How Did Johnny Manziel Fail In the CFL?

The CFL is Canadian. The CFL has tried time and time again to expand its market southwards towards the United States, including an ill-fated expansion and TV deals that never went anywhere. One day in August 2018 however, viewership for the CFL in the United States soared to over 400,000, even higher than the previous year’s Grey Cup ratings in the same country. The CFL had never even touched those numbers in the USA since 1980, 38 years before.

The phenomenon? Johnny Manziel. After a turbulent two years with the Browns, the former NFL first-round draft pick held his head high and moved up his talents to the great north. Originally with the Ti-Cats, Manziel was traded to the Alouettes in a package that included offensive linemen Tony Washington, and future All-Star Landon Rice, in exchange for defensive lineman Jamaal Westerman, wide receiver Chris Williams, and Montreal’s 2020 and 2022 first-round draft picks.

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Manziel didn’t last more than a season with the Als. He went back to play for the short-lived AAF’s Memphis Express, throwing the ball a grand total of eight times. He didn’t make the cut for the XFL and is now playing Arena Football for the Fan Controlled Football League. Manziel’s career has touched every avenue of professional football. The CFL was touted as the saviour, where he would get back to his roots, so why wasn’t it?

Manziel’s time in the CFL was full of ups and downs. His first career start where he threw four picks, then a subsequent improvement in the following weeks, including a performance where Manziel almost led the Alouettes to a comeback upset over the Roughriders. He entered the off-season expected to compete for the starting position the following season, which would never come to fruition.

Manziel on his debut with the Montreal Alouettes, August 3, 2018 – Graham Hughes/CP

The league had been attempting to bring Manziel north since his contract termination by the Browns. The Ti-Cats tried in 2017, failing when Manziel demanded too much money and the league needed extra vetting. They were then successful in 2018, but there were certain conditions that Manziel needed to meet.

Manziel, diagnosed with bipolar, needed to attend weekly meetings with a therapist, undergo lithium testing and meet with other mental health professionals. The attempt to keep Manziel from meeting the same fate he had with the Browns, most likely due to the franchise’s front office not keeping a tab on his issues, was a good idea by the league but had one fatal flaw. The conditions were strict enough that it would void Manziel’s contract and ban him if violated. A good-willed decision to keep a team’s investment stable and motivated but Manziel viewed it differently, an out clause provided by a league unsure how to handle his character.

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At the end of the season, Manziel stated his happiness with his situation and his play had been improving. He may have not had the workings of a CFL starter, but his football career was not in the complete gutter as of yet. Montreal was using a QB carousel for a good bulk of the season, leading to him and Antonio Pipkin getting game-time. Manziel’s season stat line of five touchdowns to seven picks, 1,290 yards on a 64.2% pass completion rate wasn’t necessarily notable, but when compared to Pipkin’s three touchdowns to eight picks and 1,120 yards on a 59.5% completion rate, it looked like Manziel could definitely compete against Pipkin for a starting spot.

Though the team had recently acquired Vernon Adams Jr., Manziel was in consideration for the starting job in 2019. That would all come to an abrupt end, however, and the CFL stepped up and put an end to the Manziel experiment in Montreal.

The CFL banned Manziel in February 2019, and his contract was voided. Alouettes’ general manager, Kavis Reed, attempted to fight it due to the assets given up in the trade for Manziel, but purportedly head coach Mike Sherman wanted to shop Manziel around the league prior to the ban anyway. Manziel had missed mandatory meetings and paid the price. He signed with AAF the following month, started one game, threw a pick and two weeks later, was unemployed again.

Johnny Manziel, formerly of the Memphis Express – Wade Payne/Associated Press

In 2022, Manziel has given up on professional football. He’s currently a player coach for an indoor football league where the gimmick is the fans call the plays and he makes $400 a game. Manziel seems to be completely happy with the direction his career has taken, saying to ESPN “I don’t have the drive to play football at a high level anymore. I don’t have a drive to be the best football player anymore that I used to have in my life, and I’m OK with that.”

