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Johnny Manziel's NFL starting debut shocks in all the wrong ways

CLEVELAND -- The day was supposed to be about hope and playmaking and Cleveland Browns fans thinking their 21st starting quarterback since 1999 might be the last change the team will need to make for a while.

The fans left FirstEnergy Stadium with their heads down -- just like Johnny Manziel after every stalled drive -- and with more questions than when they arrived.

After this Cincinnati Bengals mugging of money Manziel -- and the Bengals flashed dollar signs to prove it -- the Browns are left scrounging for loose change on the floor of the AFC North.

Nobody expected this. Rookie mistakes, sure. But not this. Not 30-0 in the home finale, the Browns' first shutout since 2009 and the last shutout for a first-time starter since Tennessee's Rusty Smith in 2010.

Not the head coach talking about sample sizes after the game, suggesting Manziel is now on a two-game audition to remain in the 2015 plans. Not a noticeably deflated locker room. Not bad footwork, missed zone-read chances and indecisiveness leading to poor throws.

Manziel got no help from teammates, minimal chances to play like LeBron James’ favorite free-wheeling quarterback.

But the Johnny letdown was a reminder of how harsh the NFL can be. The Bengals didn’t just strip the Browns of already-slim postseason hopes. They taunted Manziel, reduced him, tried to disrespect him just like their head coach days earlier. Three different Bengals flashed Manziel’s signature money signs in his face or his vicinity, either after a sack or a big play, because “he kind of brought that on himself,” defensive end Wallace Gilberry said.

“Just to show him this ain’t college,” said Cincinnati defensive tackle Domata Peko, whose Bengals saw the money signs from fans while driving in on the bus. “This is the NFL. You have grown men that are going to be chasing after you, not college kids. ... We’ve got some grown men who have kids that are out here trying to feed their families.”

It would be wrong to make a whole determination about Manziel’s future based on his 10-of-18 passing performance for 80 yards, two interceptions and a 27.3 rating. But there was little on this day to suggest Manziel was ready.

Pettine says Manziel’s limited 2014 performance – Sunday's game, the final two games and his relief work in Buffalo -- is a “decent sample.” That doesn't seem like enough time to evaluate a quarterback, but the statement turns games at Carolina and Baltimore into raw auditions.

“It’s going to take time and reps,” Manziel said. “The best quarterbacks to ever play this game have struggled early.”

A cringe-worthy rookie performance doesn't pair well with the reasons Browns players gave for struggling. Wide receiver Josh Gordon admitted the Browns were getting beaten off the ball. Left tackle Joe Thomas said plays were not run correctly. Penalties stalled drives. How do you “get whupped,” as right guard John Greco said, when the division crown is still possible?

“The kid can make plays,” said Greco when asked about whether Manziel showed him enough encouragement for the future. “We didn’t do enough to help him.”

Perhaps the two-week quarterback haze -- Brian Hoyer’s benching in Buffalo that led to Manziel’s eventual first start -- affected team momentum, though players say no. Hoyer was struggling, but he was the trusted veteran. Pettine had two bad options: Stick with Hoyer and perpetuate the struggles, or play the rookie and risk sending the locker room message, fair or not, that the Browns are playing for next year.

With the lift Manziel could have provided inside and outside the stadium, Sunday was the wrong day for Manziel and the Browns' game plan to be figured out so early. The blueprint was clear-cut: Stop the run, set the edge and force Manziel to play from the pocket.

The Bengals blitzed on two of Manziel’s 24 dropbacks, or 8.3 percent. Eight NFL games had a lower blitz percentage this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Browns didn’t try a bootleg until the third quarter. The Browns ran a few zone-read plays. But on a first-quarter attempt, Manziel kept the ball for a sack instead of handing off to Isaiah Crowell for what appeared to be a sizable gain.

The offensive game plan looked like the Browns couldn’t decide whether to tailor it around Manziel’s skill set or keep it the same as if Hoyer were still running it.

Manziel admits getting the game plan right for him and the offense will be a “growing process.” Manziel was 0-for-4 with two interceptions on passes longer than 15 yards, including an across-the-body pass that was intercepted at the goal line, a pass that Manziel admitted a Pop Warner quarterback shouldn’t attempt.

“I never felt overwhelmed out there,” Manziel said. “Things happen fast and you see certain things that all flash around really fast, but when it came down to it, we just didn’t make enough plays.”

This performance resembled the preseason Manziel. The Browns said he has improved. Manziel said he has improved. They all said he was ready.

Maybe he will be. Manziel and the offense were “on point” in practice this week, Gordon said.

You know Allen Iverson’s words well. We’re talking about making game-day throws, which Manziel looked ready to do when firing the ball around the field before the game. But on a pass to Andrew Hawkins toward the sideline, the arm strength wasn’t there and Dre Kirkpatrick undercut the route for an interception. Maybe indecisiveness, which Pettine said he noticed a few times Sunday, was a factor on that throw.

A less conservative game plan might help Manziel, who needs to find a way to get open space on the perimeter.

For now, with the "Johnny Football" mystique replaced by tough NFL love, Manziel won’t have any more time to learn how to become an NFL quarterback.

He has to be one now.

“You wish the circumstances were better for him, but it’s good for him to learn how rough this league really is,” Gordon said. “It’s really tough and you really have to earn your wins.”