The Debut of Johnny Football

You probably remember this — the 2007 BCS Championship game featured a ridiculously good Florida defense against an undefeated Ohio State team led by Heisman Trophy quarterback Troy Smith. The game started off kind of weird — with Ohio State returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown — but the next time Ohio State got the ball, Smith dropped back to throw. He noticed a Florida lineman break through to his left, so he calmly rolled out to the right and looked downfield. It was something he had done a thousand times before.

Only this time, the defensive lineman grabbed him and pulled him to the ground.

This could have been my imagination, but I think a lot about how Troy Smith got up after that sack. There was something about his body language that expressed shock and awe. He had not seen that sack coming. He had run away fully expecting to get away. But — and this was crushing — that giant defensive lineman was FASTER than him. All these giant defensive linemen were faster than him. This wasn’t good. All of the timing mechanisms in his brain had to be re-calibrated. All of the football things he was so sure about, well, he wasn’t so sure about them anymore. The rest of the game progressed predictably — Smith looked helpless and was sacked repeatedly and he completed four passes in the entire game. I thought a lot about that moment Sunday while watching Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel make his NFL starting debut against Cincinnati. It’s undeniable that Manziel was awful. He threw two interceptions and had a third one mercifully overturned by penalty. He proved to be whatever is the opposite of elusive. He displayed none of his college feel for improvisation — every audible led right into the teeth of the defense, every off-balance throw was laughed at before being picked off. His arm looked a little weak, his decision-making seemed foggy, his ability to escape was clogged up It’s hard to imagine how it could have gone worse.

Three important caveats:

1. It was just one game and, even more, just Manziel’s first full first NFL game.

2. The team around Manziel played brain-dead football, as if they had been woken up a few minutes before gametime and told, “Oh yeah, I forgot, we have a game this week!” You can’t blame this clunker of a game on Manziel any more than you can blame the movie Jack and Jill on Al Pacino.

3. The overbearing hype that revolves around Manziel naturally forces rash conclusions and unfair judgments

OK, those out of the way … when watching Manziel play I kept thinking about Troy Smith. I kept thinking about someone who stepped into a world where things, suddenly, did not compute. Manziel would say afterward that he did not feel overmatched, but what else could he say? He certainly looked overmatched. He looked hopelessly unsure. Every element of the Bengals defense seemed to surprise him. On one option read, he kept the ball and then seemed shocked when the defender merely ignored the fake and tackled him. On one of the few plays when he worked himself into some space, he had an open receiver breaking behind a linebacker — he found that throw (over the backer, into the receiver’s hands) too difficult. Both of his interceptions were the sorts you rarely see in the NFL, even from struggling quarterbacks; on one he was way too late, on the other he seemed to lose his mind. It was like that again and again — I cannot remember him making even one play the entire game that showed promise.

Maybe he did not feel overmatched but I’d wager he did. You don’t play THAT badly if you are feeling comfortable and in control of your faculties. His team was collapsing around him, the Bengals were mocking him at every turn, the game was moving way faster than he was accustomed, this was the very essence of being overmatched. I’m pretty sure there were fuses popping again and again in his brain.

Now, of course, we get back to those caveats. Just one game. Team quit on him. Hype clouds judgment. So the real question is: Does it mean anything? Can you make any judgments at all based on one stinker of a game?

Well, one of my theories about sports is the theorem of negative predictions. It postulates that if you want to be right, you just make a negative predictions because those are exponentially more likely to be true than positive ones.

Example: If you said, “Ted Williams will absolutely NOT get a hit here” before every single Ted Williams at-bat, you would have been right 73 percent of the time. Now, you’ll quickly say: “No, that’s not right, Williams hit .344 for his career,” which is true, but that doesn’t include walks. In the “Ted Williams will not get a hit here” scenario, walks are part of the mass of “non-hit” possibilities.

If you said, “Bill Belichick is not so great, he will absolutely not win the Super Bowl this year,” you would have been right 84% of the time if you just count his years as a head coach.

If during Tiger Woods’ glory years — from 1999 to 2008 — you said before every major tournament: “No way Tiger’s winning this week,” you would have been right 68% of the time. If you said it before every major from the beginning of his career to now, you’d be right 81% of the time.

This should be obvious, but it isn’t. Success is hard and rare, even for the best. Comebacks fall short an overwhelming majority of the time. Phenoms flame out almost always. The odds are OVERWHELMINGLY against prospects. After Larry Bird became a star in the NBA, there was an annual crop of “next Larry Birds” (a.k.a., tall white guys who could shoot) and none of them became Larry Bird because he was a miracle, he was not the start of a trend.

Look at the quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall in the draft since Peyton Manning — these are the best of the best of the best, right?

2012: Andrew Luck (looks like a superstar) 2011: Cam Newton (many mixed feelings about him) 2010: Sam Bradford (can’t stay healthy) 2009: Matthew Stafford (great arm, mixed reviews) 2007: Jamarcus Russell (disaster) 2005: Alex Smith (sent packing, now a game-manager) 2004: Eli Manning (will be most argued about QB ever, I think) 2003: Carson Palmer (nice career. Not thrilling. But nice) 2002: David Carr (had moments, didn’t work out) 2001: Michael Vick (a weird and controversial career) 1999: Tim Couch (disaster) 1998: Peyton Manning (one of best ever)

So, you have two great players, a handful of middle earth types and some out-and-out disasters. And that’s with the surest pick in the draft. If a quarterback gets picked No. 1 overall and you say, ‘He won’t become a star,” you have a much greater chance of being right than wrong. You can say right now about Marcus Mariota, “Yeah, I just don’t think his game will translate well to the NFL,” and you can be pretty confident about being right.

Which brings us to Manziel. He was not the No. 1 pick in the draft — a lot of scouts didn’t like him particularly (though that one homeless guy who scouts for the Browns owner did). He’s just 6-feet tall, which could be a disadvantage. His arm is clearly not in the Stafford or Flacco class, which could be a disadvantage. He is a fun-loving media star, which could be a disadvantage. He plays a free-flowing, playground style of football that NFL coaches have generally not trusted and that too can be a disadvantage.

And in his first NFL start — after a week of practice that had teammates singing hosannas — he looked like he had been chosen to be quarterback before the game in some sort of fan contest.

In other words: Johnny Manziel could still become a star quarterback in the NFL. But you have a much, much, much, much better chance of being right if you predict he won’t.