Opinion: Johnny Manziel's AAF debut was strangely compelling because he didn't lead winning
Photo: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
The Sunday night Johnny Manziel made his professional football debut in Memphis was so strangely compelling, in so many unpredictable ways, that perhaps it’s best to start at the end.
Because after all the chants of “Joh-nny, Joh-nny,” after a relative unknown named Brandon Silvers nobody came to see led the Memphis Express to the first overtime win in Alliance of American Football history, after he kept this nascent team from being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs with a stunning comeback, Crystal Poe stood in the concourse of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium and admitted she was a little deflated.
She had driven nine hours from Greensboro, North Carolina, just to stand in the front row behind the Memphis Express bench waving a giant Manziel Fathead, and well ...
"It could've gone better," Poe lamented.
This pretty well summed up how oddly memorable the most exciting game in the brief history of the Memphis Express turned out to be.
Because Johnny Football was the protagonist we all expected he would be the moment he signed with the Express, he was the quarterback most everyone showed up to see, and then he didn’t actually win the game for the Express.
And after he did, coach Mike Singletary declared, "unless something really crazy happens" Silvers is going to be the team's starting quarterback moving forward.
Which only begins to describe the unusual circumstances that led to that.
To start, Manziel showed up wearing a Memphis Grizzlies No. 25 Chandler Parsons jersey and then Parsons was seated at the 50-yard line wearing a No. 2 Johnny Manziel Memphis Express jersey.
The Express gave away Manziel T-shirts to anyone who bought $30 worth of tickets and Manziel replica jerseys to anyone who spent $90, and then started Silvers at quarterback.
Those chants of “Joh-nny, Joh-nny, Joh-nny,” which picked up steam about eight minutes into the first quarter, eventually rang out from all over the stadium, even after Manziel took the field for the first time to a standing ovation with 7:12 remaining in the second quarter.
Then there was Manziel, mic'd up for the AAF broadcast on NFL Network, talking trash to a Birmingham Iron defender with the sort of profanity that probably shouldn't have gotten past the NFL Network censors.
"It's kind of like a car wreck," said Express season ticket holder Bill Alexander, wearing the Manziel jersey he bought earlier this week. "At this point, you root for him to become what he could've become, but it could be a complete and utter disaster. I can't wait to see it."
This, of course, is what made the night truly fascinating.
Because Manziel wasn't disastrous. He was actually pretty good.
His first play was a 13-yard-run for a first down. His first pass was a 20-yard strike that should’ve been caught. His first completion was a 36-yard dart to Pig Howard.
The whole crowd stood the entire time, by the way, even Parsons. They roared when Manziel spun and whirled away from would-be tacklers and looked close enough to the quarterback who exhilarated college football fans not all that long ago.
So whenever Singletary sent Silvers back out there, the boos rained down mercilessly. Right up until the moment Silvers completed a fourth-quarter comeback and won the game in overtime.
“It’s not the first time I’ve been booed on the field, but maybe in a home game,” Silvers said. “But you kind of expect that. You kind of got to. Johnny Manziel is a Heisman winner. He’s well-accomplished. If he was on another team, I’d be looking in to watch him play.”
This, like everything related to Manziel, defies convention.
Because Silvers is the self-described underdog from Gulf Shores, Alabama, the quarterback who starred at “little Troy” University and didn't get sent home from the Manning Passing Academy (like Manziel). Indeed, Silvers made such an impression on Archie Manning that Archie would text him good luck before big games during his senior year of college.
Silvers is who we should be rooting for, and yet we can't take our eyes off Manziel.
Indeed, even Johnny Football seemed to realize this.
“I can’t imagine how awesome of a feeling that was for Brandon tonight,” Manziel said to start his postgame press conference. “I don’t go out and round people up and say, ‘Will you guys go out and chant, ‘We want Johnny’ all day?’ To put that pressure on him and him have to go out there and deal with that and handle it the way he did was top notch. I’m kind of sick of that a little bit. Let it play out.”
So yes, this bizarre night ended with one final twist: Manziel asking everyone to stop chanting his name.
Good luck with that.