The Canadian Football League has been a proving ground for a handful of quarterbacks who went on to star in the NFL.
Before Warren Moon was rewriting passing records in Houston and Joe Theismann was guiding Washington to a Super Bowl title, for example, they were playing – and starring – north of the border.
Sometimes, though, it works the other way.
Doug Flutie had a few highlight moments in the NFL, but had much greater success in the CFL and is one of the greatest signal callers in its history.
Thing is, playing QB under American rules is vastly different than running an offense that features 12 players to a side, lots of acreage and three downs to make a first.
Just ask Vince Ferragamo, who helped the Los Angeles Rams to a Super Bowl appearance before chasing some Canadian coin. He thought he would be a superstar with the Montreal Alouettes, but never adjusted to the extra man in CFL secondaries and simply didn’t have the mobility to be effective as a dual-threat signal caller.
His one season was memorable only in the sense that he was a bust.
So where does Johnny Manziel fit in?
The Heisman Trophy winner out of Texas A&M has played a total of 14 NFL games over two seasons in Cleveland, throwing seven TD passes against seven picks.
Considering his limited action with the Browns, he isn’t so much an NFL “has been” as he is a “never was” (or maybe a “hasn’t yet”).
Now, though, the CFL is opening another door for “Johnny Football.”
The question is, will he open it, walk past it, or slam it in his own face by continuing to be a person who can’t get out of his own way?
The CFL has given the Hamilton Tiger-Cats – the team that owns the league’s rights to Manziel – its blessing to sign him up and the club began negotiations with him on Sunday.
“As per the negotiation list process, Johnny Manziel and his agent recently notified the Tiger-Cats that they had activated the 10-day window during which the Tiger-Cats must offer him a contract or lose his negotiation list rights,” reads a statement from the team. “That window closed (Sunday) and we can confirm that we made an offer to Manziel, and that his rights will remain on our negotiation list while discussions with he and his agent continue. We will have no further comment.”
When announcing its decision to allow Manziel an “in,” the CFL issued a lengthy statement – part of which mentioned his off-the-field controversies:
“It has included an ongoing assessment by an independent expert on the issue of violence against women, a review by legal counsel, and an in-person interview of Mr. Manziel conducted by the Commissioner. As well, Mr. Manziel has been required to meet a number of conditions set by the league.”
The CFL didn’t spell out the confidential conditions, but insists they are “extensive and exacting.”
Anyone who follows American football knows that Manziel has been his own worst enemy, which explains why the CFL statement is so bulky.
His drinking and partying have likely been a major detriment to his on-field woes, and the domestic violence issue made him toxic.
It’s ironic that he could join the Ti-Cats, the same organization that last season gave a job to disgraced former Baylor coach Art Briles before rescinding the deal (at the behest of the CFL).
Briles, you remember, was fired by Baylor amid reports of rampant sexual assault allegations against athletes and an “above the law” culture within the program during his tenure.
Hamilton took a big PR hit for the move and has spent the months since repairing its image.
In this instance the Ti-Cats have done their homework, but what if they sign Manziel and he reverts to his “old” ways?
He was charged with domestic assault during an altercation with his girlfriend in 2016, and that charge has now been dismissed after he completed an anger management course and met other conditions mandated by the court.
That’s all well and good, but you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
The fact that the charge has been erased doesn’t mean the stain has disappeared.
Physically, of course, Manziel has uncommon tools. There were times at A&M he seemed like an Xbox player in human form.
But while he enjoyed the money provided by signing a pro football contract, he didn’t care for the responsibilities that came with it.
Now, however, the CFL and Hamilton is offering a shot at redemption.
There will be a lot less cash involved, but his skillset is perfect for the CFL and could result in some dynamic moments in North America’s other major professional football league – if he can beat out presumptive starter Jeremiah Masoli.
Masoli took over as starter for Zach Collaros last season, and Collaros has been traded to Sasketchewan.
“I think he’d be the best player to ever play up here,” Hamilton coach June Jones told CFL.ca last month. “He can throw it and he can run it like nobody ever has been able to do.”
Should Manziel make the most of his chance, he might become a CFL legend – or make it back to the NFL.
Yet if he squanders this opportunity, it very well could be the last one he gets.
It’s all up to Johnny Football now.