“I had an ample amount of opportunities to put my career on a different path, and for whatever reason it was, whether it was me being young or just not seeing life through the right lens at that point in time, I squandered a good opportunity,” Manziel said.

Johnny Manziel, Fan Controlled Football Zappers – Kevin C. Cox/Fan Controlled Football / Getty Images Sport / Getty

And it’s evident more than ever with Manziel’s current position in the Fan Controlled Football League. Manziel was the league’s big attraction in 2021, people tuned in on Twitch to see him play. He started two games, didn’t play again for another six weeks and then was pulled cause of poor play. Manziel and the FCF reached an agreement in 2022 to bring him back with Manziel becoming a player coach. FCF’s second season started this past week and Manziel didn’t suit up. He chose to utilize his position as a coach, in a league where he doesn’t call plays. He sat on the sidelines, watched, and gave moral support.

Manziel’s fall from grace is something I come back to regularly. I’m a big Texas A&M fan and I followed him to the CFL when I saw the signing. He was my first introduction to the league and beyond that, football that wasn’t exclusively the NFL. Manziel’s failed endeavour with the Browns was a disappointment to anyone who was eagerly awaiting his move to the bigger stage, but the CFL truly tried to market him to the point where the belief was that he would light the league up.

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Manziel may have never met any of the expectations casual viewers thrust upon him, but he didn’t want to. The work ethic and the drive wasn’t there and he’s admitted that. It’s just a shame that it took the Alouettes’ two first-round picks and a chunk of the CFL marketing budget for him to reach that conclusion.

If you find yourself ever diving into football highlight reels, you will tend to stumble upon a Johnny Football montage on YouTube. The raw athleticism that was so evident at Texas A&M just wasn’t there for the Browns or the Als. But why? The media will focus on the off-the-field struggles and how he was regressing mentally and this isn’t wrong. The problem with this mindset is that we will put a magnifying glass on something irrelevant to his play.

Johnny Manziel, formerly of the Cleveland Browns – USATSI

Manziel was the same in college and was still one of the best quarterbacks at that level when he was on the field. The problem with moving from college to the pros is that you’re no longer playing against teams of subpar players with one or two exceptional players. Everyone on that opposing team is NFL calibre and you need to match that. Manziel entered the NFL ignorant and expected his athleticism to make up for his shortcomings in football IQ. That, obviously, didn’t happen.

It was revealed a few years after he left the NFL that he was never taught to read a defence. He had no drive to learn at A&M and he didn’t care for the playbook either. Josh McCown tried to help Manziel develop his football IQ, but it was too late. Pure basics of the quarterback position that Manziel just didn’t know. Underdeveloped and overhyped, Manziel’s poor decisions had created a situation where he had none of the tools necessary to make it work.

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He played sloppily, couldn’t execute, and fans and coaches grew frustrated. He was touted as unteachable and unreachable, he fizzled out and conclusively did that to every other team he was with. Athleticism can’t make up for unwillingness to learn and poor work ethic, and Manziel proved it.

Sometimes it takes a player a long time to realize he just doesn’t have “it.” It’s apparent on every rung of football, from college to pro. You see NCAA D1 quarterback’s chasing the spotlight, moving school to school searching for that starting spot. NFL QB’s refusing to take the backup spot and allowing themselves to be a bridge QB and American draft busts underestimating the CFL and trying their luck.

Manziel finally figured it out after the fall of the AAF. He didn’t even get a single look from the XFL. A failed expedition to the North, a two-game stint with Memphis and then unemployed. Now he’s a player coach for a league where he doesn’t coach or play. A fitting end albeit tragic. In the minds of some, deserved and to others, a waste of talent. We can all agree on one thing though, Manziel’s downfall was his own doing, but it’s an entertaining journey nonetheless.


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