Jim Tomsula tends to speak with his hands. And Wednesday, those hands were fluttering, slashing and waving when the 49ers coach was asked about quarterback Johnny Manziel, who will start for the Browns on Sunday.
“He can use his feet and make it backyard ball, so we have to be real smart how we approach that from the pocket to the back end,” Tomsula said. “... You’ve got the pattern that starts off, and the concept, and the passing game that they’re going to have. And then about three seconds later, that’s out the window and it’s,” – this is where his hands really became animated as he simulated Manziel flitting around the field – “pfft, pfft, pfft.”
It may not have been the most eloquent description, but the visual was appropriate for Manziel’s brief but frenetic tenure in Cleveland.
Manziel, a first-round pick in 2014, has been involved in a number of incidents involving alcohol, spent more than 70 days at a rehab facility over the offseason and was benched recently for lying to team officials about partying during the Browns’ bye week.
Every move the Browns have made with Manziel – Is he starting or benched? Is he in the doghouse or not? – leads to a barrage of national headlines. In short, everything about him is supercharged.
He can use his feet and make it backyard ball, so we have to be real smart how we approach that from the pocket to the back end. ... You’ve got the pattern that starts off, and the concept, and the passing game that they’re going to have. And then about three seconds later that’s out the window and it’s pfft, pfft, pfft.
49ers coach Jim Tomsula on quarterback Johnny Manziel, who will start for the Browns on Sunday
The Browns have reacted by trying to bring some calm to Manziel’s off-the-field issues and to the way he plays quarterback. He had the best game of his career – 33 for 45 for 372 yards – in his most recent start, Nov. 15 against Pittsburgh, because he was relaxed and not as “sped up” as he sometimes is, Browns coach Mike Pettine said Wednesday on a conference call.
Manziel was named Cleveland’s starter for the rest of the season after that game, yet he was demoted after a video surfaced of him partying in Texas after he promised Pettine he would not be a distraction during the Browns’ bye week. Sunday’s game against the 49ers will be his first start since the Steelers game.
372 Passing yards by Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel in his last story, Nov. 15 against Pittsburgh
“I thought he went into that game prepared, and when you’re prepared the game slows down for you a little,” Pettine said. “So I think he played a lot calmer in the pocket. He took the throws that were there when they were available.
“He wants to be successful. He’s taken some steps backward this year. But he’s also taken an awful lot forward. And he’s the kind of guy that when you get to know him, you root for him. I mean, you want him to do well and (you) understand that he does have some issues off the field he’s got to take care of.”
The 49ers will face Manziel for the first time. But defensive players said he reminds them of a familiar foe, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Both have similarly low profiles – Manziel is listed at 6 feet and 210 pounds; Wilson is 5-11, 206 – and both can turn broken plays into big gains with their quick feet.
They’re about the same build, they’re about the same height. Speed might be similar – he looks pretty fast on film. And he has good vision in the pocket. So we have to do a good job to get to him.
49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks, comparing Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel to the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson
“They’re about the same build, they’re about the same height,” outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. “Speed might be similar – he looks pretty fast on film. And he has good vision in the pocket. So we have to do a good job to get to him.”
Defensive lineman Tony Jerod-Eddie said he faced Manziel nearly every day in practice when he was at Texas A&M and Manziel, a redshirt freshman then, was the scout-team quarterback. Jerod-Eddie said he remembers thinking the smallish 19-year-old looked like a regular guy. When the ball was snapped, however, he was anything but.
“It was crazy,” Jerod-Eddie recalled. “We would always get mad at him. It’d be like, ‘Johnny, throw the ball! Don’t run it.’ It’ll be fun chasing him around again. Because when I was there … he was killing us.”
Pettine’s message to his quarterback is to have better self-control. Asked if he encourages Manziel’s improvisational skills, the coach said yes, but only if the initial play breaks down.
“What you just want to guard against is him predetermining that he’s going to do that or kind of seeing ghosts and getting out of the pocket before he has to,” he said. “I think you can get the best of both worlds with those types of quarterbacks if you train them to take what’s there and they do it and then when the play breaks down to go ahead and improvise.”