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Heartsick City Imports Hope
Johnny Manziel’s Arrival in Cleveland Has Fans Envisioning a Browns
By KEN BELSON AUG. 30, 2014
BEREA, Ohio — A Cleveland Browns fan for 36 years, Geoff Myers cringed
when his team fell short of the Super Bowl in the 1980s, wept when it left
for Baltimore in the 1990s and sulked as its successor failed to make the
playoffs every year except one since the Browns resumed play a decade and
a half ago.
So Myers might be forgiven for wearing a shirt to a recent Browns
practice that captured both his manic devotion to the team and the futility
of that endeavor.
“Just One Before I Die,” it read.
“I’ll burn this shirt if they win,” Myers said with a chuckle that
suggested he did not expect to light a bonfire anytime soon.
Many of the 3,000 other spectators that day were willing to throw
caution to the wind largely because of Johnny Manziel. From the instant
he was drafted 22nd over all in May — eliciting cheers from fans who
packed Radio City Music Hall — Manziel became a magnet for the hopes
of Browns backers who have not savored a title since 1964, the year the
Beatles arrived in the United States and the last time Cleveland celebrated
a major championship.
Manziel’s arrival in Cleveland fueled a spike in ticket sales,
sponsorships and merchandise. Traffic on the team’s website hasskyrocketed, and the team drew record television ratings for its preseason
games. Radio talk shows barely have time to discuss the return of LeBron
James, Cleveland’s other athletic savior, to the Cavaliers.
The Browns finished 4-12 last season and have not had a winning
record since 2007. Brian Hoyer, a Cleveland native, was named the Week 1
starting quarterback, the 20th quarterback since the team resumed play in
1999, but the flashy Manziel is the one who has been hailed as the man
who will rejuvenate a moribund franchise.
Rich Luker, who runs a sports polling agency, said Manziel was as
popular as Robert Griffin III and Peyton Manning were before their first
games, and as heralded as the strait-laced Tim Tebow.
“He is the bizarro Tim Tebow,” Luker said.
Browns fans are not the only ones hoping for Manziel to turn the team
into a winner. The N.F.L. is, too. The league has been embroiled in
scandals involving domestic abuse, bullying and the use of a team name
that some consider derogatory. The N.F.L. has agreed to spend hundreds
of millions of dollars to settle lawsuits from former players who claimed
the league had hid the dangers of concussions from them. Commissioner
Roger Goodell has been criticized for treating owners and some players,
like Ray Rice, accused of hitting the woman who is now his wife, too
The turnaround of an iconic but hard-luck franchise led by a brash
rookie known as Johnny Football, a registered trademark, would create a
feel-good narrative and prove that little guys could win in a sport
dominated by big-market teams like the Dallas Cowboys, the San
Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots.
“I’m sure there are a lot of other owners who would disagree, but we
think it would be a great story for the N.F.L.,” Jimmy Haslam, who bought
the Browns in 2012, said in an interview. “It would be similar to the Red
Sox breaking Babe Ruth’s curse.”
HOPING TO VANQUISH a curse during the summer is far easier than
doing it in the winter. The Browns play in one of the toughest divisions inthe league, the A.F.C. North, and face the Cincinnati Bengals, the
Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers twice every season. They
have won only 27 games since 2007 and have had a revolving door of
quarterbacks, coaches and general managers.
Hoyer, coming back from season-ending knee surgery last year,
completed 24 of 44 passes for 261 yards, with one touchdown pass and
one interception, in Cleveland’s 1-3 preseason. The addition of Ben Tate in
the backfield should provide an offensive boost, but Josh Gordon, a Pro
Bowl receiver, was suspended for the season for violating the N.F.L.’s drug
Manziel was mostly unexceptional this preseason, although he
showed flashes of his trademark improvisation skills. In four games, he
completed 30 of 59 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns; in the
preseason finale, he ran for 55 yards on four carries. He also raised his
middle finger toward the Washington Redskins’ bench, giving fuel to
critics who say he is too immature to succeed as a professional. The league
fined Manziel $12,000 for his actions, which he called “a lapse of
Manziel has not blamed his slow start on the intense scrutiny, which
he said he had dealt with at Texas A&M. “It’s been the one thing that’s
been the most constant in my life for the past two years,” he said. “I don’t
even pay attention to it anymore.”
He also said he did not feel any additional burden to revive the
“I don’t look at it as I was drafted to come in Day 1 and save the
franchise,” he said during camp. “For me, there’s no pressure; there’s no
timetable. It’s to continue to develop as a football player, get smarter, get
better, and whenever that time is, I’ll go out there and play football like
I’ve been doing for the past years of my life.”
Haslam has tried to breathe new life into the organization partly by
cleaning house. He hired Mike Pettine, the team’s eighth coach since 1999;
Ray Farmer, the seventh general manager since 1999; and top executives,including Alec Scheiner, who worked for the Cowboys before becoming the
Haslam has also faced distractions. His truck stop business, Pilot
Flying J, settled a federal investigation in July when it agreed to pay a $92
million fine for withholding rebates and discounts from customers. The
company paid millions more to settle a class-action lawsuit.
With that crisis largely behind him, Haslam is more focused on
reviving the team, which he bought for a reported $1 billion. He bought a
mansion on Lake Erie and has a regular presence around the team.
In the team’s offices, walls were broken down to create a more open
environment, and quotes from Willy Wonka, John Wooden and others are
now displayed. Perhaps the most telling one is from Haslam: “Do your
job,” it reads.
“What we’ve set out to do, and said in every public session, is
consistently winning and taking care of your fans,” he said.
Haslam is spending $120 million to refurbish the team’s stadium,
including adding enormous scoreboards and redoing the suites and
concourses. But ultimately the Browns must play well. “If in a few years
we’re not winning, then that’s on me,” he said.
