BEREA, Ohio — Johnny Football kept falling and falling and landed in the Dawg Pound.
Johnny Manziel, college football’s most entertaining player with the reputation for pulling off magical plays on the field and making headlines off it, was selected with the No. 22 overall pick in the NFL draft on Thursday night by the Cleveland Browns, who hope they have finally found their franchise quarterback.
Manziel sat patiently in the wings at Radio City Music Hall, waiting nearly three hours for his name to be called as everyone from Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the league’s official Twitter account tweeted about him squirming in his chair backstage.
Then the Browns, who made two earlier trades, made a third with Philadelphia and nabbed the polarizing and electrifying Manziel.
As he walked onto the stage to meet Commissioner Roger Goodell, Manziel rubbed his fingers together, a signature “money” gesture that endeared him to some fans and annoyed others critical of his reputation for partying and the “inadvertent” violation of NCAA rules involving signing autographs that got him suspended for a half last season.
In Cleveland, some Browns backers celebrated Manziel’s selection like the team had just won the Super Bowl. Of course, the Browns have never even made it to the NFL’s showcase event and haven’t won a title since 1964 – a golden anniversary that will arrive in December. But Manziel brings hope to a city that has witnessed little but losing since the Browns returned as an expansion team in 1999.
Manziel now must back up all the hype around him.
“Obviously, the team really wants to win and they want to win now,” Manziel said. “I’ve been a winner everywhere that I’ve been. Whatever the situation may be, I’m going to work extremely hard to put myself in the best position to continue that trend of being a winner.”
Manziel’s size – he’s listed at just under 6-foot – scared away some teams, but he believes his playmaking skills translate to the pro game.
“I’m used to that by now,” he said. “In the two years that I’ve had in college, I think I’ve been very scrutinized and nitpicked, as far as my game goes. For me, the one thing I’d like to say is I improved from my first year playing to my second. I got better. All I’m trying to do throughout these next few years is continue to get better and hone in on my skills and become a better player. I think if I do that, I can be really good.”
Manziel is expected to compete with starter Brian Hoyer, who showed promise last season before suffering a knee injury.
Browns general manager Ray Farmer said he reached out to Hoyer, who is looking forward to competition at quarterback and told him to “bring him (Manziel) on.”
Manziel brings an instant buzz and national relevance to the Browns, who have made the playoffs just once since in the past 15 years and have lost at least 11 games in each of the past six seasons. Cleveland is on its third coach in three years, but Mike Pettine is inheriting a team with potential and five Pro Bowlers on its roster.
And now, he’s got Manziel – and the circus that comes along with him.
Pettine, who was in New York when Tim Tebow played with the Jets, said he’s not concerned about all the extras that accompany Manziel. He expects the Heisman Trophy winner to be warmly received by his new teammates.
“I think you’re going to see guy that’s going to come in and go to work, he’ll compete right out of the gate and immerse self in wanting to learn,” Pettine said. “He’s not walking into the building with an entourage. He’s walking in as a teammate and I think when you talk to the people at Texas A&M, the people who have been around him before, once he’s inside the locker room, he’s one of the most well-liked guys on the team.”
The Browns have to hope the No. 22 pick doesn’t haunt them again. That’s the pick they also used on quarterback Brady Quinn, whose first-round slide in 2007 was similar to Manziel’s drop, and they also drafted Brandon Weeden two years ago at 22. He was released in March.
Manziel is already selling tickets. The team’s sales staff received dozens of season-ticket renewals in the minutes after Manziel was picked, a bell ringing in the upstairs of Cleveland’s headquarters with every sale.
Pettine said Manziel won’t be promised anything other than a chance to play.
“I don’t think you just hand jobs to people when they come in.”
Earlier, as Manziel waited, the Browns made two trades and selected Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert with the No. 8 pick.
With the first deal of the draft, the Browns moved down five spots and acquired Buffalo’s No. 9 pick and first- and fourth-round picks next year. Cleveland then swapped picks with Minnesota, acquiring a fifth-rounder before taking Gilbert, who they plan to play on the opposite side of Pro Bowler Joe Haden.
“He’s long. He’s fast. He’s explosive. He’s a playmaker,” Farmer said of Gilbert. “He’s got great arm length. He’s got the speed. He’s got the ball skills. I know some people have questioned his tackling. We cover like Browns, tackling was good, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be great.”
Gilbert wasn’t sure the Browns were that interested in him until he was getting ready to head to New York.
“It’s a dream come true,” Gilbert said in a conference call. “I became friends with him (Haden) not too long ago and he’s a great guy and I’m looking forward to playing with him.”
The 6-foot, 202-pound Gilbert had seven interceptions last season, returning two for touchdowns.
“I pretty much can do it all,” Gilbert said. “I’m an all-around cornerback.”
Cleveland entered the most important draft in its expansion era with 10 picks, ample ammunition for Farmer, promoted when president Joe Banner and GM Michael Lombardi were fired in February, to add talent and depth to a team that went 4-12 last season and fired coach Rob Chudzinski.
During the winter, the Browns, who entered the draft with five of the first 83 picks, did an exhaustive study on quarterbacks with Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater reportedly emerging as the top candidate.
In the end, Manziel was their man.