BEREA, Ohio — Browns coach Mike Pettine believes rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel is frustrated because he’s not playing.
“I can sense it,” Pettine said Wednesday before the Browns (4-3) practiced in preparation for their home game Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-6).
“I just think that he’s quiet,” Pettine explained. “I just think you feel it.
“The competitor that he is, is one of the biggest reasons we brought him here. So if he didn’t feel that way, I’d be shocked.”
Buccaneers rookie wide receiver Mike Evans, one of Manziel’s best friends and former Texas A&M University teammate, thinks sitting behind Browns starting quarterback Brian Hoyer has been eating at Johnny Football this season.
“He’s the ultimate competitor, so I know he wants to be out there bad,” Evans said during a conference call. “But he’ll do whatever the team needs him to do — sit back and learn or whatever they have him do. He’ll do it. He’s a team player.”
But just because Manziel, the 22nd overall pick in this year’s draft, will fall in line for the sake of the team doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy for him.
“That’s a position that can be frustrating,” Pettine said. “To go from being the guy at A&M, that’s a tough thing as the reality of the season has clearly set in. But at the same time, we make sure that he’s preparing like a starter. [An injury] can happen in the span of one play.
“He goes out and competes and does what he can to get better. None of us have a crystal ball. We don’t know when it could happen. The frustration is natural for him to deal with, but he does have to be ready to go.”
Pettine said Manziel has committed to preparing and has carried himself well in meetings and practices. The coach downplayed a question about Manziel tweeting about a “legendary night” at 4:31 a.m. Monday.
“I don’t know whether he was still up or whether he was waking up early and getting ready to come into work,” Pettine said. “We keep an eye on it. We’re not going to micromanage our guys out of the building. We expect them to be mature and handle themselves. So if something is a cause for alarm, especially in season, we’ll address it.”
Hoyer and Manziel competed for the starting job this past summer in training camp. And although both of them failed to impress in the first two preseason games, the coaching staff named Hoyer the starter for the season a few days before the third exhibition game.
“I think anybody who’s a competitor — which I think we all know that both Johnny and I are great competitors — you want to be the guy on the field,” Hoyer said. “And I know from my past experience, when you’re not playing, you want to be out on the field. Unfortunately, in this sport, there’s only one quarterback. I think he’s done a great job of taking advantage of the reps he gets on the scout team, the reps we give him on offense and just continuing to learn what it is to be a pro.”
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Still, Pettine isn’t the only one who has detected Manziel’s frustration.
“I know if I wasn’t playing, I’d walk around here and I’d be upset also,” Browns strong safety Donte Whitner said. “You can understand that. He’s that type of competitor, he wants to get out there and help the football team, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Do Browns know whether Manziel is worthy of the first-round pick they spent on him May 8?
“He’s certainly shown flashes of it,” Pettine said. “But we won’t truly know until he gets out there in an actual game and in meaningful time.”
Manziel has appeared briefly in two games this season (Weeks 2 and 3). In five snaps, he handed off three times, threw an incomplete pass and caught a 39-yard pass from Hoyer on a trick play negated by a penalty.
But how he would perform for the Browns if given a full workload remains a mystery.
“I think we all do [want to know how Manziel would perform],” Pettine said. “I mean, that’s a question that we need to have answered, but it’s not something that you can force. I mean, Brian’s our starting quarterback. That’s a difficult thing to say, ‘Let’s just go ahead and [play Manziel].’ All the games are meaningful now.
“If it ever gets to the point whether we’re potentially up big, down big, or if there’s a situation that calls for him to go in, we’ll get an opportunity to see him, but there’s a lot of football left to be played. You’re looking for an evaluation at some point, but what I’m saying is I don’t think you can force it.”
Evans is convinced there will be no turning back once Manziel receives a chance to start.
“He’s a great player,” Evans said. “When he gets his shot, I think he’s never going to come off the field.
“The game hasn’t really seen a quarterback like him, I don’t think. They say Doug Flutie and guys like that. But he can throw just as good as the 6-5 prototypical quarterbacks, and he can run like Michael Vick.”
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For example, Manziel irritates the Browns’ starting defense when he runs the scout-team offense in practices.
“[Mobile quarterbacks] make you frustrated, and that’s why he had the success he had at A&M,” Whitner said. “And that’s why I believe that if he gets out there in the National Football League, he’ll be able to run around and make some plays.”
In July during the NFL Rookie Symposium, Evans said Manziel should start for the Browns. Has Evans changed his mind because the Browns have a winning record with Hoyer in the driver’s seat?
“I said that [Manziel should start] because that’s one of my best friends,” Evans said. “I’m going to choose my best friend. That’s their decision. They’re winning now, so you can’t really talk too bad about that.”
In the aftermath of Hoyer leading the Browns to a 31-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Oct. 12, Pettine told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King the franchise still viewed Manziel as its quarterback of the future. Hoyer is in the final season of his two-year contract with the Browns, and it’s still too early to know whether the two sides will work out a new deal.
“We’re hopeful he’s going to be our quarterback one day,” Pettine told King about Manziel. “We just don’t know the day.”
Asked about that comment Wednesday, Pettine said, “We drafted Johnny in the first round. Brian Hoyer, at that point when we drafted Johnny, was very much a question mark, coming off the [torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right] knee, last year of a contract. It was important for us to address that position. Based on how [Manziel has] performed, that he’s shown the ability in glimpses to be a starting quarterback here in the NFL, and that’s the biggest reason that we brought him here. We don’t know what the future holds with Brian. I hate talking about contract stuff, but that’s the reality of the NFL, and we’ll see how it plays out down the road.”
Steve Young and Aaron Rodgers are examples of quarterbacks acquired with first-round picks who sat for years early in their careers and went on to succeed.
Can teams still keep first-round quarterbacks at bay for multiple seasons?
“To me, it’s look at your roster,” Pettine said. “Who gives you the best chance to win? And if you have a guy on your roster that’s doing that for you and somebody’s sitting and waiting, I think the mistakes are made when teams get impatient that they have to know or that guy has to play. I think it’s easy in coaching world because it’s, ‘Hey, who gives us the best chance to win today? We’ll worry about tomorrow down the road.’ ”