Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel returned to campus Saturday and showed flashes of the improvisational wizard who took college football by storm the past two years.
But this time "Manzielmania" enveloped the University of Akron instead of Texas A&M. Nevertheless, Johnny Football went back to school, and not even ornery weather could ruin his fun.
Threats of thunderstorms prompted the Browns to run their Family Day. But at least the announced crowd of 20,673 at InfoCision Stadium received an opportunity to watch Manziel do what he does best as the Browns took a test drive in preparation for their Aug. 9 preseason opener at the Detroit Lions.
In the first unscripted, live action of training camp, Manziel's run-around-and-create-something-on-the-fly style was on display more than any other time since the Browns drafted him 22nd overall May 8. It's his greatest strength, though it's not always evident in a regular practice setting.
"It felt good to run," said Manziel, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2012. "And I think the plays we executed on those worked really well."
Manziel continued to work exclusively with the second-team offense, and veteran Brian Hoyer took all of the snaps with the first unit. Coach Mike Pettine said the staff would meet Sunday to discuss when it'll give Manziel his first reps with the starters. On Thursday, Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan suggested it would happen soon.
So is the battle for the starting quarterback job closer than it was when camp opened July 26?
"I wouldn't say that 1/8it's closer3/8. When camp began, Brian was the ones because we had to put somebody out there with the ones," Pettine said. "But they were truly competing against each other, and at some point we will mix the units. I think that it's all part of our evaluation process."
The bottom line is Manziel appears to have narrowed the gap between himself and Hoyer with his performance in the scrimmage. Still, Manziel described his rookie growing pains and attempt to learn the intricacies of the playbook as "a struggle" last week, so he must focus solely on overcoming those obstacles to surpass Hoyer.
"There's no gap that I'm looking at right now," Manziel said after the scrimmage. "It's know the playbook, know everything. There's still so many little things here and there that can throw a play and change a play and a defensive look, and that's stuff that I wasn't used to. Now I'm seeing it, adjusting, learning."
Manziel said he hasn't talked to the coaches about when he'll receive first-team reps, though they're likely on the horizon.
"I'm fine with how things are going and I'm learning," he said. "That's really the only thing I need to be worried about right now."
Excluding red-zone drills, Manziel completed 3-of-7 passes for 14 yards with runs of 9 and 5 yards in 11-on-11 sessions. He almost never dropped back in the pocket, read the defense and struck -- his coaches know he must improve in those areas to succeed in the NFL -- but he found unconventional ways to make plays, including on read option and out of the pistol formation.
"He made a couple nice runs, made some nice throws," Pettine said. "Where most quarterbacks would step out of bounds, he got two completions there."
With Manziel operating against the second-team defense on both of his series, the offense went three-and-out the first time before bouncing back for a 16-play, 63-yard drive that ended with receiver Taylor Gabriel being tackled for a 6-yard loss after catching a short pass from Manziel on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
"The first drive came out a little sloppy," Manziel said. "But from there I thought I was proud of my group."
Manziel kept the long march alive earlier when he completed a 14-yard pass to undrafted rookie receiver Willie Snead on fourth-and-5 from the 34. On first-and-goal from the 9, Manziel rolled to his right and connected with tight end Gary Barnidge in the back right corner of the end zone, but the officials ruled Barnidge caught the pass out of bounds ("I can't really tell," Manziel said. "We'll see on film if he got his feet in.") On first-and-goal from the 4, Manziel threw a dart to receiver Charles Johnson in the front of the end zone, but he dropped the ball when rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert ran into him.
With those missed opportunities among the culprits, the Browns didn't score a touchdown on offense all day.
"We have to convert when we get into the red zone," Pettine said. "The field gets tight there. The defense can take some chances, and they did and that's something we're going to get a lot of work on."
Hoyer completed 7-of-11 passes for 56 yards in team drills other than the red-zone periods. He faced the first-team defense in two series and the second unit in another series. He opened the scrimmage with 40 yards passing on the opening march against the starting defense, but the offense eventually stalled.
"I thought Brian, especially in that first series, converted some third downs and was poised in the pocket," Pettine said. "He stepped up and made some throws."
Against the second-string defense, Hoyer helped the offense move but couldn't keep it going. The series ended with kicker Billy Cundiff's successful 53-yard field goal.
"I think we got some good work in," Hoyer said. "Obviously, we have a long way to go."
Manziel did not commit a turnover, but Hoyer threw an interception in a red-zone drill. On fourth-and-5 at the 20, undrafted rookie defensive lineman Jacobbi McDaniel tipped the ball near the line of scrimmage, allowing outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo to intercept the deflected pass and return it nearly 50 yards before right tackle Mitchell Schwartz tackled him.
"It's definitely tough because I think 1/8the intended receiver3/8 was pretty much wide open to go up the middle of the field," Hoyer said. "It's definitely something that you've got to work on, and it's a feel and being in the pocket. No matter what, it's on you because you can't throw it to the 1/8other3/8 guys."
Mingo accurately stated the defense "came out on top," but he also acknowledged a more notable development: Manziel broke loose. Defenders will certainly aim to stop him in his tracks, but they've got to catch him first.
"If he was a regular quarterback in this league, you'd be licking your chops, but it's Johnny Manziel," Mingo said. "He can plant. He can take it the other way. You just never know what he's going to do."
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