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Johnny Manziel Vs. Russell Wilson: How Similar Are the Short, Mobile Quarterbacks?

Johnny Manziel is one of the most compelling and polarizing NFL Draft prospects of all-time, and there’s been no shortage of opinions about his potential as a pro. Greg Cosell worries about Manziel’s arm strength and freelancing, Merril Hoge said he “has bust written all over him”, and Jaws wouldn’t take the former Texas A&M quarterback in the first three rounds. (He’d relent after Manziel’s solid pro day — slightly.)

On the other side of the spectrum, Wade Philips thinks Houston should take him first overall while Barry Switzer called Manziel an “arrogant little prick” and Deion Sanders says he has “ghetto tendencies” — they meant those quotes as compliments.

Because of his height and mobility, Manziel has frequently been compared with Russell Wilson. Manziel credits Wilson’s success for opening the door for him — an assertion that Pete Carroll agrees with. Roger Staubach has suggested that the two are similar, and so has Rick Gosselin (until he stopped doing mocks, he consistently projected the draft better than everyone else), who wrote, “Whatever ‘it’ is, they both have it. And ‘it’ produces magic.”

Aside from the cosmetic similarities — they’re both short and mobile — just how alike are Manziel and Wilson?

1. Scrambling man

Manziel and Wilson greatly differ in the way they finish their runs — the former runs much more dangerously. I watched Manziel’s games versus Arkansas, Ole Miss, Alabama, and Duke this past year, and he runs in a manner that I would categorize as precarious, especially at the next level, about 3-4 times as often as he does safely. On these runs, he didn’t take huge hits, but could have on a lot of them:

And, these are runs where Manziel did get tagged:

Now, to be fair, there are only eight or nine plays in that clip where Manziel really gets hit by a defender, and a lot of the plays from that first clip were either designed runs or may not have seemed that dangerous. For the most part, he was able to juke at the last split-second or contort his body in a way that he avoided harmful contact. However, while the SEC is certainly the best conference, the defenders he faces next year are going to be bigger, stronger, and faster.

It only takes one shot to put NFL players out for several weeks, or longer. This was something that Jon Gruden brought up in his quarterback camp with Manziel, highlighting plays against Auburn, Mississippi State, and Mizzou where the former Aggie got banged up (the Mississippi State one was a throwing play where he hit his thumb on a defender’s helmet). Manziel countered that, even with the toll of his 345 college carries — more than RG3 in his junior and senior seasons (while sacks are infuriatingly folded into rushing stats in college football, Chase Stuart found that Manziel was sacked 17 times last year) — he’s never missed a game.

Nevertheless, quarterbacks can’t operate as de facto tailbacks in the NFL and expect to remain upright. Manziel doesn’t have the size of players like Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, and Ben Roethlisberger — whose bodies are better-suited to absorb the hits (and they’ve even caught up with Roethlisberger a few times) — to run anywhere near as frequently or recklessly as he’s been accustomed to.

It would be plausible for Manziel to achieve some success without changing his game in the short-term — RG3 ran 125 times (including playoffs) in his rookie season, and the Redskins won their division — but, as Griffin learned, you eventually lose if you play Russian Roulette enough times. Our site’s Jason Lisk found last year that quarterbacks who run more times per game through age 26 make, on average, seven fewer total starts from age 27-30 than those more confined to the pocket.

Russell Wilson, who runs rather frequently, does so with much more discretion than Manziel. You never see Wilson take huge hits. Part of that is the squirrely nature that Manziel was able to get away with in college, but more often than not it’s because Wilson’s more aware of the defenders’ whereabouts and avoids them accordingly. These are most of his runs (a few quick QB keepers are omitted) from the four games I observed (@Carolina, vs. San Francisco, @Indianapolis, and @NY Giants):


As you can see, it’s not as though Wilson never allows himself to be tackled, but he runs in a manner that carries far less injury risk. Assuming you are otherwise talented enough to start in the NFL, durability is about as important a trait as a quarterback can possess.

