Long before his personal implosion had begun at the professional level, Johnny Manziel got working on his redemption story.
In college, he was a talented football player and a complete knucklehead. He got into fights. He was arrested. There were repeated drunken outrages. He used social media like a burn book, dropping to online ground and flailing whenever things didn't go his way.
A couple of generations ago, this nonsense would have presented a formidable roadblock to entering the NFL. This was before every team had a battery of psychologists on retainer. Forty years ago, they checked up on you by asking around. If the word came back that you were a feckless dolt, they took their signing bonus elsewhere. There was no percentage in taking a huge risk on a marginal personality with unusual talent. At least, not at quarterback.
The ironic result of knowing so many more intimate details about an athlete's psyche is that it's convinced just about every general manager he can play Freud: "Just get them on the couch long enough, and we'll talk the stupid out of him."
That shift happened in large part because winning is no longer the short-term goal for most professional sports franchises. In any given league, at least half the teams start the year knowing they have no chance of winning anything.
What those clubs can reliably do is build a compelling story. The worse the team, the more in need of a story they are. That's how Manziel ended up in Cleveland. The Browns wanted a high-profile screw-up. And they wanted to be the ones to fix him. What better micro-arc to the longest-running disaster epic in professional football?
Months before Manziel was drafted, we were getting to see the "real" Johnny. ESPN's Wright Thompson – probably the best sports writer at work – did a long, sympathetic profile painting Manziel as a decent kid who'd become a victim of his own celebrity. These sorts of pieces often seem like quid pro quos, but they aren't.
The truth is that if you get one person into a room with another person for enough time, the journalistic result will almost always tilt in favour the subject. Up close, we all want to find the best in each other (especially if, from a distance, we've only seen the worst). Manziel repeatedly got the benefit of that human tendency toward thesis and antithesis – "He looks like a bad guy, but when you really talk to him …" Other writers and broadcasters tucked into Thompson's draft, spinning out the same hopeful storyline about new leaves and turning them. It was the public-relations lever that allowed the Browns to draft Manziel in 2014.
All Manziel had to do was change or win. One or the other. There is an endless supply of forgiveness for a knucklehead who wins. There is less forgiveness, but still some, for one who can change. If you can manage both, you've pulled a jackpot.
Manziel couldn't manage either. His work ethic was non-existent. Even by rookie standards, he was a profoundly mediocre pivot. He kept drinking himself paralytic in public and being photographed doing so. Whenever things went wrong (often), he always had a (transparently phony) excuse. He went to rehab. It didn't seem to take.
Very early on, it must have occurred to the Cleveland executives that they'd yoked themselves to a man just as he was stepping off a ledge. Most of Manziel's two years in the NFL were the fall. During that time, he started eight games and lost six. He missed the last game of the season with a concussion, and was photographed that same day in a club in Las Vegas.
By that point, Manziel and Cleveland were linked in free-fall. The impact with the ground was an off-season domestic-violence charge that may put Manziel in prison.
In the surest sign that any athletic career is finished, Manziel was dumped by his agent. Those guys don't leave until the corpse has either been picked clean or found to be diseased. Manziel is both.
On Friday, the Browns completed the process by waiving the man who remains the face of their franchise. There's room in the NFL for anti-social types. There's none for ones who can't execute. So Manziel is finished. He's so radioactive even the CFL wouldn't touch him at this point (although I half-expect him to try it and one-quarter expect someone to float the idea to see how it takes).
This won't change anything. No lesson has been learned. Rather, you expect the process – multiple falls followed by multiple attempts at image reclamation – to become even more prevalent. At the very least, what Manziel gave people was something to talk about. In today's rapacious and constantly expanding sports media environment, it is not possible to overvalue that commodity.
While we may have seen the last of Johnny Manziel, there will be many others like him – people who are stories rather than performers. Every once in a while, one will pay off and make the career of the people who took the chance.
If all sports executives are gamblers, those types of players – the tantalizingly compromised ones – are the long shots they can't help themselves from taking.