2014 Minnesota Vikings Draft: Mike Zimmer to Speak with Fran Tarkenton About Johnny Manziel

Per Fox Sports North (via ESPN), Brian Hall reports that Mike Zimmer has decided to connect with Fran Tarkenton to discuss Johnny Manziel, one of the most polarizing quarterbacks of the NFL draft, and a serious candidate for the Vikings in the NFL draft.

Tarkenton has been saying for a couple of months now that he’s a fan of Manziel and that Manziel reminds Tark of himself. He reiterated those statements when asked by USA Today a month ago:

“Nobody really played like I played,” Tarkenton told USA Today earlier this month. “This kid plays like I did more than anybody else. He’s the closest thing I’ve seen to myself. Russell Wilson has some of it. But Manziel has those similarities even more so than Russell.

“Manziel is a quarterback savant.”

I’m not as big a fan of Manziel as many out there, but at least Tarkenton is closer, in my opinion, with his hot take than Merril Hoge was a few days ago, when he said Manziel’s skill set “does not transition to the NFL” and that “he has absolutely no instinct or feel for pocket awareness.”

And I think there should be no confusing the issue: a lot of these high-profile opinions are hot takes, designed more to elicit reactions than provide honest analysis.

Tarkenton is reaching when he calls Manziel a savant, but it would be a mistake to ignore Manziel’s improvisational skills; certainly there are a number of improvisers who have done well in the NFL—Favre being the most notable. Aside from him, the comparison to Russell Wilson makes sense in this context, and Aaron Rodgers is well-known for his improvisational ability.

At the same time, I do think that Manziel’s ability to improvise at a college level have caused other skills to atrophy or underdevelop, namely anticipation throwing and rhythm passing. It will be extremely difficult to dissect Manziel without All-22-type coaches film, because many of his defenders argue that he moves in the pocket in order to create space for his receivers, while detractors argue that he simply panics or sees a receiver covered and refuses to go through progressions.

It’s important to be cognizant of the middle ground fallacy, but I do think the truth is in the middle in this case. I’m not sure that Manziel’s pre-snap defensive recognition is very good, but I do think that he has a somewhat intuitive sense of where defenders will be, and uses that knowledge to manipulate the pocket (masterfully) and the field (with varied ability).

Certainly, if he’s cued to run after a single read is closed, that’s hardly his fault but it does raise concerns. I don’t think that’s the case, unless he’s designated to read a half-field with a lone receiver (rare in his system), and he doesn’t keep his eyes up when scrambling to the same degree that Tarkenton, Favre and Wilson do.

For me, the most honest player comparison is Michael Vick, but that’s not to say that his career path or talent level should match Vick’s. Manziel is in fact quick to run and it works for him; his running vision is phenomenal—better than many running backs— and his ability to read defenders closing in on him and react before they make a move is top-notch. His cavalier playing style may serve itself to big plays but an increased risk of turnovers, and they’re both gutsy players that had to spend a lot of time to improve their passing mechanics. Vick improved his late in his career, but Manziel had made significant strides this last offseason in his delivery, though he still has a long way to go.

Tarkenton is correct that there are not many visible quarterbacks that are playing recently or have played recently that match his style, but I still think that Russell Wilson is by far the best comparison. Wilson coming out of Wisconsin was a far more polished passer than Manziel out of Texas A&M, and came with fewer concerns; Wilson led a pro-style offense, had an impeccable character, was cleaner mechanically and clearly had a command of defenses and reading the field. Of course, his height dropped him to the third round, but his trailblazing example (along with the attention Manziel receives as a polarizing figure and successful quarterback in the SEC) has allowed a similarly “height-deficient” quarterback to rise into the first round.

I question Manziel’s ability to sense pressure, even if it is obvious that he manages it well, and he responds to phantom pressure more often as the game goes on. His ball placement is an overrated concern and his INT rate is more inflated than many by tipped balls, but I do think that it certainly doesn’t match the ball placement ability of Bortles, Bridgewater or Carr.

Despite both playing in “spread” systems (though extraordinarily different flavors, perhaps not fairly comparable), Carr has flashed more anticipatory passing to throw receivers open than Manziel has, although in general these systems do not favor this particular skill as much as Bridgewater’s and Bortles’ systems do.

I am not sure Zimmer will find anything of value from talking to Tarkenton for several reasons, although I think Brian Hall has many of them covered for me already:

The discussion he and Shane have about Tarkenton’s general predilection for attention is something I largely agree with, and it’s true that Manziel’s place in the draft conversation invites that opportunity.

Further, in general, players make extraordinarily poor talent evaluators and coaches (the examples number in the hundreds, though I think the Michael Jordan example is good enough for now). This is perhaps why, format structures aside, the “NFL Top 100” continuously disappoints. In fact, there’s good evidence that players have the exact same biases that casual fans do when it comes to evaluating players, and it’s been well identified that top-tier players in management positions continue to overrate players that share their skill sets, or “remind them of themselves.”