For all Haslam’s efforts, some analysts question the decision to draft
While at Texas A&M, Manziel became the first freshman to win the
Heisman Trophy, passing for 3,706 yards and rushing for 1,410 in his first
season. But his swashbuckling behavior off the field raised eyebrows. He
was arrested after being involved in a fight in College Station, Tex., before
he had even played a game. Heading into his second season, as a redshirt
freshman, he departed early from the Manning Passing Academy after
missing and being late for practice sessions. He was also suspended for
part of a game in response to allegations that he had signed autographs for
Since being drafted, Manziel has done little to curb his reputation as a
partyer. When he was spotted carousing with celebrities this summer inLas Vegas and elsewhere, he was panned for not spending more time
preparing for training camp. “I am not going to change who I am for
anybody,” he said.
But the team told him to tone down his behavior. “Johnny said it
himself,” Haslam said at the start of training camp in July. “He made
some mistakes. We expect better from him.”
After spending so much for their teams, owners often make wholesale
changes. Bringing in new coaches and executives is common, but time is
often needed to build a program. Picking a splashy player like Manziel
could backfire if he derails the team’s long-term plan.
“New owners very much have a learning curve, how they block out the
noise and what the media says, and develop a plan and stick to it,” said
Robert Boland, who teaches sports management at New York University
and has advised the Browns. “Is Johnny Manziel an example of that, or is
it an owner getting caught up in the hoopla?”
QUARTERBACKS, OF COURSE, always attract the spotlight, and the
expectations for first-round draft picks are outsize as well. But rarely has
so much attention been heaped on an N.F.L. player who has yet to appear
in a regular-season game.
Manziel’s first preseason game, in Detroit, sold out, and the press box
was full. The game drew an average of 2.82 million viewers, a record for a
preseason game on the NFL Network.
“It’s very inspirational,” said Eric Angelo, a bartender from Canton,
Ohio, who went to training camp to see Manziel. “Everyone wants to see
Among those wanting to catch a glimpse was James, a four-time
N.B.A. most valuable player, who took his two sons to watch practice this
month. James has become friends with Manziel, and his marketing
company now represents him.
The Browns have had no trouble marketing Manziel, whose name and
image appear on a wide variety of merchandise. At training camp, tents
are filled with T-shirts selling for as much as $45 with sayings like “JohnnyCash,” “Johnny Football” and “Johnny Cleveland.” After Hoyer was named
the starting quarterback, “Johnny Clipboard” become popular online.
Since Aug. 1, Manziel has had the fourth-best-selling N.F.L. jersey
nationally and the second-highest merchandise sales among N.F.L. players
on websites run by Fanatics.
Fans are hungry to see him, and some have started tailgating at 5:30
a.m. — for practice — at the complex here. The Browns have sold out every
open practice this summer and gave away 25,000 free tickets in only 10
hours to see the team practice in Akron. “We’re all bananas for football,”
said Anthony Hamilton, whose food truck at the complex has seen sales
rise 30 percent this summer. “We need swagger. We haven’t had that in
Cleveland. Manziel will bring that.”
Nearby, two Browns employees showed fans what seats were still
available for home games. The Browns sold about 2,300 new season-ticket
plans in the 24 hours after the draft, and sales have remained so strong
that the team scrapped its partial-ticket packages and extended the
deadline for buying full-season plans.
“We’re moving towards that predicament that you love to have when
you’re an N.F.L. team, which is, when do you stop selling season tickets?”
said Scheiner, the team president.
Manziel “definitely boosts our relevance and visibility,” Scheiner said,
adding: “What’s nice for us, is immediately after the draft, people wanted
to talk about it. But now people are excited about what we’re building, not
any one player.”
Yet in choosing such a high-profile player, the Browns have invited a
news media swarm that is monitoring Manziel’s every step. With such
scrutiny comes added pressure for a team that may need years to jell.
In July, Farmer, the general manager, deflected concerns that
Manziel was not taking his job seriously. “If we thought that was an
excessive nature of what it was going to be, then we would have never
picked him,” he said.
At a news briefing last week, Pettine joked that it had taken reporters almost five minutes before they asked about Manziel. Nearly every player
who has stepped to the podium at camp has been asked about him, too.
“Certainly teams that have had success in the last five to 10 years will
have a lot of enthusiasm, but for a team that hasn’t won in 10-plus years,
this is pretty impressive,” said Joe Thomas, the Browns’ All-Pro offensive
tackle. “If we want to be a great team that wins every year, we’re going to
have to get used to it.”
Donte Whitner, a Cleveland native who signed with the Browns this
off-season, said the extra attention meant that expectations were bigger
than those for James and the Cavaliers.
“This is a Browns town,” he said. “We know there’s a lot of hype now,
but we have to win and win often. There’s a lot of pressure to go out there
and win games.”
Honeymoons can be short, though, even in Cleveland, where fans
flock to games despite the team’s dreadful record. This brand of pathos
prompted Scott O’Brien to create a coloring book called “Why Is Daddy
Sad on Sunday?” The book depicts some of the most dispiriting moments
in Cleveland sports history, including the Drive, the Fumble, the Shot, the
Collapse and the Decision.
The point of the book, O’Brien said, was to find humor in heartbreak
and not take the hoopla too seriously. O’Brien said he was not ready to fall
for Manzielmania, even if others consider him a franchise savior.
“I’d really like to see him pan out,” he said. “But it’s the same thing
with everything in Cleveland sports. We’re hopeful but cautious.”
A version of this article appears in print on August 31, 2014, on page SP1 of the New York edition
with the headline: Heartsick City Imports Hope.
© 2014 The New York Times Company