Johnny Manziel has had a strange past seven months. His draft-day slide from potential #1 overall pick/savior of Houston to “guy a homeless dude convinced the Cleveland Browns to take eventually” was ignominous. He was forced to re-brand to “Johnny Cleveland,” and then ended up being the last of the highly-rated rookie quarterbacks to find himself warming the bench, behind a marginal starter for the Browns named Brian Hoyer. He’s been criticized for spending a few hours at a Cavaliers basketball game on his day off. He’s been on the field for a few snaps in three games, with his most impressive performance in relief of Hoyer in a blowout against the Buffalo Bills in November, where he rushed for a touchdown—but so far, the most he has to hang his burgeoning career on is completing five of nine passes for 63 yards thus far. Oh, and the coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, whom the Browns play on Sunday, called him a “midget” earlier this week, triggering apologies to both Manziel and to the Little People of America. (Manziel is a quarter inch shy of six feet tall. And midget, of course, is an offensive term for people with Dwarfism.) 

All of which is to say: Stepping in to the starter’s spot for the Browns on Sunday is a new experience and, presumably, a welcome one for a player who went from being the most compelling personality in college football to an afterthought on the Browns offense. And it’s hard to guess how Johnny Football Cleveland will perform against the Bengals. 

Manziel’s development as a pro has no real sample on which to base conclusions. It’s probably significant that he spent the entire offseason and the first 14 weeks of the regular season on the bench, unable to beat out a marginal talent like Brian Hoyer for a chance to play—but at the same time, Manziel’s game has always been unconventional and improvisational. His best moments in college involved things like, say, attempting to run, narrowly avoiding a pair of sacks, fumbling the ball to himself, finding room to the outside, and then tossing a touchdown against the best defense in the SEC. That’s not the sort of thing that always translates to practice, where a more conventional passer like Hoyer can look more efficient. 

At this point in the season, though, Hoyer’s practice-field efficiency has left the team dropping three of its last four games, and a promising start to the season has Cleveland on the bubble for a playoff appearance. Manziel isn’t being handed a team with nothing to play for: Instead, he’s taking over the reins for the Browns at a time when pulling out wins in the final three games would likely tip the team over into the postseason. Those are high stakes for Manziel, whose college career suggests that high stakes are the kind he enjoys most. 

So what’s the best case scenario for Manziel, taking over the Browns at a crucial juncture? It’s hard to say for sure, but it probably looks a lot like a home game against a middling Bengals team. (The last time the teams met, in November, the Browns’ defense forced Bengals QB Andy Dalton into an historically bad performance.) The Bengals defense is the 23rd-ranked unit in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders, and they’re especially bad against the run. That should set up nicely for a quarterback who likes to use his feet to make plays. In the passing game, meanwhile, the Browns are as well-equipped as they’ve been all season, with former Baylor standout Josh Gordon getting up to speed after a ten-game suspension, and star tight end Jordan Cameron back on the field after concussions kept him out of commission for a stretch in the middle of the season. The fact that Manziel won’t be taking his very first snaps of the season, having been used in relief and as a change-of-pace earlier in the year, should limit whatever rookie jitters he experiences.

Of course, rookie quarterbacks do tend to struggle, so it’s a bit early to crown Manziel the savior of Cleveland. He’s stepping into a good situation, as far as these things go, and we wouldn’t bet against him, but he’s probably as likely to struggle as to succeed. Regardless of the outcome, though, Johnny Football steps into the sort of situation that he probably dreams about: After months on the bench, during which the chip on his shoulder presumably grew to mammoth proportions, he gets a shot to show what he can do in a game that matters, against a team with everything to play for. Whether that looks like 180 yards and three picks or money signs all over FirstEnergy Stadium remains to be seen—but it’ll sure as hell be fun to watch. 

(AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)