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GREEN BAY - DeShone Kizer scrambled from the pocket, buying time. There were less than two minutes left in the Cleveland Browns’ season, a winless record looming. Trailing Pittsburgh 28-24, they were driving inside Heinz Field, approaching the red zone.
On fourth-and-2, Kizer shed a Steelers pass rusher and spotted receiver Corey Coleman all alone at the 10-yard line. Kizer tossed a perfect pass, his last for the Browns. It hit Coleman's hands and should have led to the Browns' first win of the season.
Coleman dropped it. Game over. The Browns finished 0-16.
Kizer took another loss. His personal record last season: 0-15.
Mike Sanford watched the game on television. Now at Western Kentucky, Sanford coached Kizer for two seasons at Notre Dame. Last season’s finale, Sanford said, was the only game he saw Kizer play for the Browns.
“The Steelers game,” Sanford said, “really showed his mettle. How he handled it, how he handled the adversity. It was the last week of the season, a lot on the line, being one of the first ever to go 0-16 in the NFL. I thought he played beautifully, quite frankly.”
Indeed, Kizer finished with a season-high 314 yards, averaging 10.47 yards on 30 passes. He had two touchdowns and a season-high 98.5 passer rating. He was not perfect. Kizer threw a fourth-quarter interception and completed only 53 percent of his passes.
He also wasn’t the reason Cleveland lost.
Didn’t matter. After the game, Kizer accepted responsibility for a historically fruitless season.
“I’m a winless quarterback in this league,” Kizer said, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Ultimately, the Browns traded Kizer to the Green Bay Packers this month because they determined they couldn’t win with him as their quarterback.
They had ample evidence supporting their conclusion. Kizer led the NFL with 22 interceptions, becoming one of four quarterbacks to start at least half their team’s games and throw more interceptions than touchdowns (Brett Hundley was also in that group). Kizer’s 60.5 passer rating ranked last in the league, 10 points worse than Hundley’s 70.6. His 53.6 completion percentage also ranked last, worse than Hundley’s 60.8.
By season’s end, Browns coach Hue Jackson publicly questioned whether Kizer ever would figure out how to be an NFL quarterback.
Still, Kizer said he was “very surprised” to be traded.
“Going through this offseason,” Kizer said Friday, “(I was) trying to develop as much as I can, and learn from everything that I went through last year in Cleveland, and was trying to prepare myself to go back and become a better quarterback and get to winning in Cleveland. When stuff like this happens, you really can’t be prepared for it.”
Kizer’s failed season shouldn’t have been surprising.
It’s fair to ask whether any rookie quarterback could have thrived in Cleveland, a franchise so unstable it’s had seven general managers, six head coaches and no winning seasons in the past decade. With the first and fourth draft picks this spring, the Browns are expected to select a potential franchise quarterback. New general manager John Dorsey also traded for Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, a move designed to avoid having another rookie starter.
The odds were especially stacked against Kizer. He entered the NFL after just two college seasons. Before the draft, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly famously said Kizer should’ve remained in school for a third season. Kizer said he doesn’t regret leaving early.
“You can’t learn how to be an NFL quarterback from a college situation,” he said.
One scout who has studied Kizer believes he has the potential to develop into an NFL starter, though he didn’t play like one last season. The scout referenced Kizer’s size at 6-4, 234 pounds, and also his big arm. Despite running a 4.83 40 at the combine, Kizer showed he was mobile last season with 419 rushing yards.
A self-described geek and nerd, Kizer also entered the NFL equipped with a vast understanding of pro-style schemes.
“He’s like a supercomputer,” Sanford said, “of defensive and offensive recognition, and understanding how structures of offense and defense work together, how to get in the right play. In terms of protections, managing the run game at Notre Dame, he was pretty much the maestro at the line of scrimmage and did as good of a job as I’ve ever been around.”
Sanford believes Kizer would have benefited from another year at Notre Dame. He wasn’t ready to play immediately in the NFL. Instead, he started Week 1.
When a supercomputer overheats, its programs tend to malfunction.
Kizer took the losing especially hard. After a Christmas Eve loss to the Chicago Bears, according to the Plain Dealer, Kizer called his rookie year “one of the most difficult moments of my life.” He recognized the historical flop that was Cleveland’s 2017 season, and his role in it.
With three months to decompress, Kizer was more measured Friday when reflecting on last season.
“If it does anything,” Kizer said, “it adds motivation and gives me something to have a base in this league. Not a lot of guys get an opportunity to go out and start 15 games in their first season. I know how the bullets fly now. I’ve been able to create my own process. I’ve learned how to evaluate a defense and go out there and play with the bullets flying. I think that’s awesome for a young quarterback.
“I think now is an experience to take a step back and re-evaluate that process, and figure out where the issues were in my game.”
If the Browns traded Kizer because they didn’t believe he could win, the Packers requested him because they determined he could.
Green Bay's interest in Kizer wasn't new. He said there was “a little bit of contact” with the Packers before last year’s draft. After falling out of the first round, Kizer regrouped and tried to prepare for what the second day might bring. The Packers had the first pick, and Kizer thought they might use it to draft him.
“We learned that they thought very highly of me,” Kizer said, “and felt that could be a landing place for me.”
The Packers didn’t draft Kizer at No. 33 overall, instead selecting cornerback Kevin King. By the time they were on the clock for a second time in the round, Kizer was already drafted.
Kizer also has supporters within the Packers coaching staff. Joe Philbin, back as the Packers' offensive coordinator, sat in on a Notre Dame quarterbacks meeting when Kizer was with the program. Watching film, Sanford said he remembers Philbin being especially impressed with an off-balance throw.
“He said, ‘There’s very few in the league that can make that play,’” Sanford remembers. “It was a throw under duress, one of those Aaron Rodgers-type arm throws off a complete, awkward body position. He was able to generate enough force on it.”
Familiar with the Packers' offense, Sanford can see what drew them to Kizer. Coach Mike McCarthy runs West Coast principles, but his passing game pushes the football vertically more than a traditional West Coast offense. Sanford said Kizer’s intellect will fit in well with McCarthy’s system, helping recognize blitzes and dictate coverages before the snap. He knows Kizer has the arm strength to throw downfield, something Hundley rarely showed last season.
None of it means Kizer will have a long NFL career. There were plenty of warts last season, most troubling Kizer’s struggles with turnovers. He must also become a more accurate passer. This spring, Kizer said, he’s working in California with quarterback guru Tom House, refining his throwing motion.
“I think I found my stroke,” Kizer said. “I feel like I’m throwing the ball the best I’ve ever thrown it right now.”
The scout who believes Kizer has tools to develop into an NFL starter also mentioned his inability to win. In Kizer’s final college season, Notre Dame finished 4-8.
Kizer’s struggles in key moments followed him into the NFL. He led the league with six red-zone interceptions last season, double Hundley’s three. Inside the 20-yard line, he completed just 31.82 percent of his passes. When the Packers traveled to Cleveland in December, Kizer’s overtime interception to fellow rookie Josh Jones led to the Packers’ win.
But Sanford believes it’s premature to write off his former pupil. Most important, he said, is for Kizer to find the right situation. Cleveland clearly wasn’t it. If he beats Hundley for the backup job, Kizer could have three years to learn behind Aaron Rodgers, resetting his career.
“The situation that he went into (in Cleveland),” Sanford said, “I think DeShone will actually be OK from that. That’s not something that’s going to damage him long term. I think he’s a guy who, when he just gets into that right situation, he’s going to completely flourish and blossom. Somebody’s going to have a highly-athletic quarterback who can push the ball vertically downfield and happens to be very intellectual for his position.”