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?