Thinking Out Loud — Johnny Manziel

The NFL hasn’t experienced rookie hoopla like Johnny Manziel since, well, since Tim Tebow. There’s a reason why players dub the league “Not For Long.” Tebow had his fifteen minutes of Tebow Time in the NFL and it’s over. Debating whether Manziel will prove a star or another Tebow (or Colt McCoy, or Heath Shuler, or Ryan Leaf) is a hot topic. The real answer is that nobody knows, not even Johnny himself.

Maziel gave the finger to the Washington bench Monday night. Speaking on the Mike and Mike show, Washington safety Ryan Clark, leaked the trash talk that set Manziel off. It was akin to, “Hey kid, this ain’t college. We’re all faster than you.” Nothing much more than one of my favorite sayings: “The fastest player in college is the slowest player in the NFL.”

Few rookies break into the NFL with complete poise, but many shake off such comments. Other rookies undoubtedly heard similar things this weekend. Finger Gate tells me one very important thing about Manziel: the opponent got into his head, and quite easily. Elias Sports Bureau doesn’t compile “QB Winning Percentage After Defense Got In Your Head” statistics, but my educated guess is that it’s somewhere around zero for most QBs.

I’m coincidentally reading an excellent Bart Starr biography by John Devaney. Starr alluded to the perils of desiring “emotional revenge” on your opponent. Emotions distract you from your game plan and technique. Emotional decisions, on and off the field, lead to mistakes. Mental toughness is as important as physical toughness.

Recall of few of your favorite Super Bowls. Did the quarterback demonstrating the most composure win? This doesn’t just factor into the Super Bowl. Watch any big game with and pay attention. The mentally toughest of the two QBs on that day will most likely win.

Earlier we looked at the remarkably low number of quarterbacks to win Super Bowls. Some, like Manziel, possessed exciting athletic abilities in addition to a strong arm. Others wouldn’t impress you with their combine numbers. But the top ones had one thing in common — they defined mental toughness. Starr. Joe Montana. Terry Bradshaw. Mental toughness. Bob Griese. Tom Brady. Mental toughness. Jay Cutler. Catch my drift?

I don’t mean to pick on Cutler, but I do want to stress that quarterbacks who have a tendency to get rattled also have a tendency to lose. Especially in big games. Cutler plays very well at times, but when the defense is in his head, he’s awful. Indeed, most quarterbacks skills deteriorate when shaken, and that’s usually done with a flooding pass rush. Occasionally, however, players can take their opponents off their game.

People criticize Manziel’s lifestyle, but players with robust lifestyles can succeed. Joe Namath and Paul Hornung are two wonderful examples. Conversely, players who let on-field emotions get to them usually fail. Manziel must learn to shake off the talk before he experiences any real success in the NFL. Otherwise, it truly will be “Not For Long” for him.



Legendary Insights: Don Maynard Part 3

This is the final post in a three-part series recounting my recent chat with New York Jets legend Don Maynard. The first two discussed Don’s modified game equipment and the Jets passing attack. Today we take a look at the Jets magical run to Super Bowl 3 and their historic victory.


Most quarterbacks dropped back about 8 yards to throw. Jets quarterback Joe Namath usually backed up 10-12 yards, compensating for a lack of mobility from chronic knee problems. The few extra yards gave Namath more time to throw, and his sack total is one of the lowest in NFL history. Maynard credited much of the Jets success to an usually low sack total, allowing the passing game to flourish.


The Jets played the Oakland Raiders in the 1968 AFL Championship, a few weeks after their famous “Heidi Bowl” debacle. Maynard guffawed suggestions that the Jets thought about the Heidi Bowl during the championship. “Any game you’ve played has nothing to do with the one you’re playing today,” he said.

In the championship, the Jets trailed Oakland 23-20 in the fourth quarter. Maynard explained that Jets players could provide Namath with information until Joe knelt down in the huddle. After Namath crouched, he’d have the floor. Maynard recognized a weakness in the Raiders coverage and told Namath, “Got a long one when you need it.”

A few plays later, Namath  hunkered down in the huddle and said, “Alright, we’re going to go for it now. Nobody hold on this play.”

Namath launched a high, arching pass toward Maynard, but Shea Stadium’s swirling winds swerved the ball off course. What the New York Jets website dubbed, “Joe Namath’s Greatest Throw”, would have fallen incomplete without Maynard’s incredible adjustments under pressure. “We always had the terminology of catching it over your left shoulder at about ten o’clock,” Maynard said. “The wind caught Joe’s pass and took it around to eleven, twelve, one, and two o’clock. I went all the way around and caught it at two o’clock, going out of bounds on the 6 yard-line.” (Watch the play here.)

Namath then drilled a six-yard pass to Don for the winning score, and the Jets were on their way to Miami for Super Bowl 3.


Don said the Jets mostly ignored the media predicting a double-digit loss against Baltimore. “Half of us don’t even read the papers….You just go out and play the other team. Even though the Colts had won something like fifteen straight ball games, we just went out there and played.”

