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Browns Bet On Manziel, But Is He Too Much Of A Distraction?


OK, let's just state a fact, here. The Cleveland Browns are one of the worst teams in the National Football League. They have not been able to put together more than five wins in a season for the past five years. In that time, they've had four different head coaches. Last year, they had three different starting quarterbacks. This year, they have their hopes pinned on a rookie who goes by the nickname Johnny Football. His real name is Johnny Manziel, and at the moment, he's making headlines more for his antics of the field than his prowess on the field. To hear more about the risky business of Johnny Football, we're joined by John Ourand. He's media reporter at the Sports Business Journal. John, good morning.

JOHN OURAND: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So tell me what kind of investment the Cleveland Browns have made here in Johnny Manziel?

OURAND: Well, they made a standard four-year 8.25 million dollar deal to sign Johnny Manziel.

GREENE: So it's a contract for a starting quarterback - a rookie who you would expect to - if, you know, he had a really good college career and he's being drafted pretty high up.

OURAND: Yeah, exactly. Right now in the NFL, they have slots within where your drafted. So you, basically know, when you get drafted, how much you're going to make.

GREENE: So it's his rookie season. So, you know, we don't have a ton of data points yet from professional football, but he's certainly a personality. Explain to me exactly what and who the Browns are getting for all this cash?

OURAND: Well, David, they're getting a great college football player. He won the Heisman trophy in 2012, and he set tons of records for passing and for running while playing in the SCC, which is, arguably, the best college conference in the country. But by the same token, they're getting somebody who gained a reputation at Texas A&M as a partier. He's somebody who, you know, got kicked out of parties. He got arrested. He, allegedly, got paid for signing autographs. So they're getting a great football player who was an off-field distraction.

GREENE: And there's a preseason game the other night against the Washington Redskins where he was caught right on television on ESPN, giving his middle finger to the Washington Redskins bench. I mean, what a start.

OURAND: He's also been photographed partying everywhere from Las Vegas to bartending at a nightclub in Austin, Texas. So he has an off-field prowess that is, certainly, as big as his on-field.

GREENE: So doesn't that make him a risk from a business sense for an organization, like the Cleveland Browns, to invest in?

OURAND: Well, no. He is the antithesis of a risk for the Browns. In the 24 hours after the Browns drafted Johnny Manziel, they sold 2,300 season tickets. They sold out of their home opener in minutes. They're getting record crowds at their training camp. Even if you look at the television ratings for these boring preseason games that don't mean anything - ESPN just posted on Monday their second highest preseason rating ever, and they've been around for more than 30 years.

GREENE: So you're saying it's the opposite of a risk. I mean, is it just that a team that has just not done well for a long time needs to do something sort of to shake things up and to get someone who has kind of an off-color reputation on the team?

OURAND: Well, it's kind of like the Tim Tebow effect to me.

GREENE: He was the former Florida cornerback who played for the Denver Broncos, New York Jets - famous for, sometimes, praying on the field, now he's out the league totally.

OURAND: If you play on an NFL team, people want you to play inside the lines. They don't like anybody that's a swashbuckler that does anything that could potentially be a distraction. They don't want the backup quarterback to get more press than anybody else on the team, and that's what happens when Tebow goes to different teams. That's the fear with Johnny Football. If Johnny Football doesn't win and if Johnny Football becomes a backup quarterback, then they're worried that this popularity will become a distraction.

GREENE: OK, so I think I'm understanding this now - a short-term, good investment for the Cleveland Browns because they've sold more tickets. They're getting more television audience, but he's going to have to actually perform on the field if this is a good long-term investment.

OURAND: It's a pretty acceptable risk. They didn't draft him with too high of a draft pick. If he does really well - great. If he doesn't do really well, he'll be out of the league. Ultimately, if you take a look at the successful quarterbacks in NFL, the one thing they do is they win. The other thing they do is - if you look at Peyton Manning - you look at Tom Brady. They're almost like corporate CEOs. So they're not doing Johnny Football did. Of course, Johnny Football is a 21-year-old kid that now, all of a sudden, has, you know, $2.1 million per year in his pocket. So a lot of that is a maturity that people are hoping to see.

GREENE: All right, we've been speaking to John Ourand. He's media reporter for the Sports Business Journal - talking to him about Johnny Football - Johnny Manziel - the new rookie quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. John, thanks a lot.

OURAND: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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