Johnny Manziel swears he is 72 inches — exactly — with a hair cut and without cleats.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin teased Manziel about the quarterback’s height during the off-season, prompting Manziel to prove yet another doubter wrong.
“He kept saying, ‘Hey, I keep thinking you’re getting shorter,’” Manziel told the Star-Telegram this summer, “so I had to take him to the training room. I took my shoes off. I had a haircut, too, if you want to throw that in there. I was 6 foot. He could push it down as hard as he wanted, and it was 72 inches.”
Manziel is short by NFL standards, but his game might be sweet enough that he joins Michael Vick and Rex Grossman as the only quarterbacks 6-1 or shorter drafted in the first round in the modern era.
NFL rules prohibit team employees from talking about underclassmen before they declare for the draft, but seven scouts from various teams agreed to discuss Manziel anonymously. Four called him a first-round pick, with one believing “he will go in the top 10.”
“I think Johnny Manziel is that good,” the scout said. “I think the guy is unique, and guys like Russell Wilson have paved the way for him.”
The NFL’s 32 starting quarterbacks average just over 6-3, and the average height has grown every decade. But size matters less than it once did, with Drew Brees, Vick and Wilson having had success despite measuring 6 feet or shorter.
Brees, arguably, has stood the tallest among vertically challenge quarterbacks, throwing for 46,598 yards and 327 touchdowns in what is developing into a Hall of Fame career.
“I think the stigma is kind of changing,” said Brees, who played at Austin Westlake. “There’s not necessarily that same attitude maybe like there was 10 or 15 years ago in regards to the measureables of a quarterback. I don’t think it’s necessary that a guy has to be 6-4, 6-5 and 225, and he’s just going to stand in the pocket. You see how offenses are changing around these guys. I mean, this read option, this pistol, this kind of fast-paced, no-huddle, it’ll be interesting to see how the league adapts. Not everything that works in college carries over to the league, but certainly with guys like [Colin] Kaepernick and Russell Wilson and RG3 [Robert Griffin], and you look at what Johnny Football is doing. It’s fun to watch guys like that succeed, because they’re just ballplayers.”
Wilson lasted until the third round primarily because he measured 5-10 5/8 at the scouting combine in 2012. But he was an immediate success in the NFL, landing in the perfect place — a team with a stout defense, a reliable running game and a willingness to tailor the offense to his skills. Wilson threw for 3,118 yards and 26 touchdowns with a 100.0 passer rating while running for 489 yards and four touchdowns in leading the Seattle Seahawks to the playoffs as a rookie.
“Russell Wilson was down on our [draft board], just because of the physical traits,” Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson said. “I think the success these guys have had is going to open up our eyes to at least consider them.
“It really boils down to: Can they play? Do they have the traits, the intangibles? Certainly, you like bigger guys, just because the linemen are bigger, and you can see better. But yeah, the success Brees has had, Russell Wilson has had, it basically boils down to: Can they play?”
Russell Wilson, 24, has heard about his height forever. He remembers walking around Indianapolis at the combine, overhearing the whispers.
“That just kind of ticked me off,” Wilson said. “I wanted to make 31 other teams regret it. My height hasn’t and never will define my skill set.”
Brees credits Doug Flutie for opening the door for quarterbacks who lack the prototypical size. Flutie won the Heisman in 1984, but standing only 5-10 and weighing only 180 pounds, he signed with the USFL and started for the New Jersey Generals for one season.
Flutie, despite a 10-5 record as an NFL starter from 1986-89 with the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots, didn’t get anything resembling a real NFL shot until he played eight seasons in the Canadian League.
“The problem with the height factor was more in practice on a daily basis,” said Flutie, who was 38-28 in 12 NFL seasons, with 14,715 passing yards and 1,634 rushing yards. “The guy who’s 6-4 and throws the ball harder is going to look a lot more impressive throwing routes versus air, when it’s seven-on-seven and in team drills. The things I did well only showed their head in a game. It’s like, well, guys are covered, so you hang on to the ball. You move around for another four or five seconds, and all of a sudden someone breaks open deep, and you make a big play. You scramble for 5 yards instead of throwing the ball away or taking a sack.
“There were a lot of those things that you couldn’t measure in practice that happen in a game. I’m sure Johnny Manziel doesn’t practice his jump passes.”
Flutie relives his glory days at Boston College every time he watches Manziel. Flutie said he was quicker than Manziel is, but “Johnny is a lot faster than I ever was.”
Manziel has made only 15 career starts, going 12-3 by completing 68.5 percent of his passes for 4,690 yards with 37 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also has 1,563 rushing yards and 22 rushing touchdowns.
Although Manziel has two years of eligibility remaining after this one, NFL scouts expect him to declare for the 2014 draft. They already have started their homework.
One scout said he is not “thrilled” with Manziel’s release or his arm strength but adds that Manziel is both accurate and productive.
“I keep hearing about why this kid can’t succeed [in the NFL],” said another scout. “I want to ask: ‘What are you judging these guys on?’ Are you telling me he’s not better than [recent first-round picks] Christian Ponder, than Blaine Gabbert, than Jake Locker? Just look at his stats.”
Manziel’s off-field issues are well documented, and he will have to answer questions from NFL teams during the pre-draft process. But not one of the seven scouts interviewed believe off-field concerns will affect Manziel’s draft stock.
“There is a difference between being a criminal and being a knucklehead,” one scout said. “He’s a knucklehead. We have a lot of knuckleheads on our team.”
As for his size, Manziel weighs 210 pounds. He has XXL hands and wears size 15 shoes. He is only 20 years old, so there is hope he grows.
Gil Brandt, the Cowboys former player personnel director who still is considered a draft expert, expects Manziel to go sometime after the first round. But Brandt said Manziel’s game against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl was “as good a game as anybody I’ve ever seen play.”
Manziel, who grew up emulating Vick, insists “there’s definitely a place” for him in the NFL.
“I think there was a triple bolted lock on the door, and Russell Wilson and Drew Brees have kind of kicked it in,” Manziel said. “It’s got a crack in it. This isn’t being cocky, but I have high ambitions. I’m an ambitious person. I set goals high. I want to completely knock that door off the hinges. Not just let it swing, but kick it down, so it’s wide open.
“I’ve heard it my whole life. I heard it when I was a freshman in high school, when I was a sophomore, junior in high school, getting recruited. It was, ‘This kid is this, but.’ There was always a ‘but’ with me. I go out and win the Heisman as a freshman, but at the end of the day, there’s always a ‘but.’ But the SEC was weaker. But this and but that. But, but, but. There’s always a ‘but’ somewhere in my name — always. I’m OK with that. It’s always been that way. It’s just another day at the office.”