DeShone Kizer vs. Ben Roethlisberger in the regular-season opener Sept. 10 at FirstEnergy Stadium is an enticing matchup and reason for Browns fans to be excited.
It’s only the first step in what the organization hopes will be the building of a franchise quarterback.
“We all dove into this the right way to go find a guy who hopefully can solve our quarterback issue,” Jackson said Sunday on a conference call after announcing Kizer as the starter for the regular season. “It is not over with yet. He still has to earn the right to be the starting quarterback for this team week in and week out and I think he gets that. But he has the talent, he has the makeup and he has the things we are looking for. Now, we just have to go get him and push him onto that next level.”
Kizer, the No. 52 pick out of Notre Dame, will be the 27th starting quarterback for the Browns since their return in 1999. He’ll be the 15th opening-day starter and fourth in four years.
But he joins Brandon Weeden in 2012 as the only rookies given the honor of the Week 1 start. Weeden was about to turn 29. Kizer turned 21 in January and will take on five-time Pro Bowl quarterback Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Obviously he’s a young quarterback and he still has a lot to learn. He’s going to learn a lot and gain a lot of experience, and the only way you get that is by playing,” Jackson said. “And we’re all excited about that.”
Jackson made a strong commitment. He said the decision isn’t just for the start of the regular season and he’s prepared to stick with Kizer through any rookie struggles.
“Absolutely. This is not just for the moment,” Jackson said. “We are going to get with DeShone, ride with him through it all and work with him through all of this. We are not going to blink about it. We are just going to correct it and keep moving forward.”
Kizer passed Cody Kessler and Brock Osweiler in the quarterback competition that featured a few twists and turns, then nailed down the job Saturday in a 13-9 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While many consider Kizer the default winner in a competition lacking legitimate alternatives, Jackson insisted he deserves the job.
“He’s earned the right to play through his preparation, he’s established a work ethic that I think has earned the respect of his teammates,” Jackson said.
Kizer (6-foot-4, 233 pounds) has prototypical size and can take a hit. He’s consistently shown a strong arm. He’s a threat running the ball.
“He has the characteristics we covet,” Jackson said. “We have to continue to get him to use those to the best of his abilities.”
Kizer made his first preseason start Saturday. He went 6-for-18 for 93 yards, an interception and a 28.2 rating but looked better than the numbers.
He wasn’t sacked and was hurt by a couple of drops. A third-down drop by Kenny Britt inside the 10-yard line led to a field goal, and a fumble by Duke Johnson in the red zone cost the Browns points. His best field position in five possessions was Cleveland’s 23-yard line.
“His pocket presence continues to stand out,” Jackson said. “He made a play while on the move to Corey (Coleman) early, which was a third-down beautiful play. And I thought that he did a good job of redirecting protections and managing that part of it extremely well.
“He put the team in good situations to be successful. But around him we all have to do our jobs better, to better support him.”
Kizer was late on his interception deep over the middle, late and inside on a near-interception on an out route and was inconsistent with his ball placement. But he rose to the occasion on third down, threw several darts, showed touch and continued to stand tall and move subtly inside the pocket.
“I was able to go out there and feel comfortable right away,” he told reporters after the game.
When Kizer headed to the sideline, Jackson would call him over, review the possession and ask what he’d seen. The answers were what Jackson wanted to hear.
“Oh, absolutely. He has the right feel, he has the right temperament and when he comes over, the conversations we have are the kind of conversations you want to have with your quarterback,” he said. “It is not like he doesn’t understand or that he is lost. He gets it. Sometimes he is able to tell me before I can even get it out.”
Kizer made a steady climb into the starting job. He was third on the depth chart to open the preseason and beat the Saints with two fourth-quarter touchdown drives, including the winning 45-yard pass with 1:52 left. He moved up to No. 2 against the Giants and led two scoring drives. He’s 25-for-49 for 351 yards, a touchdown, an interception, five sacks and a 72.7 rating.
His ability to learn the playbook and get comfortable with everything that accompanies life as an NFL quarterback won over Jackson, who said the biggest growth was in the understanding of NFL defenses.
The quarterback depth chart is set at the top but unsettled below with Osweiler, Kessler and Kevin Hogan, who led the winning drive Saturday.
“I am going to really work through that here in the next day as we go through practice and see what I think is the best road for us to travel,” Jackson said. “Obviously, all three of those guys are in the mix, from Brock to Kevin to Cody and we will just see how we want that to play out as we move along during the week.”
Jackson said he hadn’t decided if Kizer would play in the preseason finale Thursday in Chicago, when most starters get the night off. He could use the repetitions, but they may not be worth the injury risk.
“I just haven’t made that decision yet,” Jackson said.