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Johnny Manziel’s comeback begins with his first CFL start on Friday

August 4, 2018

I’ll be watching, will you?

Maybe you’re not yet convinced Johnny Manziel’s comeback trail is worth hopping on since his life spun out of control a few years back. Perhaps you’re not sold on a player who was traded a few months after joining his first CFL team, unable to beat out Jeremiah Masoli for a job in June Jones’ Star Wars passing offense.

Or you’re just skeptical that Manziel can keep his life straight all while trying to turn back the clock as a football player. It’s understandable.

Manziel’s long climb back to respectability has many miles left, but he takes a big step Friday night in his first CFL start for the Montreal Alouettes against, yes, Masoli, Jones and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

The game is on at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2, and dammit, I am going to be interested in this one. Invested might be the better word. Sure, something doesn’t quite pass the smell test for what Jones said about Manziel last year, how Manziel could be “the best player to ever play up here” when the Ti-Cats owned his negotiation rights, only for Jones to trade him away a few weeks ago. (And if that first part didn’t get a 55-year-old Doug Flutie’s dander up, we’re not sure what will.)

But Manziel can do more than exact revenge against the team that had him for a short time. He can perform well for his current Als team, one that has a 1-5 record a third of the way through the CFL schedule and is going on nearly a full calendar year since its last home victory. Right now, Masoli — who has eclipsed 300 yards passing in 10 of his last 11 outings — is a better quarterback than Manziel is, so the obstacles and measuring sticks are coming into focus.

Friday will be Manziel’s first regular-season football game since Dec. 27, 2015 — a span of 950 days — when he last suited up for the Browns. (Manziel did play this preseason with the Ti-Cats, completing 21-of-31 passes for 168 yards and a TD, the bulk of it coming in his exhibition finale there against — yep — the Alouettes.)

The last time we saw Manziel in the NFL that day back in 2015, he completed a woeful 13-of-32 passes (40.6 percent) for 136 yards and a pick in a 17-13 Cleveland loss to the Chiefs at Arrowhead. Although he frustrated the Kansas City defense with his scrambling that day, with 11 rushes for 108 yards, Manziel struggled badly as a passer.

The game ended with Manziel unable to spike the ball as the game clock ticked to zero following a 4th-and-10 completion down to the Kansas City 18-yard line, and then Manziel spiked his helmet in frustration after not getting one final snap. There might have been no more fitting end to his first run in the NFL than that moment. We never saw him in the league after that.

But notice I said “first run.” Somewhere in my body far away from my brain, likely much closer to my heart, I believe Manziel still will get another shot in the league. I don’t know when it’s coming or how, and it might not even amount to anything even if it does magically happen again, but I don’t firmly believe that that NFL has fully given up on Manziel. Or at least small pockets of the NFL, anyway. Nor, clearly, has he extinguished his NFL dreams.

Tonight’s CFL regular-season debut is just a small, first step toward realizing those, and like we witnessed with Lamar Jackson in his preseason debut for the Baltimore Ravens, a few bad throws and not that many great plays isn’t going to change my stance on his long-term prognosis that much.

But Manziel needs to face a live rush, get thrown into the fire, show he can adapt and start building toward ... something. The transition to the CFL is notably tricky for American-bred players, so that’s a factor to consider. But clearly Manziel’s transformation has more to do than with just football factors. He’s enduring through several life changes over these past few years that are as much the reason Manziel is being forced to take such a circuitous route back to the NFL, if he’s even afforded the chance.

But don’t forget his college magic or the brief NFL glimpses of excitement he left us with. Maybe we’ll get a few more tonight. Or maybe we won’t.

Still, I find myself oddly interested in what Manziel does in this game, along with the rest of this season. I’ll be watching him. Will you?

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