By Jason Keidel

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The bell has tolled for Brian Hoyer. And he never really had a chance. You don’t pick a potential Porsche and then bury it in the garage and roll to work in the Prius.

It’s showtime for Johnny Manziel. An entirely different show than the one to which he’s become so accustomed. Party time is over for Johnny Football. It’s time to be a grownup, to bench his famous, frat boy proclivities. His ad hoc, preteen rants are amply archived but must be shelved if he’s to be what he wants us to belive – equally accomplished on the gridiron. Time to be an icon, not an iconoclast.

It’s time for Johnny Manziel to emerge from the mist of his mythology and prove he’s an authentic NFL quarterback. No more propaganda, paparazzi, or perks he’s enjoyed by hiding behind the wall of his college legend.

Is he Russell Wilson or Tim Tebow? Will he transcend the hype or crumble under it? He can’t hide behind the avatar of Johnny Football. It’s time to see how much football is in Johnny Football, if Manziel the man is enough.

Campy, copywriten handles work in college, where a player is protected by a school, a staff, a head coach, and a system that can perpetuate the ideals of the student athlete. For a few fall Saturdays he can pretend he’s just a kid in class who happens to play a little football on the side, no matter how silly it seemed the whole time.

And for the first few months of his NFL career, Manziel could skate on the ice of his cool reputation. The Browns were winning with the rather unheralded Brian Hoyer, were building a young, athletic team, and were on a surprising rise from their morbid place as eternal losers who play in a ghost town rotting right off the Rust Belt.

But that’s all changing. Starting with LeBron’s surreal return to Ohio, and the Browns’ revealing resurgence, darting out to a 7-4 start, the Browns are now back in the pack of NFL adults. And Cleveland matters again, no longer the Mistake by the Lake. The Indians went from the only game in town to an afterthought.

So when Hoyer began to stumble, Cleveland couldn’t just cloak it with the rebuilding blanket. It’s too late to give up on the season. The idea of a playoff game in or from Cleveland hadn’t been an expected event since the Cardiac Kids, back in the 1980s, when Marty Schottenheimer gave his I Have a Gleam speech.

And let’s admit it: we’ve all secretly salivated over this, the idea, or perhaps fantasy, that oddly quick white kid who has swaths of soul in his game can parachute into the stadium, and the season, and save it.

Forget the twelve snaps he’s taken in his fledgling, NFL career. Forget the meat-hook realities of his small size, quirky mechanics, and inability to read a pro defense. This weekend is about the high clouds of our imagination. Unless you’re Brian Hoyer’s brother or mother, this is a potentially monolithic moment in the season.

This is about the surreal, symphonic sounds of NFL Films, the godlike baritone of John Facenda, and all the mythologizing montages that got us hooked on the sport as kids. Roger Staubach or Fran Tarkenton running from large panting men in the rain, dueling in the wind and cold November mud.

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At least until Johnny Football gets decked, stomped, stampeded, and is reduced to just Johnny Manziel. Will he spring back up and throw a dart the next play or slowly peel himself from the turf, swathed in self-pity, lost in the vitriolic response from the throaty thousands in the stands?

Let’s be honest. This has never been about wins and losses. Not with Johnny Manziel. It’s about our frothing fandom as a whole. This is about barroom battles with our pals, swapping predictions, our self-esteem literally tethered to men we never met.

For someone who hasn’t had his mail forwarded to the police precinct, he’s about as polarizing as you can be sans a rap sheet.

What is it about the boy? He’s not especially handsome or heavy, but rather haughty. Perhaps it’s the campy, Everyman quality we want in our stars, the idea that that could us under those pads. He acts like an idiot in the way we understand, particularly at 21, well, sans the selfies with Justin Bieber and Floyd Mayweather. You and I don’t have LeBron’s digits on our smart phones.

And making his adolescent dalliances even more toxic is the reality that he’s the rare rookie who doesn’t need the money. Dude had bank since birth. So if he acts like a pampered brat, well…

But we all watch. There’s an element to his name and game that keeps us from jamming the eject button on our ottoman, the mute button on our remote. He is, in a self-mutilating way, fascinating. Johnny Football isn’t just a man or a brand. He’s corporeal theater, a walking, soap operatic mess who has a chance to be either special or especially bad. There’s an epic aura he has on the field. Call it swag or arrogance or confidence. But the immutable truth is we can’t stop watching.

And he’s making his maiden start against the heated and hated Cincinnati Bengals, who are not only an in-state and divisional rival, but they’re also fresh off a stunning spanking at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers; my beloved black & gold hung 42 on the Bengals, in Cincinnati, rendering the normally riotous jungle rather mute. A loss here ends the season for Cleveland, and catapults the Bengals to within a whisker or the AFC North crown.

Whether it’s your satellite dish or Red Zone channel or your loud, local tavern, you will be literally glued to your television set come Sunday, at 1 p.m.

You’ll be there, like always, to watch football – and a private, curious slice of Johnny Football.

Twitter: @JasonKeidel

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.

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