When Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel shattered the Heisman Trophy barrier that had kept freshmen from winning the award throughout its 78-year history, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. The exclusive Heisman winners club had admitted its first sophomore, the University of Florida’s Tim Tebow, in 2007, and two years after that, University of Alabama sophomore Mark Ingram won his Heisman.
Manziel had been surprising college football observers all season. He wasn’t projected to win the Aggies starting quarterback job when fall camp began in August, but every week, Manziel was proving that a 19-year-old freshman – one, mind you, with extraordinary talent who plays in the perfect offense to fit his outlandish skills – could compete with some of the scariest defenses in the Southeastern Conference.
Manziel broke barriers, but really, we should have seen this coming.
“For kids who come out of high school and into college, it doesn’t matter what year you are,” Manziel said as he basked in the afterglow of his unprecedented award. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman …”
No, it doesn’t. Manziel, in winning the Heisman last month, bested Notre Dame senior linebacker Manti Te'o and Kansas State senior quarterback Collin Klein. At the beginning of the season, not many could have predicted those would be the three Heisman finalists. Nobody – and certainly not Manziel – would have counted on Manziel winning.
But that’s where football is today in college and in the NFL. Age doesn’t matter. Neither does experience. Do you have talent, and do you have a coaching staff willing to exploit that talent? That’s what matters these days.
Look at the three top rookie NFL quarterbacks of 2012:
- Andrew Luck, the No. 1 draft pick, helped the Colts complete an astounding turnaround, going from 2-14 in 2011 to 11-5 and a playoff team this season.
- Robert Griffin III, the No. 2 draft pick, was even better than Luck, showcasing his otherworldly abilities while leading the Redskins to their first 10-win season in seven years.
- And Seahawks third-round pick Russell Wilson – who, much like Manziel, wasn’t even supposed to be his team’s starting quarterback this season – leads the hottest team in the league heading into the postseason.
NFL rookie quarterbacks have never been this good.
“It’s all because colleges now are running pro systems,” said Mike Freeman, a senior NFL writer for CBSSports.com. “These guys run almost identical systems than what the pros are running. They’re not as shocked and overwhelmed by the [terminology] and formations. You used to hear that the speed from college to the NFL is different, but you’re hearing that less and less now. They come into the league with the same level of – or better – athleticism than the guys that are already in it. They aren’t as intimidated.”
That’s not the only phenomenon that’s occurred within the past few years in the NFL. What’s even more surprising than this influx of young talent who can compete immediately is that NFL coaches are allowing it to happen.
Typically, NFL coaches are more conservative than Goldwater. But the league owners locked out the players following the 2010 season in a labor dispute, and teams lost most of their offseason training time with the rookies. That meant the coaches had to adjust to their newest players’ talent instead of the other way around.
In part, that’s one reason a player like Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton could have the best rookie season of any player in history in 2011. Desperation by coaches forced a paradigm shift in the way they ran their football teams. No longer could coaches afford to stick a multi-purpose quarterback like Newton, Griffin and Wilson into an offense that runs the typical pro-style scheme where the quarterback remains in the pocket on most plays.
If a coach takes that route these days, making the rookie conform to his wishes, he’s probably undermining his team’s chances of winning.
“You had guys like Cam Newton, guys that ran the spread offense in college, and you had to adjust to their skills,” said former NFL defensive tackle John Thornton, who played for the Titans and Bengals from 1999-2008. “But the lockout showed the coaches a blueprint. If you put aside your ego and not try to make everybody the next Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, it can work.”
Since I started writing my e-book, “Johnny Football: Johnny Manziel's Road from the Texas Hill Country to the Top of College Football,” one of the questions I’ve heard most frequently is how Manziel would fare in the NFL. At this point, that’s hard to say. He’s still not a finished product, and though Wilson, at 5-foot-11, has begun to disprove the theory that short quarterbacks can’t win, NFL talent personnel still would blanch at Manziel’s 6-1 frame (in reality, he’s probably closer to Wilson in height).
Manziel’s biggest worry would be that NFL teams don’t run the kind of progressive offense Texas A&M had so much success with this season. But the rookie quarterback crop of the past two seasons has begun to change that thinking. If Manziel could find a coach who is willing to bend his offense to fit Manziel’s considerable, yet unorthodox skills, Manziel could have a future of fortunes in the NFL.
“He’s a playmaker,” Thornton said. “As long as he continues to develop as a quarterback, he’ll be fine. I know he’s smaller, but if you’re good enough, people will tailor an offense around you.”
And Manziel, from what we’ve seen so far, is good enough.
Josh Katzowitz covers the NFL for CBSSports.com and has just released an e-book original entitled JOHNNY FOOTBALL: Johnny Manziel's Road from the Texas Hill Country to the Top of College Football.