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The time Johnny Manziel picked Robert Griffin III’s brain

Posted Aug 11, 2014

Kyle Shanahan is the common bond the young quarterbacks share

In Los Angeles this summer at a Heisman function, Johnny Manziel found himself sitting next to Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.

Outside of winning college football’s most prestigious individual award, Manziel and Griffin share an eerie amount of the same traits.

Both hail from Texas. Both are arguably the two fastest quarterbacks in the NFL. Both have rocket arms and laser accuracy. Both are larger-than-life celebrities who transcend the sport of football.

But most importantly, both quarterbacks have worked with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as rookies. Manziel said the Browns often watch film of the 2012 Redskins and Griffin’s historic rookie season. Although RGIII helped lead the Redskins to the NFC East division crown, Washington’s quarterback was nowhere near flawless.

“We get to see some of the earlier parts where [the Redskins] were just installing some of the stuff too, and you can tell Robert is a little hesitant on some things, too, being a rookie and going through it,” said Manziel. “At the same time, I think he did a very good job of grasping it and executing it when he was in there his rookie year.”

Because of their busy schedules, Manziel jumped at the opportunity to quiz Griffin in person about the intricacies of Shanahan’s offense. How did Shanahan game plan for the regular season? What play calls did Griffin like and dislike?   

“There are certain plays that are really a staple of this offense I got a chance to ask him about, as well,” said Manziel to reporters on Monday. 

Manziel wasn’t asked if those certain plays happened to be Shanahan’s patented read-option attack, but it’s a good guess that the young quarterbacks conversed about the innovative concept.

Several of Manziel's snaps during Saturday’s preseason game in Detroit were option calls, where the quarterback has the choice of handing the ball off, throwing it up the field or taking off and running. Mike Pettine hasn’t been shy in saying the Browns will implement more read-option calls for Manziel than they do Brian Hoyer, because the plays better suit Manziel’s scrambling skill set. Option calls in Shanahan’s offense put trust on the quarterbacks to make the right read, a task that requires as big of a learning curve as repeating plays in the huddle and calling the right protection schemes.   

Of course Griffin famously took his game to unforeseen heights using the read-option. The speedy Redskins quarterback attracted an extra defender because of the threat of his legs – either leaving the middle of the field with a gaping hole to hit an open receiver, or the edge was free for Griffin to show his Olympic-esque track and field abilities. In addition to his 20 touchdown passes and mere five interceptions, Griffin rushed for 815 yards, seven touchdowns and a wowing 6.8 yards per carry.

Shanahan’s job becomes intriguing when he’s dealing with quarterbacks like Manziel and Griffin. Both of these athletes were drafted as high as they were because of their electric abilities. Shanahan has to make sure they ride within the system as much as they can, without changing who they are as dynamic quarterbacks.

“You want guys who can do that stuff and make plays when nothing is there,” said Shanahan. “I think guys who are in that situation have done that their whole life. The test when you get to the NFL is a lot of times those defenses won’t allow you to do that. They’re going to keep you in the pocket. They’re going to have their containment, so you can’t always be looking for it. You have to be able to do both.

“Johnny has continued to progress as a quarterback – doing some things he didn’t do in college and at the same time not losing what he is,” continued Shanahan. “He’s trying to still make those same plays you guys saw in college and trying to learn when to let a play develop and when to abort the play and get out of the pocket and do what he does best.”

While they are similar in much of their skill sets, circumstances are wildly different. The Redskins traded the moon to leapfrog several teams in order to draft Griffin. After two lackluster seasons with the aging Donovan McNabb and the middling Rex Grossman, Griffin was immediately declared the starting quarterback.

Though the Redskins made the playoffs during Griffin’s rookie season, many who follow the NFL don’t remember that Washington started the season 3-6. A deflating home loss to Carolina Panthers left the Redskins reeling before the bye week, prompting head coach Mike Shanahan to say the team was already in evaluation mode looking towards next season.

But behind Griffin and fellow rookie running back Alfred Morris, the offense saw a resurgence. Washington won seven straight games to close the season, culminating with an upset of the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football.

We are all in the dark whether Manziel will start the season, or even play much in 2014. But in no way, shape or form has the Texas A&M rookie been ruled out to lead the offense Week One against the Pittsburgh Steelers. And Manziel could be getting his golden opportunity to snatch the job if he’s given the starting nod on Monday Night Football against Griffin and his very Redskins.

As Pettine told reporters on Monday, the choice on which quarterback to pick will be a committee decision between Dowell Loggains, Shanahan and the head coach himself. Shanahan has obviously had success with handling a rookie quarterback before and with a much shakier defense in Washington.

Is Manziel as far along as Griffin was at this time in 2012? Likely not. Griffin was able to gel with the first-unit from the moment he walked in the Redskins’ building. Toggling back and forth with both units is a disadvantage for Manziel, but a warranted one. The flashes Hoyer showed in 2013 and his savvy ways on and off the field cannot be ignored. Behind a stout defense and a rejuvenated running game, Hoyer’s smarts and pocket poise might truly give Cleveland the best chance to win.

But if Shanahan senses Manziel is even remotely close to where Griffin was as a rookie, giving Johnny Manziel the keys right away will be seriously considered.