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Johnny Manziel sets stage for colossal failure or all-time comeback

CLEVELAND -- There never seems to be an in-between with Johnny Manziel.

He wasn't going to be Andy Dalton, a middle-of-the-road starting quarterback who went about his business. He would be wildly successful or a colossal failure. The Johnny Football project was going to work, or completely unhinge. The Cleveland Browns knew this, knew the red flags, still picked him. The star potential was there.

The announcement that Manziel entered a treatment program to "improve" himself stays true to those extremes, because if he comes back from this, becomes a top-shelf NFL starter, what an all-time story that would be. Even if Manziel returns as a quiet, reserved quarterback who produces average results on the field, the recovery from such a massive story would be compelling. Whatever happens, the stage is set for something eye-opening.

NFL players have their problems, but how often do you see a quarterback -- a position that demands polish and grooming from an early age -- show flame-out signs like this, this early, with time still left to correct them? Usually a quarterback loses a job because he doesn't perform. Ryan Leafs are rare.

But Manziel, still just 22, was always different. He doesn't elicit mild, indifferent opinions. He elicits anger or elation, bitterness or excitement. He's Instagram's favorite quarterback. He lives out loud. He cusses in media interviews. He hangs with Drake.

His personality became too strong to allow middling results -- Manziel would change Cleveland football or set it back. Not much middle ground there.

That's why, if Manziel comes back refreshed and is a better quarterback in training camp, if he drops Johnny Football in favor of Johnny Manziel, that's hard to root against. People would accept him. Already, there has been a reasonable level of sympathy on social media for Manziel's decision because he's actually taking ownership of his words that were becoming hollow every time he talked of being "a pro" in the locker room.

It's important to recognize Manziel's challenges -- from the day he was drafted -- were unique. Self-inflicted, yes, but also challenging.

While an Orlando Sentinel reporter in 2008, I spent a day with John Daly. I'm not directly comparing Manziel's problems to Daly's, save one area -- the public demand to validate the off-field persona is serious, and it likely affected Manziel the same way it affected Daly.

I was shocked by how many people encouraged Daly, a well-known drinker with his share of demons, to drink more in their presence. He couldn't be John Daly, golfer. He had to be a caricature that took pictures and downed shots and rubbed his big belly for kicks.

I've heard similar stories about Manziel, that when he goes anywhere, the gravitational pull is strong.

For too long, Manziel was allowed to be Johnny Football, doing Johnny Football things. Manziel's lifestyle was clearly affecting his preparation as an NFL quarterback, and that won't be excused. But TexAgs.com's Billy Lucci, who knows Manziel well, made a good point on ESPN's "The Paul Finebaum Show." Manziel almost became one of those child stars who “became so famous so fast.”

The warning signs were growing, and he could get away with it at Texas A&M. He could flourish on the field with minimal game prep. That doesn't work now.

While working with colleague Pat McManamon on an ESPN.com story chronicling Manziel's rocky rookie year, we made efforts to reach nearly 15 people close to Manziel -- those who have coached him, repped him, are friends with him -- and the response was minimal. Either people were trying to create separation from Manziel or the problems were starting to bubble above the surface, leading to this week's news.

The only way Manziel was going to step back is when he told himself, or others who care told him -- time to pick football or fame.

His inclination is a good one. It's probably not too late. The Browns are willing to give him a second chance.

Now what?

There doesn't seem to be an in-between.