CLEVELAND (AP) – Hours after the Browns switched starting quarterbacks, Cavaliers superstar LeBron James stood at his locker following a win rocking a “Money Manziel” T-shirt.
“You know I know timing,” James quipped.
The Browns hope theirs is right, too.
Johnny Manziel, the stage is yours.
The hyped rookie, who depending on whom you talk to is either the NFL’s next big thing or everything that’s wrong with today’s athlete, will make his first career start Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
With their offense sputtering and their playoff hopes wilting, the Browns (7-6) are handing the ball to Manziel.
And once he’s got it, anything is possible.
“If something breaks down he runs around and makes a play,” Browns Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas said. “That can be a huge spark for any team when you have a quarterback who can extend plays the way he does. I’m excited to see what he can do. Hopefully he can lead us to where we want to go because I think our goal is still out there.”
Manziel will take the knowledge he has gathered from spending months learning as a backup behind Brian Hoyer, who helped make the Browns relevant again before it seems the pressure of playing in his hometown, trying to earn a new contract and having Johnny Football over his shoulder became too much.
The Browns drafted Manziel with an eye toward the future, and it’s here.
Sure, he’s a social media sensation and a star to a young generation of fans, but there’s no denying Manziel’s ability to drop thousands of jaws in a packed stadium and keep defensive coordinators up at night.
At Texas A&M, he ran a simple offense that consisted of Manziel mostly taking the snap in the shotgun. If his receivers were covered, Manziel would spin, duck, jump, whatever he had to do to buy time until they got open. If they didn’t, he took off running to avoid a sack.
Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is expected to utilize Manziel’s unique skillset.
“I’m excited to see what he can do, I’m not going to lie to you,” said Browns defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, who has only had to deal with Manziel in practice.
“Everybody in the building can feel the buzz. Everybody can’t wait to get to Sunday. I’m glad I don’t have to defend it. It can be a major headache.”
The Bengals (8-4-1) lead the AFC North, but to keep it they’ll have to control Manziel, which won’t be easy.
“The challenge is even if you do get a good rush on him, he has the ability to make you miss in the pocket,” Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “King of like (Tony) Romo and some of those guys who are good in the pocket. But at the end of the day, he is still a rookie.”
Besides Manziel, here are some other things to watch as the Browns go for a season sweep over their Ohio neighbors:
WHAT ABOUT ANDY? Bengals QB Andy Dalton had one of his worst games during the 24-3 loss to the Browns on Nov. 6. He completed 10 passes, threw three interceptions and had a career-low passer rating of 2.0. In four games since, he has completed 70 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns, four interceptions and a combined passer rating of 101.3.
JOHNNY TARGET: All the hype about Manziel has made him a marked man.
“I guarantee that anyone who sacks him will stand over him and give the money sign,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said. “That’s the price that he has to pay for who he is and the reputation that he brings with him to the NFL. He already got a taste of it in the preseason.”
During an exhibition at Washington, Manziel flipped his middle finger toward the Redskins sideline in response to their taunts.
Pettine said he’ll remind his quarterback about keeping his composure.
TOOTHLESS CATS: Manziel will be making his starting debut against a defense that has only two sacks in the past five games. The Bengals gave up 543 yards against Pittsburgh, the third time this season they’ve allowed more than 500 in a game, a franchise record. They’re on pace to give up 6,000 yards for only the second time in franchise history.
ROAD TESTED: The Bengals have won three straight road games since being shut out 27-0 at Indianapolis. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis isn’t sure what prompted the turnaround.
“Whether it’s home or away you’ve got to focus in and play,” he said. “Sometimes, on the road you’re mentality just seems as though the focus is good.”
A.J. AND JOE: Bengals receiver A.J. Green is in one of the best stretches of his career now that he’s recovered from an injured big right toe. He had 12 catches during a win at Houston, 11 for a career-high 224 yards last Sunday. The Bengals will try to get him the ball a lot against Cleveland, which has limited him better than any team with cornerback Joe Haden covering him most of the time. In the past two games against the Browns, Green has been held to a total of five catches for 30 yards.
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