2. Throwing on the run

Both Wilson and Manziel regularly make great throws on the run. One of the more memorable plays of Manziel’s tenure at Texas A&M came against Alabama when he ran around for what felt like an hour before hitting Jeremy Tabuyo on a wing and a prayer — at the time, it felt as though it would lead his repeat Heisman highlight reel:

Johnny Manziel against Alabama 2013

As with scrambling, Wilson’s throws on the run are comparatively more controlled. He has a better sense of where everybody is, and is less likely to gamble. This toss to Marshawn Lynch exemplifies the calmness and structure that Wilson exudes when he’s on the move:

Russell Wilson scramble throw

Wilson and Manziel are similarly adept at creating first downs on plays that should, by all rights, go for zero or negative yardage, while Manziel hits more home runs. There’s a risk/reward factor involved in that — one only needs to watch a Mike Evans highlights montage to understand the extent to which Manziel’s willing to gamble to connect on big plays:

Part of that is a function of the quarterbacks’ surroundings. Manziel had Evans as a weapon who could go up in tight coverage and haul the ball down, and the Aggies’ defense was basically the exploding toy car in Tommy Boy. Wilson, on the other hand, has benefited from having Marshawn Lynch in the backfield and a historically strong defense. With Percy Harvin almost never healthy, Wilson hasn’t really had elite playmaking threats at his disposal to entice gambles.

That being said, it also comes down to their temperamental differences. Colin Kaepernick was the only NFL quarterback who started 16 games last year that threw fewer interceptions than Wilson (eight versus nine). Manziel threw 13 picks last season, three more than anyone else in the SEC. (That Manziel can throw the most INTs in his conference and still be the best quarterback in the country is positively Favrian.)

3. The “It” Factor

The “intangibles” discussion is always tricky, but I’m inclined to agree with Rick Gosselin that Johnny Manziel has whatever “it” is. My impression is that he galvanizes his teammates, who collectively might not have won too many SEC games the past two years if Manziel were replaced by a conference-average quarterback. (Disclosure: I once thought the same WINNING gene applied to Tim Tebow, and his current athletic endeavors involve chopping wood with the Duck Dynasty cast. So.)

I don’t really buy into this argument from Greg Bedard (who did admit that he’s a fan of Manziel) that the former Texas A&M QB should be abstaining from the Final Four or sitting in the front row at baseball games with busty girls in the lead-up to the Draft. “At quarterback, more than any other position because of its importance, teams want a player who lives and breathes football, and one who doesn’t have being a celebrity on his priority list,” Bedard wrote.

Recognizing that these are the feelings of executives, rather than Bedard’s personal opinion, almost all star quarterbacks are celebrities. Nobody cares that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers do gobs of commercials and other Hollywood appearances.

Even the pristinely reputed Wilson has been everywhere from late-night shows to ads to the set of the Entourage movie during the past few months. In fact, Wilson transferred to Wisconsin after his junior year at NC State largely because coach Tom O’Brien wouldn’t tolerate his quarterback missing offseason workouts for baseball. In the ensuing season for the Badgers, Wilson completed 72.8% of his passes and threw 33 touchdowns with just four picks.

It’s easy to forget that Johnny Manziel is 21 years old. No matter what he does, it’ll be news. (Some of us occasionally refer to him as Johnny Pageviews.) Everybody has leisure time, and it’s far less important what players use it for (provided they obey the law, obviously) than how they approach the practices, workouts, and film study that we don’t see. Given that Manziel performed at an elite level last season even after a summer ripe with purported distractions, his “dedication to his craft” shouldn’t weigh so heavily amongst teams’ concerns.

4. Undervalued Variables

Ultimately, sports fans and media tend to give too much credence to the notion that quarterbacks control their own destiny. The front office, coaching staff, and teammates that you end up with are hugely important. Who knows if Manziel will end up with a receiver like Evans who can go up and make his gambles pay off (there aren’t so many out there), or a head coach who will teach and game-plan to his strengths rather than some distractions-loathing, dictatorial joy-killer? (Though he might benefit from that, too.)

As discussed earlier, Russell Wilson has the advantage of the Seahawks’ stout defense; he’s also been supremely lucky to have Pete Carroll, who has astoundingly morphed into one of the best head coaches in sports over the past decade. And, there are adults in charge of that front office. General manager John Schneider has had a heavy hand in staffing Super Bowl champions in two different cities (Seattle and Green Bay) over the past four seasons.

The NFL Draft cottage industry peddlers like to speak as if they’re clairvoyant, and can therefore isolate all other variables to determine players’ futures and grade teams as WINNERS and LOSERS before their picks play a down. Ponder this, though: If the Jaguars draft Russell Wilson in 2012 instead of picking a punter ahead of him, do you think he’s taking a Hollywood victory lap this offseason?

[Lead graphic by Evan Russell/USA Today; Videos and GIFs by Michael Shamburger]

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