December 27, 2015. That was the date on which Johnny Manziel had last played in a competitive football game, before this past weekend. it was a 17-13 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, and the latest in a string of uneven performances for Manziel, as he went 13 of 32 for a paltry 136 yards. That would be the last NFL game Manziel would play, for now, at least.
The last two years have shown us the worst of Johnny Manziel — the partying to all ends of the earth, the drug abuse, the alleged domestic violence incident with a former girlfriend. However, the last few months of recovery and self-awareness might have shown us the best of Johnny Manziel. I say "might" because we still don't know if we're all being taken for a ride. We've seen this version of Johnny before. It was before the 2014 draft when he was auditioning for a job.
Here we are in 2018, and Manziel is saying and doing all the right things again. Not coincidentally, he is again auditioning for an NFL job. Until Saturday, that audition consisted of numerous media hits (maybe too many media hits, for some people's taste), attending a few NFL Pro Days as the stand-in QB, and participating in workouts in the fledgling Spring League.
Saturday, though, we finally got our first look at Manziel in pads with teammates, going against other guys in pads who wanted to, theoretically, rip Manziel's head off. The results on the scoreboard weren't what Manziel was looking for, as his South team lost by score of 11-7. However, there were flashes of the vintage Johnny Football out there, in particular on his team's only touchdown of the day:
For the afternoon, Manziel finished 9 of 15 for 83 yards and tossed the above touchdown pass. He also took three sacks. He had a chance to bring his team back, down four with two minutes to go in the game, but he could not cash in.
I don't know how much can be drawn from a game filled with castoffs who have been preparing for days, not months as they do in the NFL, as collective team units. Nonetheless, courtesy of Jeremy Bregman of NFL.com, Manziel was pleased just to be back out on the field:
"It was good to be back on the field," Manziel told a gaggle of reporters on the field immediately following the game. "I'm frustrated right now. First quarter was short, being in there. But nevertheless, I mean, on the field with two minutes left to win the game... I'm pissed right now. Trying to shake it off a little bit.
"It's our first game. We shot ourselves with mistakes. I mean, we practiced a lot, a lot of stuff this week. But I mean it's a showcase game. It's a quick two-week, two-game spring league. So as frustrated as I am now, I made it through the two quarters that I did play. I'm healthy. Had fun. I had fun nonetheless. The touchdown in the first quarter was fun. But it's just a sour, sour taste right now."
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Manziel and his teammates will get another crack at it this Thursday in Austin at Kelly Reaves Stadium. From there, it will be up to NFL teams to judge whether Manziel is worth a roster spot. The physical tools are still evident on film, but how deeply rooted are Manziel's admitted disdain for film work and showing up early? That's the big question. Can Johnny be a pro?
Chances are, his next opportunity to be a pro over an entire season will come north of the border, in Hamilton, Ontario with head coach June Jones and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, as they own Manziel's CFL rights. For the first time since his comeback, over the last week or so, Manziel has entertained the idea of heading north.
In the near term, it may be his only choice.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.