Key aspect to remember on Manziel-Tarkenton: Tarkenton said two weeks ago he’s never talked to Manziel
— Brian Hall (@MNBrianHall) March 25, 2014

The fact that Zimmer will want to answer concerns about maturity and makeup will perhaps make the meeting with Sir Francis a moot point as well.

“It’s still going to come down to how we feel about how he’s going to be in the locker room,” Zimmer told ESPN on Tuesday. “What kind of person he’s going to be, what kind of leader, and go from there.”

“The things that went on last year with him leaving the Manning camp and other activities, Ijust want to understand that a little better. Everything I’ve seen of the kid, I love,” Tarkenton told the USA Today, adding: “I’d have to spend some time with him. What I’ve seen him do on the field, he has all the franchise qualities. You look at your great players, they have to be leaders in the clubhouse and off the field. They don’t have to be churchgoers. But they have to have character.”

The incident Tarkenton is referring to happened last summer when Manziel attended the Manning Passing Academy (headlined and taught by Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning) and missed meetings before officially leaving because of a sickness (though there are reports from several sources that he was in fact hung over from a party the night prior).

The character of quarterbacks demands particular attention and Manziel specifically needs some scrutiny, but I do think some of the character issues are overblown with him. I would not say that Manziel’s intangibles match up to Derek Carr’s, but if Tarkenton’s implication of a sufficiency standard is correct (functionally, “good is good enough”), then there is not an overwhelming reason to value a spectacular character over a great character if the talent evaluations are somewhat far apart.

There is no question in my mind that Manziel is a fiery competitor, which is certainly part of the “intangibles” equation, but questions about his willingness to party and potential “selfish attitude” (not one I think is an overwhelming feature of Manziel, to be honest) will continue to dog him. As always, when character concerns come up, it’s important to have context, something we lack. Matt Waldman (one of my favorite talent evaluators) outlined this in his excellent article on why his talent evaluations almost never take into account character.

One final note that Hall brings up is the fact that the NFL has “likely” changed since 1978, when Tark retired. While this may seem to be a trite or tired point to you, I think it’s worth pointing out that offensive and defensive complexity have increased by an extraordinary amount since then—shifts and motions were just becoming a norm, and different personnel packages still stymied defenses! In fact, 1978 marks a renaissance for passing in the NFL that forced increased complexity because of the rule changes protecting receivers and quarterbacks and opening up the game.

Regardless, it allows the news cycle to roll unimpeded in an ever-long offseason.

Does Tarkenton’s support change your opinion of Manziel?

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  1. We better call former player and coach Bud Grant and suggest he no longer advise Pete Carrol on matters of talent especially where it applies to quarterbacks. After all, Grant assured Carrol that Wilson wasn’t to small because there was similarly sized and successful Viking quarterback named Fran Tarkenton.

    While we’re at it, someone tell Elway to step down and then take away 1985 Super Bowl coach and player Mike Ditka’s ring.

    1. Four more former coach and player examples; Don Shula, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher. This is by no means a complete list. Another list of talented coaches includes many who played college football.

      Maybe we should ask Zimmer to can Turner because his Air Coryell roots are tired.

      1. And yet Tarkenton hasn’t shown any of the ability those guys have/had. You ever try to read his Pioneer Press articles? They’re awful.

        1. Some of those articles were embarrassing. Let’s hope Zimmer consults with Grant whom Carroll credits with teaching him how to be a leader. I’m guessing leadership is a quality that never gets old.

    2. If you’re suggesting that a few examples of goods coaches and executives were former players, I never denied the truth of it. But against the handful of high profile examples (and there are others: Harbaugh, Greene, Studwell) there are dozens upon dozens of others who have tried and failed. The NFL has a fellowship program for former players to become coaches or personnel folks, and several hundred have gone through it. The vast majority have failed. That is why the significant majority of successful FOs and HCs wrote not NFL players. For every Mike Ditka, there are dozens of Matt Millens.

  2. I think if Zimmer thinks this guy can be the leader we’ve been lacking and he can survive in the NFL that’s good enough for me cause if his play can translate to the NFL like college were in for a good decade at QB. Manziel will bring new fans and old fans that gave up back to Minny. I think he should stayed in college at least another year but I understand why he did come out cause there’s a lot of QB needy teams all in the top 5. But I say trust Zimmer to make a good choice no matter Manziel,Carr or my favorite Murray.

  3. I love Fran, He hated Favre being a Viking, tho, and he was on board with Ponder for a while…so yeah, he can be wrong. I like that Zimmer would talk to him. I personally hope they go for it with Manziel. People say,don’t reach, like they did with Ponder, but Ponder wasn’t a spectacular college QB. They were hoping he’d turn into something he wasn’t. My biggest concern is Manziels attitude, but getting a Favre or Fran type QB, go for it. Him, or Bridgewater would be great I think. Arif, who would you take at QB?

