HAMILTON — “Alignment, assignment.” Those were the important things Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach June Jones wanted his team to focus on when he broke them down after a long first day of practice at McMaster University’s Ron Joyce Stadium. It’s the type of attention to detail that makes training camp important for football players trying to make the team.
That’s not the case for Johnny Manziel. It was clear on this Victoria Day Sunday he isn’t just an ordinary rookie. But learning both new alignments and a game full of different assignments makes Johnny Football’s latest challenge all the more daunting.
A couple hundred fans were in attendance to watch the first day of the Manziel era in the CFL. This, a day after 25 jerseys with No. 2 were sold at the team’s downtown Hamilton store in the first hour after his signing was announced.
On Sunday, Manziel took the field at 9:20 a.m. to a splattering of applause. There was one fan in a Manziel Cleveland Browns jersey and another in a hoodie from his Comeback SZN clothing line.
But the best thing about his first day on the job for the player and the team is that Manziel didn’t look out of place. In fact, he didn’t stand out in comparison to the other QBs who took reps. A bystander would be hard-pressed to differentiate Manziel from Chris Merchant, the QB from the Vanier Cup-winning Western Mustangs taking part in camp as part of the league’s initiative to get Canadian quarterbacks pro exposure while still in school.
In fact, Manziel’s biggest knock, his height, was barely noticeable. At 6’0″ Manziel is actually the second tallest quarterback on the depth chart. The shortest being incumbent starter, the 5’10″ Jeremiah Masoli.
Manziel went through all of the individual work and skeleton throwing on air. He combined with the other QBs to throw backside combinations and did everything until 11:43 a.m. when the QBs threw against a live defence with seven-on-seven drills to end the practice.
Throughout, he was glued to quarterbacks coach Dan Morrison who acted as his personal tutor when Manziel was taking mental reps, often on a knee with his helmet off.
This will all take getting used to. Not just the fact that fans bringing Tim Hortons Timbits for the players after a practice is a uniquely CFL experience. Or that backup QBs playing defence on the scout team to give a look to the offence must have seemed odd.
The differences from the American game hit him on day one.
“I haven’t ever ran this many routes that are predicated off of one defender. Sometimes it’s progression read in the NFL. This is more every route has an opportunity to break three or four different ways.” Translation: in the Canadian game every receiver has a chance to convert his route based on the defence, so the QB needs to know and anticipate, Manziel explained.
He has to navigate the timing of inside receivers with a waggle, how to key off of a single safety rather than two, negotiating the deception of a strong side linebacker which is virtually a sixth DB when he’s used to facing four DBs. And how much air do you put on that wide side comeback route, a truly Canadian part of the route tree. All of this with new teammates, new opponents, in a new country, throwing a new ball.
Plus, he has to do it all in the shortest training camp in pro sports. The Ti-Cats have pre-season games on June 1 and June 9. Johnny Football will be playing live football again just 12 days from now.
But for now, the team is handling him with kid gloves, as they should. This is the first day of training camp, but the other QBs on the roster had the benefit of mini-camp and informal off-season throwing sessions with teammates. Manziel was introducing himself to his teammates in between drills.
Which is a credit to Manziel that he didn’t immediately assume he’d be taking starter’s reps, or that his teammates should know who he is or what he’s done. Although they clearly do. To the press, he’s recited the fact that the franchise has won 15 Grey Cups and wants to help get the 16th. He’s already a Hamiltonian homer as the Tiger-Cats have technically won eight but the franchise recognize the seven won by Hamilton area teams before them.
Whether he has studied the league or did a quick Wikipedia search doesn’t really matter. The point is he has the self-awareness to know that being deferential and earning resect among the CFL community is the best way to get it.
Of his film study he credited his competition for the starting spot’s timing. “What Jeremiah did a such a good job of is getting the ball out quickly” was his response when asked about anticipating windows on a wide field.
He’s the only backup that has post-practice media availabilities and scrums that last over twice as long as the starter’s. As fans screamed for his acknowledgement as he left the field, he promised to come back and spend as much time as they wanted to sharpie everything in sight after he fulfills his media obligations. His first PR pass was a TD.
In fact, the only way this day one of training camp was different than any other I’ve covered was the fans. There wasn’t a huge contingent of American media like there was for Ricky Williams or Michael Sam before him.
There were a couple hundred fans, closely watched by campus police, turning the Ti-Cats practice into their chance for social media content of the celebrity QB. And of the uptick of fans, the one thing noticeable was their age. In the steel bleacher seats at this time of year is usually lots of grey hair. Lifelong fans looking to the CFL to connect with their community and their childhood.
Today there was a younger generation. A generation who have played with him on video games. High-school seniors wearing their jerseys during a break from studying, and junior Ti-Cats cheerleaders in full uniform. A generation that pointed out he was wearing new Nike cleats, not team-issued Adidas.
As I charted his every throw from the bleachers, the kids behind me were wondering if Manziel would play in a Supreme arm sleeve. A reference to the lifestyle clothing brand that some NBA players have worn during competition. The kids talk mostly about Manziel, but also point out “there is Larry Dean, he has a nice visor.” And later ask “Where is that rookie Chapman” referring to the Tiger-Cats first-overall pick, who has yet to sign.
These fans look different, and observe different, but the point is they are there.
Manziel is no different on the field. Not yet anyways. But in the meantime, his biggest impact might be bringing in some unique and younger eyeballs so that as he blends in with his teammates and learns the game, some of those under-covered and under-appreciated players get some shine as fans learn who they are.
The meritocracy of sport means on the field Johnny Football is just another CFL player, and it is best for everyone involved if it stays that way.