After a tumultuous offseason for their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, the Texas A&M Aggies hoped that the start of the 2013 campaign would help quiet the distractions as they began their quest for an SEC title.
But instead of silencing his critics with his play on the football field, Johnny Manziel's return in the second half of the opener against Rice managed to raise even more questions about his character.
Following an NCAA investigation into whether or not Manziel knowingly signed autographs for monetary gain last season, the sophomore signal-caller was suspended for the first half of the opener in what many concluded to be a half-hearted attempt at disciplinary action. More or less, Manziel was let off easy, and from there it would have been rather simple to put his best foot forward in the attempt to repair his tainted imagine.
However, Manziel's behavior as the Aggies began to pull away from Rice late in the game overshadowed his sterling performance (6-of-8, 94 yards, 3 TDs). On several occasions, Manziel appeared to be taunting Rice players, not only with trash-talk and pointing at the scoreboard, but by making light of his recent troubles by mimicking the signing of an autograph as well as rubbing his fingers together to indicate money. Not only did Manziel's antics warrant him an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, he was also subsequently benched for the rest of the game by head coach Kevin Sumlin.
"No matter what the comments are, he'll be playing every week with people chirping, and (chirping back) is not okay," Sumlin said. "Obviously I addressed that on the sideline. But it's something he'll have to deal with every week."
Of course, there's nobody to blame in this situation but Manziel himself. He managed to conduct himself like a model citizen in 2012, letting his play do the talking as he rose from an unknown to earn college football's highest individual honor. However, since then it's been a series of childish offenses, indicating that the fame has gone to his head. Perhaps the immature tweeting or the high-profile partying could be overlooked had he been able to right the ship. Even the autograph scandal could have properly blown over had Manziel conducted himself in a more mature manner, but it seems with the spotlight on, he cannot help himself. Sure, he's merely a 20-year-old college student, but that's no longer an excuse. He is in control of and responsible for his actions, and he's been entirely unapologetic over the past few months. This was far from his first offense, and more than likely, it won't be his last either.
Manziel shoulders the majority of the blame, sure, but how much stock should we put into Sumlin's role in all of this? College football coaches, more so than in other sports, have a crucial job that extends far beyond the football field as they attempt to mold boys into men. Sumlin puts a certain level of trust in his players, but maybe that sort of passive approach is the wrong way to deal with Johnny Football. Sumlin admitted after the Rice game that he did not talk to Manziel prior to the game on how to handle himself upon coming in.
"I didn't say anything to him (pregame)," Sumlin said. "I think at this point we talk about a lot of different things, not specifically what's going to happen during a game."
Sumlin attempted to get Manziel's attention on the sideline late in the game, but it appeared as though the quarterback ignored his fired-up head coach by walking right by him, which certainly would not fly with Nick Saban, Les Miles, Urban Meyer or some of the other big-name coaches in the FBS. It says a lot about the young man that he won't even give his head coach the respect he deserves. Maybe it's a sign that Sumlin is slowly losing control of his locker room, especially considering that A&M needed to suspend four other players shortly before the opener as well for violating team rules.
"Anyone who watches Johnny knows he plays with a lot of passion and emotion," Sumlin said. "It's my job to keep that passion and energy going and keeping it positive. What you don't want to do is kill that emotion and passion because that's what separates Johnny from a lot of different players, but we can do is set him down and say 'that same emotion and passion can be positively in this way.'"
Clearly, Manziel is an emotional player who has supreme confidence that he can beat anyone. He plays without fear, as he showed in taking down eventual national champion Alabama last season in Tuscaloosa, looking about as poised as Peyton Manning, despite it being just his 10th-career start. And if you ask many of his teammates, they wouldn't want Manziel to change under any circumstances.
"That's how he is," junior right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi said. "He is a fiery guy and that's what we love about him. He is not quiet and he's not shy. He is loud and aggressive and that's what makes him Johnny Football, so we love it."
You've got to let Manziel play out his 'Johnny Football' persona on the field, of course. That's understandable and, frankly, warranted. He's a dynamic dual- threat who is virtually unstoppable when he gets rolling. But there's got to be a way for him to play his carefree and fluid style of football without being a reckless team cancer. Manziel, who may very well jump ship for the NFL at season's end, has already been put to task by scouts for his less-than- ideal size and questionable arm strength, but adding the incidents of the last few months sends up a whole new batch of red flags for NFL coaches and GMs. Also, picking apart Rice is one thing (as well as this week's opponent Sam Houston State), but as the season goes on, the target on Manziel's back will only become bigger. How do you think the Alabama defense will respond to getting its chance at beating up on the cocky QB?
It's certainly not too late for Manziel to turn a corner, but the situation has become progressively worse in College Station over the past few months, and if that trend continues, the negative media storm surrounding the quarterback for the rest of the season could be enough to derail A&M's sky- high aspirations.