Johnny Manziel's disastrous debut as an NFL starter (10-18 passing for 80 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns as his Cleveland Browns lost 30-0 at home to the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday) provided an excellent demonstration of the huge difference between collegiate sports and professional sports. Manziel set the college football world on fire last season en route to winning the Heisman Trophy but in the complex, fast-paced hard hitting pro football world he looked small, slow, confused and noodle-armed as his ill-advised throws wobbled off-target.
The idea that Manziel offered the Browns a better chance to win than Brian Hoyer made little sense. Hoyer led the Browns to a 7-6 record as the starting quarterback this season after going 3-0 as the Browns' starter last season before succumbing to a season-ending knee injury (the Browns went 1-10 the rest of the way and finished 1-12 in the games that Hoyer did not start). Hoyer is a journeyman NFL quarterback but he is also a six year veteran who has logged 15 NFL starts in 29 NFL games. Hoyer struggled in recent games but his problems could probably be attributed at least as much to the loss of All-Pro center Alex Mack as to any of Hoyer's individual shortcomings; Hoyer is not a highly accurate passer by modern NFL standards (his career completion percentage is .571) and he is not very mobile but, surrounded by the right talent and guided by the right coaching, he is a solid NFL starter and a very good NFL backup.
In contrast, Manziel has yet to establish anything positive about himself as an NFL player. It seems as if Coach Mike Pettine and the Browns organization tapped him as the starter not so much because they know that he is better than Hoyer but rather because the fans and the media clamored for a change. The cliche states that if a coach listens to the media and the fans too often then he will soon be sitting next to them.
Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, perhaps the best NFL analyst in ESPN's overcrowded stable, often speaks of the "craft" of quarterbacking; he laments that Jay Cutler, who possesses more physical talent than Hoyer or Manziel, has yet to put in the time and effort to master that "craft." There is no way that Manziel, who likely has received very few repetitions in practice with the Browns' first team, understands enough about that "craft" to be an effective NFL starter at this point in his career. The Browns should have finished out the season with Hoyer as the starter and found out for sure whether or not he could have led the Browns to a 10-6 record and a possible playoff berth. Then, if the Browns were not fully satisfied with Hoyer, they could have given Manziel the benefit of a full offseason of film study plus some repetitions in practice with the first team.
Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh described the proper "care and feeding" of young quarterbacks. He considered it a mistake to just throw a young quarterback into the fire. When he mentored Joe Montana, a mobile and undersized hot shot college quarterback, Walsh made sure that at first he only used Montana in select situations that Montana had thoroughly worked on in practice. This helped to build Montana's confidence in himself as an NFL player and also helped to build his teammates' confidence in him. I doubt that Walsh would have started Manziel last week (a better question is whether Walsh would have even drafted Manziel at all but that is a story for another day).
Watching Manziel flail around nervously and helplessly reminded me of a couple other recent sports stories. Rookie Cleveland Cavaliers Coach David Blatt, who enjoyed a long and distinguished FIBA coaching career, often reminds media members that various milestones--his first game as an NBA coach, his first NBA win, etc.--are not really milestones from his perspective because he has already coached teams to championships. Blatt does not seem to understand the vast difference between even high level FIBA play and the NBA. The NBA is the most sophisticated basketball league in the world and its players are bigger, faster, quicker and smarter than the players in other leagues. Properly coached, the best NBA players can go through a quick summer training camp and then win FIBA gold medals against seasoned FIBA teams that are used to playing under FIBA rules with FIBA's inconsistent officiating. No FIBA team could just jump into the NBA and perform at a championship level. If Blatt really believes that his FIBA championships are in any way equivalent to an NBA title then he and the Cavaliers are going to experience some problems during the NBA playoffs when the best NBA coaches will be playing grandmaster chess and Blatt will be playing FIBA checkers.
Similarly, every season when there is a historically bad NBA team it does not take long for fans and media members to speculate about whether or not that team could beat the best team in college basketball. The 11-0 Kentucky Wildcats are the consensus best team in college basketball right now. The 2-23 Philadelphia 76ers may be the worst team in NBA history--and if they played the Kentucky Wildcats today the 76ers would beat the Wildcats like the Wildcats stole something. There is no conceivable way that the Wildcats would win a seven game series versus the 76ers. Yes, the Wildcats have several players who are projected to be first round NBA draft selections--but the 76ers have three first round draft selections on their active roster (including Michael Carter-Williams, the 2014 NBA Rookie of the Year) and several other veteran NBA players. NBA players are grown men physically and mentally. It is far from certain that Kentucky will even win the college championship, let alone be able to beat a team of grown men, several of whom were collegiate stars in their own right before becoming pro basketball players.
Television sports coverage does a disservice on many levels but one of the major elements that is not obvious to casual viewers is how much more complex pro sports are compared to their college counterparts. The pro game is so much faster and more sophisticated than the college game. This is evident if you watch a college game (basketball or football) in person and then watch a pro game in person. There is inevitably an adjustment period for rookie players and for rookie coaches. If you doubt that, just look at Manziel or Blatt; both men may become highly successful pros eventually but right now they are learning why Jerry Glanville used to say that NFL stands for "not for long": if you do not adjust to the speed and complexity of pro sports then you will not participate in pro sports for very long.