HAMILTON, Ontario -- It's so easy to see from here: The most creative quarterback in the recent history of college football, let loose on a bigger field. He's buying time for receivers to get open, toying with defenders trying to sack him, taking off downfield when needed and recovering his reputation as an elite-level playmaker.
On the surface, it makes all kinds of sense to envision Johnny Manziel beginning a comeback north of the border in the CFL -- if he pulls himself from the depths of his personal spiral. His NFL opportunities for 2016 have dwindled, given his public behavior and reported physical condition, and he might need a more recent template of success to earn his next chance.
As a result, CFL officials are casting a wary but intrigued eye, knowing Manziel's celebrity would inject energy and help flex the international marketing strategy of commissioner Jeffrey Orridge. Manziel is reported to be on the negotiating list of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, giving them the first opportunity to sign him should he express interest. He conceivably could work toward landing there either late this season or in 2017.
CFL rules prevent team officials from discussing unsigned players publicly, but sitting in his office last week, Orridge smiled and said: "The CFL provides opportunities for players that for a myriad of reasons are not playing in the NFL, and that's always been another opportunity for them, if you think back throughout our history."
During a trip through Hamilton last week, though, I discovered a healthy skepticism and a bit of provincialism at the notion that Manziel could "wreck" the CFL as he once vowed to do in the NFL. Marshall Ferguson, who played college football at Canada's McMaster University and is now the Tiger-Cats' radio analyst, senses a split in interest level.
"I think some people would be excited to have him here," Ferguson said. "There are 50 percent of the people who go, 'Yeah, that would be fantastic and it would be a lot of fun,' and there are half that are all ages, all demographics, who would say, 'We don't need that guy and we don't care about him. He doesn't bring anything to the table that [current Hamilton quarterback] Zach Collaros doesn't bring.'"
Comparing Collaros, who played at Cincinnati from 2008-11, to the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner might not make sense in America. But most Canadians I spoke with considered it a misconception that Manziel, or any American quarterback, could run wild in the CFL. The three-down offense discourages quarterbacks from taking risks to keep plays alive; lost yardage on any play usually dooms a drive. According to statistics provided by the league, quarterbacks have run on only 1.4 percent of first-down plays, when the risk of running usually is at its lowest.
Notwithstanding historic images Americans have of Doug Flutie weaving his way around defenders, the CFL has entered a turbo passing phase. Its quarterbacks have thrown on 70 percent of plays this season, on track to be a league record, and their rushing totals account for just 4.2 percent of total yards. CFL quarterbacks have only three runs of at least 20 yards in nine weeks of play so far.
More than ever, players who fit Manziel's athletic profile must change their style, usually while accepting a reserve role. They have to learn not only the three-down rhythm but also new ways of reading the CFL's 12-man defenses, which usually include a "rover" who follows the passer's eyes.
Ferguson noted the season-long learning process for former Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., who has struggled in brief appearances this season for the Montreal Alouettes, and pointed out that former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson can't get off the bench for Hamilton.
"People think it would just be Johnny's [junior] year at A&M," Ferguson said. "It wouldn't be. I find it so interesting when the assumption is made that a guy has speed at quarterback, and he'll just come up here and play that way. The CFL doesn't ask you to make those crazy, ridiculous plays. Look at the guys up there that are dominating this league right now."
Indeed, the CFL's top quarterback over the past decade is arguably Toronto's Ricky Ray, who is now a 36-year-old game manager who has rushed for 53 yards in the past two seasons combined. Henry Burris, 41, is starting for the Ottawa Red Blacks. Collaros, 27, recently returned from a torn ACL and threw five touchdown passes Saturday against the Saskatchewan Roughriders with a knee brace limiting his mobility.
"The way the downs are here, you have to be efficient on first down," Collaros said. "It's tough if you're running around, even on first down, and you take a sack. That puts you into the equivalent of third-and-17 in the NFL, right off the bat. It's just a completely different animal here."
Much like the NFL, and possibly to a greater extent, the CFL values quarterbacks who minimize mistakes.
"The guys that play here are accurate, effective and consistent," Ferguson said. "They make the right decisions on whether to eat the ball or get it away quickly. Does Johnny Manziel have that type of mindset where he says, 'I'm just going to make the right choice on this play?' It would take a long time for him to figure that out.
"If you could put a leash on a guy like that, harness what he has athletically and turn him into a playmaker inside the context of the whole CFL system, I think it would be a hell of a lot of fun to watch. But I don't know of a coach that is willing to invest a lot in a guy like that, especially if he is just coming here for a short time."
Manziel certainly has the football IQ to make those changes, but it would come in what is a decidedly less laborious work environment than in the NFL. The CFL labor agreement limits players to 4.5 hours per day at the team facility. Another misconception, Collaros said diplomatically, is that Manziel could experience a personal reinvention by burying himself in the hinterlands of Canada.
"I don't want to judge the man, but if he came up here, he would have a ton of free time," Collaros said. "Toronto is pretty close to here and is a pretty sweet city. So is Hamilton for that matter."
It's always possible that Manziel's energy and skills could shake up the entire scheme paradigm. But inertia works in so many ways. In all likelihood, a journey into the CFL would require a commitment and maturity that Manziel has yet to display in adulthood. Matt Dunigan, a retired CFL quarterback who now serves as a TSN television analyst, said Manziel has "all the boxes checked as far as what it would take physically to succeed here." But, Dunigan emphasized, "that's only part of the equation."
Dunigan added: "It's no different here than in the NFL. He has the ability physically, but until he gets himself together and takes the job seriously, there's not much to talk about. He didn't take it seriously in the NFL. He could get a chance here, but that's on him."
No one knows what Johnny Manziel is up to these days, much less whether he would be interested in a CFL tour. It's almost certainly waiting for him if he does. As with the rest of his life, though, it'll require change and commitment to make it work. So it goes.