Finding the "best" topic to start a chat these days about Johnny Manziel can be as elusive a task as young Mr. Football is on a field.
If you rush from the "did he take money for autographs" angle, it can scramble to the "does his trash-talking help or hurt" side, or it can settle into the pocket of "he may end up being the greatest college football player of our time, or all time."
More and more, Manziel isn't in the pocket, as much as his coaches would like him to be. When you're out of the pocket, you open yourself up to hits, but even if the media's analysts and commentators have Ray Lewis or Lawrence Taylor instincts and abilities in running down story lines, they're seemingly unable to track down this kid's.
Football players aren't always the sports greats I think of when Manziel is brought up, though. It's often people like Reggie Miller and Larry Bird.
Miller's choke gesture to Spike Lee is an iconic moment now. History has glorified his antics on-court and his trash talk ("It was never personal," he's said).
Bird's backing up of his trash-talk was frightening. This was a guy who legend tells, on Christmas Day, sought out Chuck Person pre-game, told him he had a gift for him, then in-game, rifled in a three-pointer in front of Person on the opposing bench, turned to Chuck and said, "Merry ******* Christmas."
Debate on Manziel's chatter on the field often includes the talk that there will be 18-to-22-year-old opponents who will work to verbally and visually get under Manziel's skin with all the needles available from a spotlighted off-season. Johnny should rise above it, many say. Just ignore it. Don't reply in kind. It's not an attitude that a Heisman winner should have. Why can't he be more like that Tebow fellow?
It can be argued that Johnny brought some of this on himself, but I haven't heard Word One from those critical of Manziel about how his on-field opponents are or would be in the wrong for bringing all this up, how their coaches need to sit them down and address their trash-talking. No, what they have done or will do is "part of the game" that "Johnny's going to have to deal with." What Johnny did against Rice -- his talk, his gestures -- are inexcusable and disgraceful. The catalysts aren't to be faulted, just the reaction.
There is no formula, no science that can solve Manziel's media narrative. His equation sits on a board of a lecture hall waiting for a Will Hunting to walk in and clean it up. Sports mathemeticians are putting a lot of on-field plus signs in, but adding minuses by the minute. Off the field, he's divisive, the worst human being to ever turn 20 to many, having never done anything of value...maybe save for the cat he saved in the road.
I'm not writing to say Manziel is in the right or the wrong. Quite frankly, he's in both. Aren't we all?
Coach Kevin Sumlin says he's going to address his quarterback on all this, and he should. The "cash out" gesture used well before the autograph investigation -- history hardly noted by analysts -- doesn't play well now. He's said and written and done things worthy of "mistake" labels. As such, I have all the sympathy in the world for coaches and athletics staff who have the unenviable task of balancing public perception with team achievement.
What if Sumlin gets in Manziel's head and cools it off? I would argue there is quite the frightening chance that while he might end up being a better human being running across 120 yards of grass and chalk, #2 could end up being a worse player. Without that particular fuel for inner fire, without chips for shoulders, can Johnny be Johnny Football? Would Larry Bird have been Larry Legend? Would Reggie have clocked Miller Time?
By the way, those two basketball guys never did any good for anyone either.
As much as the staff of an athletic department will say they want to produce, shape and mold quality human beings, tallies in that column don't create job security. Wins do.
Johnny Manziel, as he is today and was yesterday, wins. He earns W's, sets records, and sweeps up hardware, even if all that is no longer the main topic of conversation over the airwaves and in cyberspace.
Just remember that the media's task is unenviable, too. There's never been a Johnny Manziel, and his scramble across life's field is proving immensely hard to tackle.