DeShone Kizer walked into a nearly impossible situation.
In Week 1, he became the 27th starting quarterback for the Browns since 1999. He was a 21-year-old rookie who played only two years at Notre Dame. He was given below-average receivers.
Then things deteriorated.
He’s last in the league in passer rating (51.1), tied for last in interceptions (11) and 32nd of 33 in completion percentage (52.1). He made seven starts and was benched three times as the Browns went 0-8 in the first half. Coach Hue Jackson and the front office tried to trade for Bengals backup AJ McCarron — they missed the deadline by seconds — during the bye week to replace him.
But when the Browns begin the second half of the season Sunday in Detroit, Kizer will be under center. The plan is to start him for the final eight games, and he hopes that’s enough time to demonstrate he can be the quarterback of the future.
“When you are in a position where you are 0-8, when you are on a club that hasn’t been winning in the recent past and hasn’t had a solid quarterback in a long time, you have to prove that every time you step out there,” he said. “It is going to take a lot for a guy to hold on to this position for a while, and that is why you have seen so many guys who haven’t been able to hold on to it.
“There is definitely a chip on my shoulder to go out there and continue to represent myself and this team as best as I can and do whatever I can to be the quarterback here for a long time.”
Jackson said Friday he “totally” believes in Kizer and it’s unfair to assume the trade attempt for McCarron means the organization doesn’t have faith in him for the long term.
“My job as a head coach is to always push for better talent on this football team,” he said. “I don’t care what position it is, especially being in that position. I don’t think that is a knock on DeShone. I still believe he is going to be in the future of this team, but in the meantime, if there is a way for us to get better … then I think it is only fair to be always looking to become better.”
In the explanation, Jackson discussed the importance of chasing victories. He hasn’t wavered in that approach, which was obvious when he benched Kizer twice during close losses. The pursuit of McCarron was the latest example.
Jackson doesn’t think any of the moves should impact Kizer.
“I have heard all of the things said about taking this guy in and out. I have never, ever seen more stories about that ever in my life,” Jackson said. “That is part of growth of a quarterback. If a guy is not getting the job done, I don’t care what position it is, you have to put somebody else in, and hopefully they will learn and grow from that and get better.
“I think he has done that. I think he gets it.”
Kizer said he wasn’t dwelling on the trade attempt and already had 10,000 reasons to be motivated, particularly the benchings.
“Obviously if I was him, that would motivate me so much, to sit out,” rookie tight end David Njoku said. “That would want me to push 10 times harder.”
Running back Duke Johnson said Kizer can’t afford to be bothered by the desire to add McCarron.
“I’m hoping that he’s able just to get over it and realize it’s a business,” Johnson said.
Those who know him well don’t think it’ll be an issue.
“He’s handling it like a pro,” rookie safety Jabrill Peppers said. “Don’t run from anything. You know the type of player you can be. It’s just about going out there and being it.”
“I haven’t noticed any difference in a negative way, only in a positive way,” center JC Tretter said. “You need to have all the faith in the world in yourself and then you need to make everybody else believe in you, too.”
Kizer has a ways to go in the latter category. He’s thrown only three touchdown passes, and the most recent was in Week 3 against the Colts. (For comparison’s sake, Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz has thrown 17 in the last five games.)
“Oh, yeah, it sticks out to me. We just have to find a way,” Jackson said. “It is not from a lack of trying. We have had opportunities.”
Kizer took a step in the right direction against the Vikings before the bye by not throwing an interception for the first time this season.
“That was a huge box (to check),” Jackson said.
The next step is continuing to avoid the negative while making something positive happen.
“There are a lot of plays to be had out there,” Kizer said. “There are big plays that turn into touchdowns that need to be made throughout a game.”
Jackson has altered the game plans recently to have Kizer throw deep less and get rid of the ball quicker. Kizer had early success against the Vikings before the defense adjusted in the second half.
“He has had a really good week of practice, and we have a game plan that is conducive to giving him a chance to be what I think he can be from play in and play out,” Jackson said. “Now, he has to go execute and go do it. It is our first game after the bye, so he needs to go establish the kind of quarterback he wants to be the second half of the season.”
After all the Browns’ failed quarterback experiments over the last two decades, and watching Wentz and Houston’s Deshaun Watson have early success, some media and fans were quick to pronounce Kizer a bust.
But he’s only played seven games. That’s not enough to adequately judge a 21-year-old quarterback who has the desired physical traits.
“I’ve seen him play when he’s hot and he’s a beast,” Njoku said. “I’ve seen him in practice make unbelievable throws and do things many people can’t do. I have no doubt he can step up to the plate.”
Johnson said “we all know” Kizer has the requisite talent. He added Kizer has no choice but to display it over the final eight weeks.
“He has to show what he can do, he has to show not only us and the front office but himself,” Johnson said. “You want to go into the offseason with little things you have to work on, not everything.
“Last game I felt he had a good game, getting the ball out of his hand, being smart, making smart decisions. That’s just something to build on. Take that game and keep building on it.”