  4. Honestly, no, Fran’s opinion doesn’t affect mine.

    This time of year you might as well be saying you’re thinking of drafting Chuck Norris. Although the Cowboys may have him under contract already, hard to say what they’ve got going on down there.

    Manziel could be great for the vikings. He’d be surrounded by talent. As far as I’m concerned the vikings should be where a guy wants to go this year. We’ve got a better line than Houston, and nobody else is close who needs a QB. Maybe the browns because in my opinion they have the single best WR in the league, a decent line, a bunch of draft picks, and a fan favorite to hold the position until you’re ready. But no All Day.

    But Zimmer is settling in, that’s what I see. He’s been connecting with the fan base, which isn’t a huge deal if you’re winning championships. But if you’re looking to build a positive relationship with the public so that people send hate mail to columnists trashing you after a loss, this is how it’s done.

  5. If the Vikings think about drafting 2 QBs, then I’m ok with Manziel being one of them.

  6. Also the more I think about Bridgewater, pro day was a terrible way for him to showcase his extremely valuable skill; the ability to read a defense. Some guys need a window to make the throw work. A guy can be great at throwing but make poor adjustments to coverage. That’s essentially what separates Russell Wilson from his size, and what makes Bridgewater a tough read from a skills perspective. At the same time, it’s a higher level of competition, and he may need some time to put it all together.

  7. Fran is certainly entitled to his opinion, but it doesn’t hold much value to me in the grand scheme of deciding who to draft. He hasn’t prooven himself to be a draft guru by any means. That being said, I agree that it’s good to see Zimmer taping into the resource. There is definitely a similarity in the playing styles, but the game has changed considerably over the years. The biggest question with Manziel is can he fit with what Norv wants to do. I don’t recall Norv ever having a free wheeling passer. Johnny seems to show the desire to be a great player in the NFL and that along with his natural talents leads me to believe he’ll be successful. I am nervous about his ability to stay healthy at the next level though.

  8. Smoke. Smoke. Will this make the news? Yep. Bet they will not go this way even if they have a chance. Could be wrong.

  9. “Seasons” of the NFL

    The Off Season
    The pre-season
    The regular season
    The post season
    Super Bowl
    The “Lying” Season

  10. The main knock I hear over & over on Manziel is that he is too short and disagree on is that he will get hurt in the NFL. NFL protects QBs way more than college. Mobile QBs run less in NFL then in college offenses. Play action & spread sets make height less of an issue. The fact that great mobility vs some mobility forces spy concepts and eliminates Cov 2 man defenses creates way bigger windows for throwing and no huddle simplifies D and takes the steam out of pass rushers. These are the new trends in football. Manziel may make it or not but these trends favor him. Choosing to bypass him for height and new style arguments is CYA thinking at its worse. Coach him up.

  11. The fans, the media, and most everyone else is missing the mark, how soon everyone forgets that AJ McCarron has two national championships back to back and has unquestionable character, I don’t get it. This guy is the perfect fit as an NFL QB look at how many Crimson players went to the NFL, he’s been playing with NFL players for years. He knows how to win, but maybe people don’t care about that. The Vikings should take a top flight defensive player and pick up AJ in the second round.

  12. Personally, I’d rather hear what Jerry Reichow has to say about Manziel. Dennis Green’s second biggest mistake after signing Randall Cunningham to a long-term contract was sidelining Reichow from personnel decisions.

  13. ‘Further, in general, players make extraordinarily poor talent evaluators and coaches (the examples number in the hundreds, though I think the Michael Jordan example is good enough for now).’

    Don’t understand that line. Truer more in basketball, not football.


    Also, I’m not meaning to be a heckler. This site has a lot of knowledgeable readers who will call you out. I love 98% of what you write!

  14. No, I think arif is right, there is a very small number of quality talent evaluators, even in the NBA. Sam Presti has been incredible.. Good news, I think Flip is actually really good.

    Coaches aren’t always the evaluators of non-roster talent .. They may have final say, but often the GM and scouts are the ones who are evaluating talent. Even more so .. People who are not connected to independent evaluators who are at least going to cover the major talent pools and define the consensus opinion have little value in stating their opinions. Right now every GM knows what every conference at D1 is kicking out this year. Does the average fan.. Including Fran Tarkenton know who is worth a look at McNeese State? How about NDSU? Or Central Michigan? Well we act like we do by reading extensive mocks, but we never watched some of those teams. Not a single down. We saw a bunch of Johnny Manziel though. They get first hand info, decide who they need more info on, and send their own scouts/ watch the tape. I know here at local D2 schools there have been GMs that have shown up at practice. Did Fran go to Johnnys practice? He’s never even met him.

  15. Ben Goessling quotes Zimmer as saying “I want him to have my persona. Because him and I are going to be tied together.” With that in mind, the QB who stands out most is Connor Shaw. He even looks like Zimmer. Plays like a coaches son, to the extent that Spurrier practically chokes up whenever he talks about him. May not be as physically there as some others, but mentally, I think he is the best and most mature. And in the end, the mental part is the most important.