A hamstring injury had impaired Maynard before the AFL Championship. It nagged throughout that game and into Super Bowl 3. Maynard’s 118 yards and 2 touchdowns against Oakland led the Colts to believe Don had fully recovered. “The Colts double-teamed me all game,” he said with a chuckle, adding that George Sauer pulled in 8 catches for 133 yards as a result.

Maynard applauded Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer’s efforts, crediting them with  important roles in the historic win. Snell hammered out 121 yards rushing. “I don’t think Joe threw at all in the fourth quarter,” Maynard recalled.


The Jets rushing defense rated tops in the AFL in 1968. Their pass defense stood second in the league for two straight seasons. They gave up fewer yards than the Colts vaulted defense, in a league known for its offense. Led by the Hall of Fame tandem of Maynard and Namath, the Jets offense finished second overall in the AFL, outdoing the Colts in total yards and scoring. Kicker Jim Turner led the AFL in field goals and scoring, and averaged over 10 points a game. His 145 points bested Colts kicker Lou Michaels by over 40.  Turner kicked 3 field goals in Super Bowl 3, while Michaels missed both of his attempts.

Blends of outstanding offense, defense and special teams often crystallize into championship rings. The Jets were statistically better than Baltimore in several categories in 1968, including turnover ratio. Consistent to that ratio, the Jets were +4 in turnovers against the Colts on Super Bowl Sunday. While Super Bowl 3 is often cited as one of the greatest upsets in sports history, perhaps the Jets were substantially underrated.

*NOTE* Several of the quotes used above are from The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL. The book will be released by the University of Nebraska Press on September 1, 2014, but you can order it now on Amazon.


Legendary Insights: Don Maynard Part 2

This is the second of three posts summarizing my recent chat with New York Jets legend Don Maynard. The last post highlighted advantages Maynard gained from modified equipment. We now examine the explosive Jets passing offense of the 1960s.

Painting by Robert Hurst.

Painting by Robert Hurst.


Maynard broke into pro football with the New York Giants in 1958.  He played behind Frank Gifford and Kyle Rote as a running back and receiver. He also returned kicks and subbed as the fifth defensive back. “Besides Gifford, I was probably the most all-around ball player they had,” Maynard said.

Don paid attention to how Gifford and Rote ran pass routes and modified their actions. For example, Maynard noticed that when a receiver cuts sharply, he grants the defender an extra second while he stops to cut. Maynard rounded off his routes to keep his momentum going.

The Jets had a “staircase” pattern. A receiver ran several yards, cut across, and flew downfield. Maynard’s rounding approach not only sustained his momentum, but also left turning defensive backs flat-footed. That extra second gave Maynard a head start breaking deep. Huge gains off the staircase helped Don set the NFL record for most yards per catch, a mark he still holds. He graciously points out, however, that it’s for players with over 600 catches and Lance Alworth owns a slightly higher average with 542 grabs.

The Jets' staircase pattern, shown the standard way on the left, Maynard's on the right.

The Jets’ staircase pattern, shown the standard way on the left, Maynard’s on the right.


Don frequently practiced catching with one eye closed. “Often during a game you’re only seeing the ball out of one eye. If you’re running a down and in, you’re only seeing the ball out of your left eye,” he explained. Maynard would have several balls thrown from different angles during practice, catching the ball with one eye closed.


“I taught Namath something that no coach, even in today’s game, has ever taught a quarterback to do: read the defender!” Maynard exclaimed. Pre- and post-snap adjustments were key elements to the Jets success. Receivers employed hand signals before the snap to notify quarterback Joe Namath of changed pass routes. Acting like one was digging with a shovel signaled a down and in; (D-I for dig; D-I for down and in.) Other signs included placing either an open hand or a fist on a knee, one or two hands on the hips, and patting the top of the helmet. Each movement signified a different pattern. The Jets used this system at the line of scrimmage like baseball teams use “steal” signs.

Maynard and tight end Pete Lammons often lined up on the same side. Lammons would run 10 yards and in, and Maynard 15 and in. Teams using zone defenses couldn’t cover both men in the same area. Often the speedy Maynard was left isolated in man-to-man coverage, resulting in big plays.

Pete  Lammons

Pete Lammons


Maynard, Lammons, and George Sauer suited up with Namath for several consecutive seasons. Together, they practiced nuances of the passing game every single day.  Their tireless work led to outstanding execution on the field.

The Jets passing attack reached a pinnacle in 1967. Namath became the first quarterback in pro football history to throw for 4,000 yards (4,007). Maynard and Sauer finished 1-2 in the AFL for receiving yardage, with Don averaging over 100 yards per game.

NOTE: Maynard details more of the Jets passing game and his life story in The Game before Money. Two above quotes are from that book.

Don  Maynard and Joe  Namath

Don Maynard and Joe Namath


Pete Lammons, Don Maynard and George Sauer