You have to be able to go through your progressions and understand what the defenses are and where the advantages are."

While he appreciates Manziel's mobility, Jones said that -- if anything -- it's less important in the CFL than in the NFL.

"Accuracy is the most important thing," Jones said. "A lot of times, people think it's guys with mobility and that kind of stuff, but to me, it's always been accuracy with the football. You look at the guys that are at the top of the league with a chance at the Grey Cup, they're not runners. They're accurate passers. If you want to win it all, you have to have a guy that can see a guy and hit him."

Can Manziel be that player? Jones thinks so. And you might be surprised to know that in his final college season, Manziel led all qualified players in completion percentage on throws from the pocket (73.5). But first, Manziel will have to master a set of rules and alternate structures that have tripped up many American quarterbacks north of the border.

During a phone conversation last week, Reilly detailed five differences quarterbacks have to adjust to while transitioning to the CFL. Here are those five differences in his words:

1. Twelve players on each side

Reilly's breakdown: "Having 12 guys on offense, that sounds great. OK, I get an extra receiver. But the additional guy defensively allows defensive coordinators to draw up so many different coverages that you don't even see in the States. There are essentially three safeties. When you get an extra guy out there, they can bring pressures that they can't bring in the States. They can drop into certain zone coverages and things like that.

"You have your typical zones that you see in the NFL or in American football: Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4 and some combination. You may get two to one side, four to the other side, two-man, man, things like that. But the way that the defensive coordinators here can create different schemes in different zones, it's not the same as in American football. The windows aren't the same. How you read different coverages is not the same."

2. Only three downs

Reilly's breakdown: "You have to be extremely efficient with every single play that you have. We don't have that extra down. We can't just go in there and pound the ball up the middle and run the ball and try to get yards. If we're going to run the ball on first down, we have to get 4 or 5 yards for it to feel successful. Likewise when you're throwing the ball on first down. You need yards."

3. Wider (about 12 yards) and longer (10) fields

Reilly's breakdown: "When we're on the left hash and we're throwing the ball to the right sideline, you're talking almost the width of an American football field. And so the windows that you have to be comfortable throwing in are different, understanding that the ball is going to be in the air longer and that the defensive backs have more time to break. That cushion that you might have in American football where a guy is open and you throw it, here that cushion and that window is different.

"You see it all the time with young guys that come up here and try to throw a corner route to the field side and the ball skips 10 yards short of the wide receiver. They're like, 'Wow, I've got to recalibrate and readjust.' Everybody generally has a strong-enough arm to do it, but understanding what makes a guy actually open enough to throw the ball requires a different thought process."

4. Twenty-second play clock and two timeouts

Reilly's breakdown: "If you're [at the line of scrimmage] and things are a little bit confusing, in American football, it's the second quarter, you can burn a timeout. There's no problem with that. Here in Canada, we get two timeouts for the game, we only have one challenge per game and we have to have a timeout to use a challenge. So if it's the second quarter and we burn a timeout, we've just limited ourselves in what we can do potentially in crunch time if we need to throw a challenge flag.

"You can't just snap the ball and throw it out of bounds, because it's second-and-10 and you've pretty much wasted that drive. So that's a big change as a quarterback, is knowing where the play clock is at all times and being able to get your guys in and out of the huddle at a fast tempo.

"You have to be able to assess what the defense is doing in a very short period of time, and if you're trying to change out of the play with a pressure check, the operation has to be very, very quick. So I think everything in terms of mentally what you have to do pre-snap, it is all much more sudden."

5. Pre-snap motions

Reilly's breakdown: "That changes everything, too. It is an advantage to be able to have three or four receivers motioning from one side of the field to the other, and motioning toward the line of scrimmage to get a running start against the defense. That's all great. But what you have to understand, too, is that the defense is also going to be moving around and making adjustments based on your motion. So when you're at the line of scrimmage and you send your receivers in motion, you've got about two or three seconds before you're going to snap the ball, and what the defense was showing you before the motions versus after the motions is going to be completely different.

"A big change is being able to process things way faster after the ball is snapped. ... You've got to be able to catch the ball in shotgun, see the ball coming from the center and also see what the defense is doing. So it really does test whether or not you can process information in a very short amount of time."

Each day during the season, the Eskimos wrap up practice at about 12:30 p.m. local time. Reilly said he stays at the stadium as late as 7 p.m. to watch film. His advice for Manziel, and any young American quarterback, is to "make sure you spend every minute you think you should spend in the film room -- and then add an extra hour or two."

Manziel's work habits in Cleveland were weak. He won't have it any easier in Canada. There is no cheat sheet in the CFL, and much less opportunity to get by on athleticism than you might think. Manziel can't guess his way through the playbook or freelance through games. If he makes it with the Tiger-Cats, he will have earned it. The journey starts now.