(Photos courtesy of Cleveland Browns)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
When you’re 2-9 and just lost a game because you allowed a game-winning field goal to be blocked and returned for a touchdown as time expired you would think Cleveland Browns’ coach Mike Pettine would have more to worry about than his third-string quarterback.
Not when it’s troubled and troubling Johnny Manziel.
Truth be told, there is nothing more important to Pettine, the Browns or the fans who have been booing both lately than the future of Manziel after Pettine took a hard public stance when a video appeared confirming the “reformed’’ alcoholic wasn’t so reformed, at least not on his bye week.
According to Pettine, Manziel lied to him about his off-field behavior while at a party in Texas and so was demoted last week from “starter for the season’’ to “third-string for now.’’
But now starter Josh McCown is out with another shoulder injury, and Pettine is facing the biggest decision of his coaching career this week. Start Manziel at home against the Cincinnati Bengals, one of the Browns’ hated rivals, or stick with untested Austin Davis, who nearly led Cleveland to victory over the Baltimore Ravens Monday night despite being booed by his own fans for not being Manziel?
“There was a lot discussed,” Pettine said. “I wouldn’t say from our end as a staff it was that difficult.”
What wasn’t difficult was doing what is always difficult for coaches under the gun: Not playing his best quarterback in an effort to make a larger point. For that, Pettine deserves credit.
“Austin took advantage of his opportunity on Monday night,’ Pettine said in announcing he was staying with the unknown over the overblown. “He's earned the right to start on Sunday…I talked to the quarterbacks this morning, and I said, given where we are, what our circumstances are, it's safe to say now that this is a weekly thing. The decision was made its Austin for this week. I'm not going to go beyond that.’’
Does that mean Manziel is out of the doghouse but still on a choke chain?
"I don't want to get into the punishment and length of it," Pettine said. "Just felt given the circumstances, where we had placed him, what we had done as a result of what had happened, that Austin was above him and went out and played well. ... It's more about Austin and seeing what he can do than it is about length of punishment.
"These are two players that we both want to see play, is the bottom line. I don't want to declare, 'Hey, this is what it's going to be from here on out.' These are two young quarterbacks that have upside, and we want to see what that upside is. So Austin's the guy for this week."
Johnny Football probably never heard something like “Austin’s the guy’’ since he first discovered football. Manziel has always been The Guy. And part of what comes with that, he thought, was being bullet-proof. Pettine may end up getting fired for teaching him otherwise.
The lesson is simple, which is probably a break for this chowder head. The lesson is there are limits to your boss’ patience.
How long before Pettine caves in and says Manziel’s punishment is like a professional athlete in rehab – 28 days and you’re cured? Longer than Johnny Football –and most of football - expected, it seems.
At 2-9, the Browns are clearly playing for next year, but Pettine may be coaching for his life. But if he returned the starting job to Manziel after declaring he’d “broken the trust’’ with him after only one game, what would it have said about him? Frankly, what would he be telling all his players about the constant battle between what’s right and what’s expedient?
Manziel threw for a career-best 373 yards in a 30-9 loss at Pittsburgh on Nov. 15 in his fifth career start. Two days later, Pettine announced Manziel would be the starter for the rest of the season. Then he went on his bye weekend to Texas and it was bye-bye Johnny Football.
Manziel was active (sort of) Monday night as the third quarterback, only the second time all season Cleveland dressed three for a game. But Pettine barely had 53 healthy bodies, so he had no choice. But when McCown went down he had a choice. And his choice was not for Manziel to stand up.
Eventually Pettine will play Manziel, unless, of course, Austin Davis becomes more popular than Austin Powers. If that happens, he won’t have a decision to make. If it doesn’t he will, and should, insert Manziel at some point. His out then will be that when he demoted Manziel he said it wasn’t a “dead end.’’
But if you only get one game off for “a violation of trust,’’ what would that have made Pettine? It would have made him like his wayward quarterback: Someone whose word you can’t trust.
So hats off to Mike Pettine. Whether he’s around next year or not in Cleveland, he, like Austin Davis, has earned the right to be there with that one decision. Unlike his quarterback, he’s a man of his word.