Inside Manziel's rocky rookie season

BEREA, Ohio -- The name on the card that night in May seemed to draw as much anxiety as it did excitement.

Johnny Manziel, Quarterback, Texas A&M.

The former Heisman Trophy winner had been passed over 21 times, prompting a text from Manziel to then-Browns quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains that he wanted to "wreck this league" in Cleveland. The words were actually more R-rated, but the implication was clear.

Twitter erupted at the selection. A Cleveland radio host cheered and screamed openly on air. Manziel gave his "money" sign as he walked onstage to greet Roger Goodell.

By season's end, cheering had turned to frustration and anger as Manziel struggled mightily in almost six quarters as a starter, then was fined for being AWOL the final Saturday of the season. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan resigned with two years left on his contract. Loggains was fired. The Browns openly discussed Manziel's viability as the franchise's quarterback at a wide-ranging postseason staff meeting about the roster. And at least a couple of Manziel's teammates were joking his text should have read "wreck this team."

Now the Browns point to 2015 with a talented but misguided quarterback who must repair the wreckage done in his own locker room.

Interviews by ESPN.com with nearly 20 Browns sources, both on the record and on condition of anonymity, along with several NFL personnel sources reveal the Manziel-related problems run deep.

Those who spoke talked of a yearlong pattern that showed a lack of commitment and preparation, a failure to be ready when given a chance in his first start against Cincinnati and a continued commitment to nightlife, which affected his preparation and work while in the team facility.

As one player put it, Manziel throughout the entire 2014 season was a "100 percent joke."

Some said it should not have been a surprise, that the Browns were well aware what they were getting.

"During the draft process, not one person interviewed by the team said he was going to grow up," said one source directly involved in the drafting of Manziel. "You can't blame Johnny. This is who he is. The team knew that."

ESPN.com requested to interview coach Mike Pettine or general manager Ray Farmer about Manziel, and made several attempts to reach Manziel through intermediaries. The Browns and a Manziel rep from LRMR Management referred specific questions about the quarterback to the interviews all parties gave after the season.

"I need to start doing every single thing and everything the right way and if I don't I'm going to be exposed," Manziel said shortly after the season.

The theme from Pettine and Farmer in postseason news conferences was blunt: It's time for Manziel's actions to back up his words. Farmer did not mention anything from 2014 when asked what made him believe Manziel can succeed. His belief, he said, is based on "everything he did in three years when he was in college."

People close to Manziel say he's a well-intentioned 22-year-old who wants to be great but needed an NFL season to realize natural ability isn't enough.

Some teammates doubt he can ever change. Others are hopeful.

"People make mistakes," cornerback Joe Haden said. "I'm all about giving second chances."

Words and actions

The sequence reeked of contradiction during the last week of the season.

On that Tuesday, Manziel stood in front of about 20 media members and outlined his plan to become the Browns' answer at quarterback. He wanted to be "the guy" for Cleveland, he said, and would do so by taking his job more seriously. He was more animated than he'd been all year, eager to declare his intentions.

Four days later, stories in the Browns' facility began to circulate. Manziel was not present the morning before the season finale. Team security drove to Manziel's downtown home to check on him. The Browns were packing up for the season finale at Baltimore on Dec. 28.

Two team sources said security found a player who they felt clearly had partied hard the night before. One source used the words "drunk off his a--."

The official word was that Manziel was "late," but players said they didn't see Manziel until the Browns' chartered airplane prepared to take off in the afternoon, that he was not present all morning. The team fined Manziel for missing treatment on his injured hamstring, then had him sit in the locker room during the season finale in Baltimore.

"Johnny's his own worst enemy," one source said.

Monday after the season, Manziel had another news conference, saying many of the same things from six days earlier -- actions must support words. That night he was featured in Instagram photos on Miami Beach, a few days later at a club in Houston and a few days after that on a mountain in Aspen, Colorado.

"I brought this on myself," Manziel said the day after the Baltimore game. "I brought these cameras and all these people that are in this locker room right now and I don't think it's fair to myself, I don't think it's fair to anybody in this locker room the distractions I've brought at points in time."

None of his teammates talked about disliking Manziel personally. In fact, a "good guy" theme is prevalent with him. Some players vouch for his work ethic. Left guard Joel Bitonio said "you can tell" Manziel wants to be good and "works his tail off" in the weight room.

But several Browns sources say privately Manziel's words to the media -- he's not the same Johnny Football, he's learned how to be a pro -- simply didn't always match his work.

"He's competitive," said tight end Jordan Cameron, a free agent. "So I'm hoping that competitive nature will get him past all the other stuff. Hopefully he does, and hopefully he figures it out."

Results matched preparation

The Browns have an honor system with fining players for tardiness to team activities -- $250 for first offense, $500 for second, etc. The money can go to charity.

It's uncertain how much coaches collected from Manziel, but one source said Manziel was late often enough that it was never a surprise when he was.

One Browns staffer said he believed Manziel didn't get tough love when attention to detail wasn't there, that the team did not always hold him accountable when he was late.

"He's a kid that I think wants to do well but needs to be shown how, and he didn't always get that help, in my opinion," one Browns staffer said.

Manziel's on-field results were, at best, mixed.

In his first game, in Buffalo in relief of a struggling Brian Hoyer, he led a touchdown drive on his first possession.

But readiness became an issue once Manziel got the starting job the following week. Several sources said Manziel either didn't know the plays in the huddle or didn't call them correctly. The Browns tried to get him comfortable by using shotgun and pistol formations on about 80 percent of his downs and by simplifying the offense.

But more than once, teammates corrected the play call in the huddle, or headed to the line hoping things would work because the call was wrong. Sometimes, the offense would get lined up wrong because Manziel forgot to read the whole play or got the verbiage wrong (saying "left" instead of "right," for example).

