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Johnny (Canadian) Football

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Former NFL quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, speaks at a CFL press conference, Saturday, May 19, 2018, in Hamilton, Ontario, after announcing that he has signed a two-year contract to play for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Former NFL quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, speaks at a CFL press conference, Saturday, May 19, 2018, in Hamilton, Ontario, after announcing that he has signed a two-year contract to play for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. (Aaron Lynett/The Canadian Press via AP)

Johnny Football is getting back onto the football field. Well … a football field, anyway. Just not the one to which he’s grown accustomed.

It’s a bit bigger, for starters. And probably a bit colder.

Quarterback Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy winner and former first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns whose off-the-field issues contributed to on-field struggles and ultimately led to him being out of the game entirely for two years, has signed a two-year contract with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League.

Long considered by many to be Manziel’s best (and perhaps only) shot at getting back into the game, the CFL’s Ticats signed the mercurial QB to an incentive-laden deal. The salary numbers in Canada’s pro league aren’t anything like the NFL’s – league minimum is $50,000, with the average player salary landing right around $80K – but for this league, he’s doing all right, with base salaries of $122K and $202K and opportunity to double those numbers by hitting certain benchmarks.

But let’s not assume that Johnny Football is going to set the gridiron of the Great White North immediately afire – the CFL is a different animal.

A scrambling gunslinger type of QB – which is Manziel’s game for sure – faces different challenges in Canadian football. The larger field – 10 yards longer and nearly a dozen yards wider – does give a player like Manziel room to roam, but with only three downs, improvisation on the field is a significantly bigger gamble.

Granted, if he still has his elusiveness and quickness, he’ll be able to make some things happen with his feet. He has – or at least had – sufficient arm strength to execute the throws he’ll need to be able to make. But there’s no disputing that the game he’ll be playing will be different than the one he’s used to; how he adjusts (and how quickly) will determine if he’s successful.

All this assumes his skill set hasn’t eroded, by the way. Aside from a couple of audition-type games in the NFL’s Spring League last month, he hasn’t played for a couple of years. No one in the NFL wanted to roll the dice, so it stands to reason that there may be some doubts about his ability to perform at the necessary high level. Not to mention Manziel’s troubled history, which presents its own set of issues.

Oh, and just by the way – it’s not like he’s waltzing into Hamilton and taking the reins. The Ticats actually have a pretty productive quarterback already in Jeremiah Masoli, who had a very productive dozen games as the starter in 2017 – he passed for nearly 3,200 yards and 15 TDs against just five picks while rushing for nearly 450, averaging 6.4 yards per carry and notching four scores. Prorated over the CFL’s 18-game season, that’s a strong year. Coach June Jones has made it very clear that he won’t be handing the keys off to anyone who isn’t ready; again, it comes down to Manziel’s willingness and ability to understand and adapt to the different game.

This is a welcome bump in attention for the sport, to be sure. Raising the CFL’s profile can only be a good thing, and Manziel certainly does that – he’s easily the most famous player the league has seen in years; guys like Ricky Williams and Chad Johnson had footnote seasons following their NFL careers, but they were at the end of the line. Not since the Toronto Argonauts managed to bring Heisman winner Raghib “Rocket” Ismail north of the border back in the early 1990s has the CFL made such a high-profile and youthful addition, one with significant potential on-field benefits to go with the publicity bump. Whether Manziel’s presence translates to sustained interest beyond initial curiosity remains to be seen.

As someone with an enduring affection for the CFL, I’m excited to see if Manziel is able to recapture some of his quarterbacking magic north of the border. It’s a significant shift in the landscape, one that will likely be the league’s biggest story going forward. It is my hope – for the CFL’s sake – that it’s a story with a happy ending.

Let’s hear it for Johnny Canadian Football. Let’s go, eh?

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