Of all the images from Monday night’s preseason potpourri of ill-thrown passes and quarterback confusion, the most poignant one had to be when the Cleveland Browns PR guy informed Johnny Manziel that the whole nation had just seen him flip off the Washington Redskins.Walking on the sideline, Manziel appeared to wince at the news, before dragging his hand down his face in an appropriate “What next?” reaction. What next, indeed?To be fair, there are far worse football crimes than flashing a middle finger to a gaggle of trash-talking, taunting Washington jack wagons. Entire generations of Cowboys fans have wanted to flip off the Redskins.Manziel’s third-quarter gesture may have been sophomoric, and he’ll be fined, because that’s what the NFL commissioner’s office does (Bud Adams, Michael Vick, et al). But to rail against it in print and call it a sign of our decaying society seem a tad sanctimonious.In so many ways, hasn’t Johnny Football already flipped off Oregon, Alabama in 2012, all the schools that didn’t think he could play quarterback, the Manning Passing Academy and the NCAA autograph police?“I get words exchanged throughout the entirety of the game — every game, week after week — and I should’ve been smarter,” Manziel said after the game in remarks that were televised live. Of appropriately more concern to Johnny was his first-half performance — 2 of 7 passing for only 29 yards.Handed the opportunity to seize the keys to the Cleveland quarterback position for, oh, the next 10 or so years, Manziel instead delayed the inevitable by appearing confused and uncertain. His underwhelming efforts led head coach Mike Pettine to backtrack on his plan to name the team’s starting quarterback by the third week of the preseason.But let’s be serious here. Manziel’s competition, Brian Hoyer, is a 28-year-old journeyman who’s started only four games in five previous NFL seasons. In the two exhibition games, he has completed only 6 of 22 passes for 108 yards and no touchdowns.Do you really think Pettine should give the No. 1 job to a career backup over a quarterback with Heisman Trophy talents who’s roundly considered the future of the franchise?Manziel’s ESPN pregame interview with Jon Gruden was, at times, revealing. Gruden questioned him about his grasp of the Browns’ offense.“It’s way different,” Manziel said. “Going from never huddling at all at A&M, where we’d run as many plays as we can, almost turbo, and then coming in here, [where] we’re in a huddle, you have a different cadence, you have [pass] protections, you have a way, way, way thicker playbook. And it’s just different.”He’s right. Some guys are never able to decipher the nuances and complexities of the NFL playbook. But Manziel is smart, even if he doesn’t often act like it away from the football field.Against Washington on Monday night, he seemed to be too busy thinking to be spontaneously reacting. That fraction of a second, Johnny admitted, can mean everything in the real turbo NFL world.He’ll learn, though. What is hard to shake are (1) how small Manziel — who’s just under 6 feet — seems in the NFL pocket and (2) how many defenders seem to be just as quick as he is.He’ll grow up. Didn’t Broadway Joe Namath outgrow his nickname? And he’ll learn from his mistakes, as he indicated Monday night.What next? Oh, there likely will be something. America, however, I have a hunch, will recover from seeing Johnny Manziel flip off the Washington Redskins on national TV. He’s a kid. Still. And like most kids, he has homework to do.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @gilebreton