Johnny Manziel ‘looking forward to the challenge’ of second chance in CFL
HAMILTON, Ontario — The Canadian Football League has long been a league of second chances.
Several former NFL players have been granted an NFL career after playing in Canada.
Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel is the latest high-profile player to head up north after signing with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Saturday.
The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M has been out of football the last two years following his release by the Browns in March 2016.
Though he played two games in the spring league this year in Texas, Manziel said being away from football for two years was hard but he’s tried to remain active.
“During the time that I was off, I stayed pretty athletic,” Manziel said Tuesday at Ron Joyce Stadium. “If I wasn’t playing football, I was playing golf, I’m playing basketball; I’m doing something, so I’m never really too far removed from the shape I want to be in.”
The Browns traded up to select Manziel with the 22nd overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. He started just two games as a rookie and had just six starts in 2015 before the Browns released him following multiple off-field incidents.
He knows he’ll have to repair his image if he ever hopes to return to the NFL. He said Sunday he will “never be able to outrun” his past. But he says he’s grown a lot and he’s become a better person over the last two years away from football.
“I went through a lot of adversity and I felt like through that adversity, it’s helped build who I am right now and helps build character when you get down and you get into a hole like that,” Manziel said Tuesday. “I had no choice but to fight my way out of it and I’m thankful for the people I have in my life these days.”
The Tiger-Cats did not take the signing of Manziel lightly.
I spent about 30 minutes speaking with Ticats general manager Eric Tillman Tuesday at Ron Joyce Stadium. He explained how the team did its homework on Manziel before signing him. Tillman spent 10 days in March watching Manziel in the Texas Spring League. Tillman also met with Manziel’s family and spoke with several of Manziel’s former coaches and teammates.
As much as Tillman wants Manziel to succeed as a football player, he also hopes Manziel’s contrition is sincere and that he will continue to grow as a more mature person while in Hamilton.
Tiger-Cats coach June Jones, who was one of the first to offer Manziel a scholarship in high school while Jones was the coach at SMU, said Manziel’s style of play “lends itself to any game.”
“As a rookie, in my eyes, he played very well, when I evaluated him,” Jones said. “On this field, (being) bigger – the scrambling ability he has and more room — I think it’s going to elevate everything that he’s done.
“Everybody said he’s a great teammate and, if you have that quality, you’re going to have success,” Jones added. “He’s accurate with the football. When I worked him out in Los Angeles last August, he was as accurate a quarterback as I’ve had.”
Jones said Manziel is still learning the offense and is “a few weeks away from being comfortable” in the offense but will continue to get more reps to learn the terminology.
“When he opens the playbook, it’s like learning Chinese,” Jones said. “It’s a little different. He’s trying to put what’s similar to what he’s done before and categorize all those things as he goes. It’ll take a little while, but he’ll be fine.”
Manziel should see significant playing time in Hamilton’s two preseason games, beginning June 1 against Toronto at Tim Hortons Stadium. Hamilton begins its 18-game season at Calgary on June 16.
Manziel last played in an NFL game on Dec. 27, 2015, when he made his eighth and final NFL start with the Browns. Manziel was 13 of 32 for 136 yards and an interception in a 17-13 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Manziel, who repeatedly professed his love of football, said he’s going “piece by piece” with his new team and spent the first day of practice on Sunday primarily as a spectator. He was more involved Tuesday, taking a handful of snaps with the second- and third-team units during team drills.
The Ticats have six quarterbacks in training camp and the unquestioned starter is former Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who threw for 3,177 yards and 15 touchdowns to five interceptions in 12 games last season. Masoli has welcomed Manziel and is helping him learn the offense.
“It just confirms to me that he’s who I thought he was,” Jones said of Masoli. “He sits next to Johnny. He’s coaching him. He’s just a first-class person on top of being a great quarterback.”
While Manziel’s reps have been limited, he has been able to take virtual reps thanks to VR glasses that help him see the snaps taken by Masoli and the other quarterbacks.
Manziel said the VR glasses are “really cool” and he spent about an hour using them on Monday.
“It’s cool just to be able to look down and see (Masoli’s) feet and then you can see the progression of the route and what person we’re keying on and why he made certain throws,” Manziel said. “You can definitely take reps without having to be on the field all the time.”
Manziel has also barely left the side of quarterbacks coach Dan Morrison and is asking several questions of veteran receivers like Luke Tasker, Brandon Banks and Jalen Saunders.
“A lot of it is that relationship between quarterback and receiver because a lot of these routes can be broken off a bunch of different ways,” Manziel said. “You have to be on the same page. The quarterbacks, as a collective, we’ve been pretty much on the same page.”
Tasker, the son of former Bills star Steve Tasker, said Manziel has “been doing a great job” since joining the team over the weekend.
“There’s a lot to learn starting camp with no prior minicamp,” Tasker told me. “I think he’s doing exactly what you would expect him to. He’s asking questions and the route he’s taken so far has looked really great to me.”
Tasker, who went undrafted out of Cornell in 2013, said some of the route concepts in a June Jones offense are “very unique.”
“They were unique to me when we installed them and surely Johnny hasn’t seen that stuff before,” Tasker said. “Then, when you add in the bigger field and another receiver, a lot of the stuff we talk about is the timing and depth of routes and how it’s a little bit different from the American game.”
“The biggest thing, offensively, was the motions, and understanding the time and space of the bigger field and another player on the field, and what that means for the route that you’re running,” added Tasker, who was released by the San Diego Chargers following training camp in 2013 and is now entering his sixth CFL season. “For me, it was about how to use the waggle motion and then, honestly, for the next couple of seasons, trying to identify CFL defenses because they do look very different on the field.”
Former UT-San Antonio defensive lineman Jason Neill is a 25-year-old Texas native like Manziel and knew Manziel was a “big deal” in Texas. Neill, who is entering his second CFL season with the Ticats, said his opinion of Manziel hasn’t changed. He still sees a hard-working player who was able to pick apart Alabama’s vaunted defense while at Texas A&M.
Neill even compared Manziel to former Texas quarterback Vince Young in the way that each took over their respective programs.
While Young is 6-foot-5, Manziel is just 6 feet tall and has drawn comparisons to former CFL star Doug Flutie, who is 5-10 and won the Heisman Trophy in 1984. The former Boston College standout had two-year stints with the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots before joining the CFL’s BC Lions in 1990. He set a CFL record with 6,619 passing yards in 1991 and later led the Calgary Stampeders to a Grey Cup title in 1992. He won two more CFL titles with the Toronto Argonauts in 1996 and 1997 and was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player a record six times.
He finally returned to the NFL in 1998 when he was signed by the Buffalo Bills and was selected to his only Pro Bowl.
“That’s a person who I’ve talked to about this, for sure,” Manziel said. “A guy that has laid out the blueprint for what a lot of people here are trying to do. I don’t think the CFL is exactly everyone’s end-game — for some people, it definitely is — but guys are striving to get to the NFL. Doug did that. Guys like Warren Moon did that. They played up here at a very high level and went down and had success in the NFL.
(Flutie) thought this game would translate to what I do very well. He spoke very highly of everything up here and how it shaped him and where he is in his life, so we had good talks about it. I’m very appreciative to have somebody like that that I can reach out and talk to.”
Manziel said Sunday his expectations are tempered but he’s “looking forward to the challenge.”
“When we go into the first preseason game, I’ll probably treat that as a regular game and try to find out what this team does… and start learning the little intricacies of the defense,” Manziel said. “But, for now, I’ve got the routes down and the majority of the concepts; now it’s actually seeing it and keying on who the read person is.
“It’s progressing from day to day.”