Johnny Manziel and the Undersized Quarterback

By: Dan Grant

NFL training camps officially opened July 26th and unquestionably the biggest new storyline is that of the Cleveland Browns new franchise quarterback, Johnny Manziel.

Manziel has been a polarizing figure off the field for a variety of transgressions, none of which really matter all that much to me. The real question is, now that he’s in the big time, can the guy play?

I don’t have a stake in the Browns future. As a Packers fan, they’re in a different conference and have been mediocre for so long that it seems weird to think of them potentially having a franchise changing player. But that’s what Manziel is. If you read various scouting reports on him (and there are a veritable pantload) you see a few common phrases mentioned.

Great arm strength. Quick release. Excellent speed. Good football IQ.

Sounds great! Most questions seem to be about work ethic, and whether he’s got the character to succeed at the NFL level, where quarterbacks are expected to be workhorses, video room junkies that push everyone around them to new heights. These are valid concerns.

The other concern that’s mentioned, without fail, is his size. There’s rarely a further explanation. Just ‘the only negative seems to be his size’ and then the reports quickly move on, as if to say, “Well you know. He’s a quarterback. Bit small for a quarterback don’t you think?”

Johnny represents the Lollipop...I mean the Cleveland Browns, whoops, sorry!

Johnny represents the Lollipop… I mean the Cleveland Browns, whoops!

The NFL, more than any other league, is size obsessed. Some of the old tropes are as follows: teams need superior size on the offensive line (true). Running backs can’t be too tall or they’ll get caught up by the defense (maybe true). Wide receivers are better if they’re tall because they can then out-leap shorter defensive players (true to a certain extent).

And quarterbacks need to be tall (bogus!).

If you take a glance through the recent NFL record-books, particularly as the relate to quarterbacks, you’ll see the stamp of the new pass heavy style favoured by most NFL teams. A couple names repeat over and over.

Peyton Manning, Tom Brady. Manning, Brady. Brady, Manning.

If you go a little further back, to when the balance began to convert from attack shotgun formations and deeper passing attacks, you’ll see other names.

Favre. Marino. Young. Montana.

These players played for a variety of teams with varied successes and singular career trajectories. They had unique skill sets. In some ways, they couldn’t be more different. However, if you take a glance at the bios of any of these players you’ll see one thing they had in common: height.

The shortest of the six names I mentioned are Favre, Montana and Young, all standing 6’2. Marino and Brady are 6’4 and Manning towers at 6’5.

A name that is probably conspicuous by its absence among those I just mentioned is that of Drew Brees. The New Orleans Saints quarterback is the only player to throw for 5,000 yards in a season more than once, tallying four of the eight times that has ever been done. He also briefly held the single season passing record until last season, when Manning passed him by a single yard. He’s a Super Bowl champion, not to mention a Super Bowl MVP. And, he’s a future Hall of Famer.

He also stands just 6’0 tall.

Now those two inches might not seem like a lot to your or me but to an NFL scout, they’re everything. There’s a reason Brees was drafted 32nd (2nd QB) overall in 2001, even though he was seen as an excellent QB prospect. Yes NFL teams draft by positional need but teams were known to have passed on Brees because of his stature. He was then dealt after a fine NFL season because the San Diego Chargers had drafted and signed Philip Rivers, who stands, you guessed it, 6’4.There’s a reason Johnny Manziel was drafted 22nd (2nd QB), behind the much more raw Blake Bortles, who stands how tall? Oh yes, I have it right here: 6’5. Michael Vick, who stands just 6’0 as well, was taken 1st overall in 2001, the same year Brees was chosen. But he was seen to be a mould-breaker, a quarterback who would revolutionize the position, and for a while, that’s what he did. He wasn’t a traditional pocket passer.

Quarterbacks are generally expected to able to function well within ‘the pocket’, which is defined as the space behind the offensive line, after the ball is snapped. The lineman drop back to form a wall of protection around the QB, and he then needs to step up and make a throw. So why does this bode poorly for shorter QB’s? Because NFL lineman, as a rule, are gargantuan.

If the average lineman stands 6’5, how can a QB who is 6’0 or shorter even function? If you’re staring at the backs of a bunch of gorillas, how can you focus on throwing over top of them without floating duck passes? Basic scouting says while it’s possible, it’s an added headache that teams would rather not have to deal with. Drew Brees however, has shown us that shorter QB’s can not only function, they can be stars. By using a variety of tactics including, but not limited to, working out of the shotgun, using dink and dunk passes and using screen passes, the Saints star is a perfect blueprint for a successful ‘undersized’ quarterback. It also helps that he has a fire hose for a right arm and can throw the deep ball down field when he needs to. The video below illustrates this perfectly:


Brees is in the shotgun, with additional blockers in the backfield. This expands the pocket and gives him more space and time to make the throw and he unleashes a monster 79 yard TD pass. Height be damned.

So is this need for height a trend that’s changing? Is Johnny Manziel a part of it? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Russell Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks starting quarterback, is currently the darling of the league. He stands just 5’11 and his composure as a passer has many NFL fans wondering why they ever doubted him in the first place. I have no doubt that his success helped Johnny Manziel’s draft stock; Wilson himself was a 3rd round pick and few expected him to be this good, this soon. Seattle doesn’t win last season without him. He is a member of a group known as ‘the Gang of Four’, four young quarterbacks thought the be the future of the league. Other than Wilson, there is Robert Griffin III (6’2), Colin Kaepernick (6’4) and Andrew Luck (6’3). Cam Newton, a similar young star, stands a monstrous 6’6. It doesn’t seem like much is changing.

So can Manziel replicate Wilson’s formula?

You may have noticed that I haven’t actually mentioned what Manziel’s height is. This is because I don’t actually know. Early scouting on Manziel lists him as ‘lower than six feet’. A Google search turned him up a 1.83m, which is identical to Drew Brees, who is listed on his Football Reference page as 6’0 tall; however, on Manziel’s FR page, he’s listed at 6’1! This may be another case of a player trying to inflate his height to distance himself from the stigma, which shows just how prevalent it is among NFL scouts and fans alike.

The bottom line is it doesn’t really matter. What matters is his ability. Players such as Fran Tarkenton, Sonny Jurgenson and Joe Theismann have all succeeded as QB’s of heights less than the prototype. Doug Flutie was famously exiled to the CFL mainly because of his stature before returning for a successful NFL career later on. Brees and Wilson are doing it right now.  If Manziel can mature and the Browns play to his strengths, he’ll succeed in the league. If not, he could easily wind up the next Tim Tebow or Matt Leinart – big college stars who couldn’t hack it in the pros.

The only guarantee? Johnny Football will make it entertaining either way.

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