Johnny Manziel's Texas A&M is the next step in college football's evolution

Scott Halleran

Think you've had your fill of Johnny Football now? Wait two or three years: He's helping usher in the spread offense era of college football, and he and Texas A&M will be the stars of it.

It has been a day under three weeks since Johnny Manziel won the 2012 Heisman Trophy, and the Johnny Football hype train hasn't slowed down since: it's just changed course. Manziel was on Letterman, then courtside at a Mavericks game, then on the golf course with the Jonas Brothers (!?), and in the scant month that he has been available to the media for questioning, has done more things that make him look more like a star than anything Tim Tebow or Cam Newton, the last first-year starters to win the Heisman Trophy, did in college.

But, hell, Johnny Football's about football, right? So let's talk about that: his coronation as the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy will be used as evidence that he's the best freshman ever ("No one else won the Heisman!"), and the best player in college football ("A freshman won the Heisman!"), and the best quarterback in college football ("A freshman quarterback won the Heisman!"). That's not fair or right: there are simpler, easier, more correct explanations for why Manziel won the Heisman that better situate him in the college football constellation.

Manziel and his Heisman candidacy were fortunate to come along in a relatively star-free season in college football. Of the final BCS top 15, only No. 7 Georgia and No. 11 Oklahoma have quarterbacks who have been highly-touted NFL prospects, and thus on the lips and minds of analysts and fans, and Aaron Murray and Landry Jones have had up-and-down careers that limit their wattage. Manziel isn't an NFL shoo-in yet, and probably won't be unless Russell Wilson continues having success that chips away at the stigma about short quarterbacks, but he's by far the biggest star among the guys at the glamour position among the nation's best teams.

His final competition was lackluster, too: Collin Klein, who was the effective leader of an effective Kansas State team, lost his inside track at the Troy Smith Memorial Vote for being the public face of an undefeated title contender, and Manti Te'o had to overcome decades of bias against defenders ... and tackle totals that dropped in his senior season as the defense around him made it easier for him to do his job and easier for Notre Dame to win.

But what I'll remember most is the value of the superb PR campaign waged by Johnny Football fans. Texas A&M was perfectly situated to have a star in 2012, thanks to its new beginning in the SEC under a young coach with one of them new-fangled spread offenses, and Manziel was the right comet to hitch to from that first half against Florida. He was dazzling that day, and in the weeks to come, a sensation with an awesome nickname and a penchant for amazing plays in a sport that loves sensations and nicknames and plays and is too big to examine all of those who produce them under a microscope.

You will remember that Manziel broke the SEC's single-season record for total offense held by Newton (and Tebow before him), certainly. That was made easier by our friends at Good Bull Hunting, who used professional-quality graphic design to make Manziel's case in an attractive, easily-grasped infographic:

Johnny Manziel infographic

And, shit, that looks impressive. Manziel's best games were way better than the best ones Tebow and Rohan Davey had! He did way more than Newton and Tebow! He's played top-10 defenses! As with the best campaign ads, the devil's in the details omitted.

Yes, Manziel had the two of best single-game total offense performances in SEC history. No, they were not staggering feats in context: One, a 557-yard explosion, came in an absolute disintegration of Arkansas (No. 74 in total defense, No. 70 in defensive FEI), a 58-10 blowout that featured a Manziel touchdown make it 50-10 with 11:19 to go in the fourth quarter, and the other, a 576-yard night of wonder, came in a 59-57 shootout against Louisiana Tech (No. 124, or dead last, in total defense, and No. 114 in defensive FEI) that only happened because A&M's defense nearly blew a 34-7 lead, with Tech closing to 46-44 in the fourth quarter ... on a Manziel pick-six.

He got yards A&M didn't need in the former, and got yards A&M only needed because of a defensive meltdown in the other. One was against the SEC's second-worst defense (Kentucky's was better than Arkansas' in 2012) and one was against probably the nation's worst defense; neither was against a bowl team, though Louisiana Tech didn't go bowling because of an incredibly petty reason.

Those performances produced a few of those attractive circles on the bottom left part of the infographic, but they're not SEC games in the sense that "SEC game" usually connotes: they were akin to Alabama taking on a mid-level MAC team and Tennessee in a down year, not heavyweights squaring off.

Manziel's done his damage to the tune of 7.88 yards of total offense per play, a fantastic number ... that is still smaller than Newton's 7.95 yards per play was even after Oregon half-solved Auburn's offense in the 2010 national title game, and substantially smaller than Newton's 8.19 yards per play before bowl games.

Tebow's 7.76 YPP in 2007 before a bowl game brownout against Michigan (7.41 after) is also impressive, and it's worth noting that of those three recent SEC quarterback Heisman winners, Tebow did by far the most carrying a team on his back, accounting for 4,181 of Florida's 5,943 total yards (70.4 percent) compared to Manziel's 4,600 of 6,628 (69.4 percent) and Newton's 4,327 of 6,989 (61.9 percent). (And Tebow had Percy Harvin on his team!)

