BEREA, Ohio (AP) — It’s all in front of Johnny Manziel: The chance to silence the critics and prove he belongs in the NFL. On Sunday, Manziel can re-start his career. His shot at redemption.
Manziel will start Cleveland’s home opener against Tennessee — and fellow Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota — because Josh McCown remains out with a concussion sustained when he was hit while trying to dive into the end zone on the opening drive last week in New York.
This will be Manziel’s third NFL start, and he’s counting on it going a lot better than the two last year when Johnny Football was an ill-prepared, overwhelmed rookie who didn’t look the part of a pro quarterback.
Following an offseason that included a 10-week stint in rehab and a renewed commitment to his profession, Manziel feels more prepared to take on the Titans than he did a year ago when his first start against Cincinnati ended with an embarrassing 30-0 shellacking at home.
“I definitely feel I’m in a lot better place now,” he said Friday. “So I guess if I thought I was prepared then, I think I’m even more prepared now. I definitely feel a lot better.”
Always composed in front of cameras and microphones, Manziel fired back at one of his harshest critics, ESPN’s Merril Hoge. After watching Manziel relieve McCown and struggle in the season opener against the Jets, Hoge said the Browns should “cut bait, get another guy in there and go in another direction — immediately. Move on.”
Manziel had some fashion advice for Hoge.
“Merrill Hoge needs to worry about his big neck ties,” Manziel said with a slight smile. “He’s been that way since I decided to come out for the draft, so I guess that’s part of it, but no extra motivation or extra bump for me or anything like that. It’s just, go out and play and quiet him with the way we go out and win on Sunday. That’s what we want to do.”
McCown had been expected to practice Friday, but coach Mike Pettine said the 36-year-old suffered “a setback” while following the NFL’s protocol on head injuries. McCown briefly stopped to gather his belongings and was not available for interviews while Cleveland’s locker room was open to reporters.
The Browns had assumed McCown might not be ready, so Manziel, who completed 13 of 26 passes with zero TDs in his two starts last year, took the majority of snaps with the Browns’ starters this week.
Recently signed quarterback Austin Davis, who started eight games for the St. Louis Rams, also practiced with Cleveland’s first-team offense. If there’s one thing the Browns — who have had 23 starting QBs since 1999 — have learned in recent years it’s to have their quarterbacks prepared.
Manziel said he’s solely focused on this week’s game and isn’t worried about potentially making a claim for Cleveland’s starting job.
“Josh is injured, so I’m the next guy up,” said Manziel, who will face a Tennesse defense under the direction of Hall of Fame coordinator Dick LeBeau. “My role here is to go out and play well and try to lead us to a win. I’m not looking at anything past this game, anything past the next week. It’s really, go into this game, do my best and from there on we’ll see what happens.”
Last week, Manziel came off the bench after McCown was hurt and played three quarters against the Jets. He completed 13 of 24 passes last week for 182 yards, hooking up with wide receiver Travis Benjamin for a 54-yard TD, the first scoring pass of Manziel’s career. That was the only highlight.
The 6-foot Manziel also threw an interception, fumbled twice and was sacked three times. He gained 35 yards rushing, but Manziel also bailed from the pocket early on several plays, something he needs to correct going forward.
“If he can run for a handful of first downs, then that’s obviously good for us,” Pettine said. “It’s finishing those runs. It’s understanding that ‘Hey, I need to get down.’ That’s hard when you’re close to goal line or you’re close to the first down marker. It’s easy to say to a guy, ‘Hey, be smart. Make sure you go down.’ Instinct takes over.”
His matchup with Mariota, pitting the 2012 Heisman winner against last year’s recipient of college football’s top award, has certainly raised the profile of the Browns-Titans tilt and will boost TV ratings. The two QBs share some background as they were recruited at the same time by Oregon. Manziel wound up at Texas A&M, and Mariota signed with the Ducks.
It will be Mariota’s second straight matchup against a Heisman winner. Last week, he faced Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston, and Mariota threw four touchdown passes in the first half and finished with a perfect 158.3 passer’s rating.
Manziel made sure not to make too much of his faceoff with Mariota.
“Two guys who had careers like we did in college, both Heisman Trophy winners,” Manziel said. “I think it’s cool.”
Notes: The Browns inadvertently spelled Manziel’s name “Maziel” on the injury report. … Starting LB Karlos Dansby practiced after missing two days with a foot injury and said he’ll play Sunday. … The Browns will wear white pants and white jerseys, one of the nine uniform combinations, for the home opener.