Manziel's stat line from his first start: 10-of-18 passing for 80 yards, two interceptions and a 1.0 QBR.

It's not easy for rookies to learn plays, and some struggle. Shanahan's system was by no means simple. Some Browns coaches felt Manziel would have transitioned better with a redshirt season.

When asked recently about rookies transitioning to the NFL, Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said taking snaps under center and learning new terminology takes time for many rookies, though he noted his former quarterback in Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger, adjusted quickly.

Players said the problems they saw in the huddle and on the field against the Bengals were similar to what they saw in practice. Several sources said Manziel did not practice well leading up to his first start, completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes during the week.

Also that week's practices were not full-speed as Pettine tried to rest veterans, which further compounded uncertainty.

Manziel's preparation was marginally better for his second start, at Carolina, although the numbers didn't reflect much of an improvement with a 4.8 QBR.

Some veterans "clearly didn't want to play for [Manziel]" because of the lack of readiness, and they responded better to undrafted rookie Connor Shaw in part because he knew the plays, sources said. It wasn't lost on players that Shaw played through a dislocated finger on his left hand and a rib injury that had him passing blood after the season finale, while Manziel played six quarters before hurting his hamstring, then missed treatment on the injury on the final Saturday because he was still in bed.

One source stressed Manziel worked much harder in his two weeks as a starter than in the previous three months, but it was more like cramming for a test and he could not make up for his lack of work before the starts.

Farmer said Manziel thought he was ready, but once he encountered the speed of the game he realized in a hurry he wasn't.

"He had a positive notion going in, but then it was turned around on him," Farmer said.

Did Farmer believe he was ready? "Sure," Farmer said.

Pettine said he played Manziel hoping for a spark, that Hoyer was struggling to the point he felt he had to make the move.

"We knew that Johnny, for us, was the big unknown," Pettine said the day after the season ended. "It obviously didn't work out."

Shouldn't have been a surprise

The biggest on-field concern with Manziel as he moved into the NFL was whether he could master the nuances of a pro system. At Texas A&M, the emphasis was on tempo, calling plays in a hurry and getting to the line to run plays quickly. In the NFL, pre-snap reads, protections and coverages matter more than tempo.

At A&M, the center made protection calls and Manziel's job was, in part, to find mismatches, often throwing to dominant 6-foot-5 receiver Mike Evans or scrambling when plays broke down.

"The way we talked about him in meetings, the kid never put in the time he needed to -- studying film, organizing workouts, 7-on-7 workouts -- he didn't do it," said one NFC scout with a Southeastern Conference focus. "His thing would be he's going to show up on Saturdays, 'I'm a gamer.' He'd show up for practices and games but that's about it. Johnny thought he was an NFL superstar before he came [into the league]."

One A&M source said Manziel's attitude is catching up to him. Manziel was lax in preparation unless the Aggies were playing a top-tier opponent, such as Alabama or Auburn, when "you couldn't get him out of the film room," the source said. Against Rice or Sam Houston State, not so much.

Farmer will not reveal where any player is ranked on the team's draft board. Sources, though, said Shanahan liked Jimmy Garoppolo, now with New England, or Tom Savage, now with Houston. Debate existed among assistant coaches about Manziel's draft ratings, with some not giving him a first-round grade.

One personnel exec said Manziel is a "talented, unconventional quarterback" whose skill set is wasted when used in traditional NFL sets.

Another exec likened him to a young Brett Favre -- he'll go out and have fun and is confident enough in his ability to offset the nightlife. In one particular draft room, the exec recalls a discussion that Manziel might be a "model citizen" in Year 1 but could revert to partying in Year 2.

"It takes focus and commitment [to succeed in NFL], which he clearly didn't have," the exec said.

Can Manziel become a franchise cornerstone?

John DeFilippo, who succeeded Shanahan as the Browns' offensive coordinator, did not commit to Manziel during his introductory conference call on Thursday.

"We're not sure if our starting quarterback is in the building or not," DeFilippo said. "If he is, great. If he isn't, great too."

Later that evening, owner Jimmy Haslam echoed those remarks while speaking to reporters at an awards banquet.

"We've got to get a quarterback and got to get it fixed," he said.

The Browns stand behind their statement that "actions speak louder than words."

"To me, there should be no sense of entitlement [that] because he was drafted where he was drafted, therefore he is the starter," Pettine said shortly after the season. "We're not going to connect those dots."

The Browns held wide-ranging staff meetings in early January, and coaches and personnel staffers openly discussed Manziel. The meetings did not produce a strong push to cancel the Johnny Football project.

"I think there's an opportunity for the guy to make changes," Farmer told media in late December, believing Manziel can be a "solid starter" in this league. "It's up to him if he's going to make those changes."

One former NFL assistant coach familiar with developing quarterbacks said it was a mistake to draft Manziel, but it would be a bigger mistake to let him go.

Others, though, maintain the problems balloon when a team sticks with an uncommitted player. At least one candidate to replace Shanahan believed Manziel was not the answer, according to a source.

Opinions on Manziel are so varied -- one league insider says "think Steve Young," while ESPN analyst Merril Hoge says think "sixth-round talent" -- that making judgments on his long-term value is still difficult.

Manziel still has support in the building, particularly on the business side because of the attention he commands in stadiums and merchandise lanes. Though the team said football decisions were made without influence or pressure, some coaches and many players had the clear perception the business and marketing end of the team favored the guy whose jerseys would sell.

Manziel led the NFL in jersey sales in July, before taking a training camp snap. His off-field star power is uncommon for most rookies: His super-friends include Drake and LeBron and Bieber.

"What Johnny has to understand is [if] he has another year like he just had, he's not going to be famous anymore," one NFL team exec said. "LeBron James is going to lose his number."