And as for Manziel meeting those top-10 defenses? He had 233 yards against Florida, and 303 against LSU, his two lowest numbers of the season, and his second-half numbers against those two teams -- Manziel had 55 yards against Florida, or less than he did on game-winning touchdown runs against Ole Miss and Louisiana Tech; his 135 yards against LSU were somewhat mitigated by two interceptions, one of which came the snap after another interception was wiped out by a penalty -- are strangely tiny for a guy who was so great at compiling stats.

Furthermore, Manziel's first half against Alabama was spectacular, and his throw to Malcome Kennedy for the final A&M TD against Alabama was letter-perfect, but it was his fumble-turned-touchdown in the first half that made every highlight reel, and that play had a leprechaun family's share of luck involved. Luck helps every Heisman winner, and every national champion, but rarely is it so visible. And for all the talk of his wonderful upset of Alabama, Manziel's play was not the only reason A&M won that game: the Aggies defense had to intercept A.J. McCarron twice, including once on the goal line, and Alabama had to forget how to get the ball to its talented tailbacks.

That last point is part of the biggest shame of the Johnny Manziel Era (which, in fairness, is just an extension of the Tim Tebow Era, and the Cam Newton Era): stars, and especially offensive stars, are going to get more and more recognition as college football continues to get bigger, but the people and systems that allow those stars to shine will have fewer and fewer moments in the sun.

Ask any non-A&M, non-Alabama fan who snagged that goal line pick, and it'll be a miracle if they remember it was DeShazor Everett. Damontre Moore tied for eighth in sacks and tackles for loss in 2012, but I'd wager very few remember that he blocked an extra point that meant two points against Louisiana Tech, in a game A&M won by three. And Manziel has had the incredible fortune to play with Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews as his offensive tackles before both go on to be first-round NFL Draft picks.

That's all context that's easy to forget or elide without doing a lot of research into it, just like it's easy to forget or elide that spread offenses are pushing yardage totals ever upward, with a full 23 teams topping 6,000 yards of total offense in 2012, up from 17 in 2011 and 14 in 2010. It's easy to forget or elide that Manziel was the prize pupil of Sumlin and A&M offensive coordinator/Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury, disciples of spread geniuses Joe Tiller (Sumlin), Mike Leach (Kingsbury as a player) and Dana Holgorsen (Kingsbury as a coach). Manziel is a near-perfect spread quarterback, with stellar accuracy and athleticism at least on par with anyone who has run the modern spread at a BCS conference, and he's in a near-perfect situation.

But if all that sounds negative, like a bitter appraisal of a "system quarterback," it's not. There are no "system quarterbacks," only ones that fit better or worse within a system. Manziel and the spread go together like chocolate and peanut butter. If we're being honest, this isn't the Johnny Manziel Era, but the beginning of the Johnny Manziel Campaign of the Invasion of the Killer Spread. Manziel, the best of a new breed of quarterbacks raised in the spread, and Texas A&M, the new kid on the block with in the most tradition-proud conference in college football, are the perfect marriage, Michael Schumacher and his Ferrari doing donuts in the grass on Mike Slive's lawn.

And it will get better for Manziel, and for A&M, which is already capitalizing on the Manzielmania -- that doesn't work as shorthand like Tebowmania does, despite almost rhyming with Wrestlemania -- by pulling in one of the nation's finest recruiting classes, especially at wide receiver. Three of Rivals' top 90 (Derrick Griffin, Kyrion Parker, Quincy Adeboyejo) and two of its top 30 wide receivers (Griffin, Parker) in the 2013 class are A&M commits, and Ricky Seals-Jones, Rivals' No. 27 prospect, is an athlete who will end up at wide receiver or tight end. Matthews is reportedly returning to A&M, And A&M has great running backs in its stable to help Manziel, with Ben Malena, Trey Williams, and Oregon transfer Tra Carson all available in the backfield next year.

2013 sets up nicely for the Aggies, too, with Florida rotating off the schedule for Vanderbilt and Alabama having to visit Kyle Field. LSU in Death Valley will be a challenge, sure, but A&M gets a helpful bye the week before that game, and gets two separate patches of four straight games at home.

Kingsbury's departure will likely have an impact on the Aggies' offense, but what up-and-coming spread expert wouldn't jump at the chance to coach Manziel? Forget the Heisman for a second: has there ever been a better opportunity to do things with the spread offense than at A&M right now, and is there a better chance to make a name for yourself than by leading A&M's SEC insurgency to the top of the college football?

Manziel's Heisman season is a great thing even if he doesn't get another, and will be overrated because it is a grand step forward, but it seems a lot bigger if you're unaware of the greater seismic shifts in football and college football. The spread is winning its war against orthodoxy, and offense is evolving faster than defense, and the rate of change is only speeding up.

Either Alabama or Notre Dame will win a national title on Monday, and they will each do so with defense: even in the spread vs. spread showdown that was Auburn-Oregon in 2010, defense prevailed. But each team will run more than a few plays with spread concepts, and each year brings us inexorably closer to total spread hegemony.

It makes sense that a child with a name like Johnny Football would lead us all into the light. It's just wonderfully weird that his throwback name is married to the future of football.

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