Johnny Manziel's talent level has never been in question.
His maturity level, on the other hand, has. And as the Cleveland Browns are discovering, still is.
None of this is news to the folks at Texas A&M, where Manziel quickly became larger than life as "Johnny Football" on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman in 2012. Manziel's shtick is to hold his arms in the air and rub his fingers together as if he's holding wads of cash in his hands -- and recently he was seen on video holding real wads of cash in his hands, talking into them as if they were a telephone.
So he's already graduated to the next level and still hasn't played a down in the NFL.
The Aggies learned to live with the mercurial quarterback's cockiness and questionable behavior because, quite frankly, he was a phenomenal football player and won games for A&M. It was just a matter of how much the powers-that-be in College Station, Texas were willing to tolerate.
Considering that it was painfully obvious that Manziel would bolt to the NFL the first chance he got -- which meant when he had three years of college eligibility under his belt after his redshirt sophomore season -- the Aggies knew precisely when they could stop holding their breath worrying about Manziel's brash behavior leading to serious problems.
The Browns don't have that luxury.
Manziel's antics in the last few months -- from his Vegas trip to video of the Browns' first-round draft pick partying hard and clearly intoxicated -- surely must have owner Jimmy Haslam and head coach Mike Pettine concerned that Manziel's immaturity, combined with his newfound millions, is a disaster waiting to happen.
The sight of their franchise quarterback getting down like a frat boy on a bad night surely has to have the team's deep-thinkers second-guessing -- at least on some level -- their decision to take Manziel with the 22nd overall pick of this year's NFL Draft. Manziel has instantly become the face of the franchise, and when that face is glassy-eyed and slurring its speech, it must be a terrifying sight indeed for Pettine and company.
On one hand, Manziel is still a college-age guy sowing his wild oats. He has never pretended to be anything else, has never hidden his wild-child side and has always taken a "what you see is what you get" tack in regards to his arrogance and off-field conduct.
The Browns knew exactly who and what they were getting with Manziel and took him anyway.
And he certainly isn't the first NFL quarterback to enjoy the nightlife. Joe Namath didn't become "Broadway Joe" by accident, and Ken Stabler was a legendary party animal during his days in Oakland.
Like Manziel, neither hid their free-spirit ways -- and each ended up quarterbacking their respective teams to Super Bowl championships, Namath with the Jets and Stabler with the Raiders.
In other words, Namath, Stabler and others like them knew exactly when and how to separate their off-field persona from their on-field performance. On the field, they were consummate professionals with iron wills to win whose love to party was surpassed only by their love of the game.
Ironically, Manziel's playing style mimics that of Stabler's, both slippery quarterbacks more dangerous on the run outside the pocket than standing inside it, more scramblers looking to extend plays with their arm than runners trying to make plays with their legs.
And then there are the sad cases such as Todd Marinovich, the great USC quarterback who, like Manziel, entered the NFL after his redshirt sophomore year in college. Marinovich was a gifted QB who also reveled in the nightlife, which led to serious substance-abuse problems that ended up derailing his NFL career almost immediately in the early 1990s.
On the other hand, however, Manziel needs to grow up. Texas A&M did him no favors by excusing and basically condoning his behavior during his three years in College Station, so it's no wonder he arrived in Cleveland with a devil-may-care attitude living the lifestyle of a college kid. He has never been held accountable for his actions, which will only make it tougher for the Browns to corral their young QB.
And Manziel compounds his image problem because he doesn't just party. He flaunts it, thumbing his nose at authority and anyone who objects to his behavior as if to say, "What are you gonna do about it? I'm Johnny Football."
To that end, he's right. The Browns can't rein in Manziel. Sure, they can try -- they can threaten, fine or even suspend him. His teammates and even opposing players may attempt to play their part in putting the wraps on Manziel too, either through intimidation or message-sending hits.
But to this point, Manziel's personality has simply been too strong to be controlled by others. A free spirit is just that, and ultimately it's up to him to decide if he wants to hold the Vince Lombardi Trophy someday like Namath and Stabler, or if he just wants to hold wads of cash.
While they last.
Facebook: Tom Hardesty, Record-Courier