Jim Owczarski, Olivia Reiner and Ryan Wood discuss Weeks 5-8 of the Packers' 2019 regular-season schedule. Olivia Reiner, PackersNews
GREEN BAY – DeShone Kizer has lived in a quarterbacking crucible the last four seasons, with his efforts to meld with the elements added each year producing mixed results when the heat has been turned up.
Athletes like to say “iron sharpens iron” when it comes to competition, but refining oneself to the point where that can hold true can be volatile. It’s safe to say Kizer, who turned 23 in January, has tried to navigate within a blast furnace since opening 2016 as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.
And since entering the NFL, Kizer welcomed his fourth head coach and was handed his third playbook in three seasons when Matt LaFleur addressed the Green Bay Packers for the first time in early April.
“When I reflect on those moments, I just really realize that it’s just how my career has been,” Kizer said of the changes. “I don’t know any different.”
Walking into the locker room in Green Bay in 2018 with veterans such as Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga, Kizer learned something else.
“All they know about winning is consistency,” he said. “And that’s something I just simply haven’t had.”
Kizer is seeking it again. Not just with another new coach and offense, but with his play. He knows how it has looked.
“As much as I have stayed true to the values that I grew up learning and as much as I know the success that I’ve had out on the sports fields that I’ve been playing on, I know the way that I’m going to be viewed in this profession is once again, what is done on Sunday afternoons and Sunday evenings,” he said.
Self-belief still strong
Through it all, he’s never lost self-belief. He’s never beat himself up. He said to do so would be selfish, unfair to so many who would love to live just a fraction of the life he has so far.
“We have a relationship where if he wants to talk about something that ain’t so good, he’ll bring it up,” said Greg Dempsey, Kizer’s high school coach who remains close to the quarterback. “But he never goes negative. I said, man, for everything you’ve been through, you really don’t. He goes, ‘What’s that going to fix?’ To be a quarterback, period, you better have confidence. You better have ultra-confidence.”
Publicly, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst and the new coaches have made tempered statements about Kizer and his development. They acknowledge the difficulty in having three offenses in three years, and note his youth (he is younger than Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky, Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, Houston’s Deshaun Watson and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and the same age as Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen).
And LaFleur, who coached quarterbacks at Notre Dame when Kizer was a true freshman in 2014, said he’s giving players a blank slate.
But at the end of the day, Kizer does have 17 regular-season games on film. The only one that produced a victory was last year’s opener when Rodgers returned to play the second half.
“That’s what it’s all about, right?” Gutekunst said of winning. “They have to play, they have to progress and at some point he has to cross that threshold. Like I said, he’s putting the time in. We certainly like the skill set. We’ll see how it goes.”
Kizer leaned forward in a chair and placed his palms together. He knows how it has to go.
“Right now, it’s all about making sure that every time I step out on that field that I am giving 100% effort. There is no complacency,” he said. “There is no ‘next year’ anymore. You grow up within sports really focusing in on development and understanding there’s a timeline that’s in place, so you don’t necessarily put as much pressure on yourself to get things done right away.
“Well, that timeline is starting to shrink for me in the sense that the lifespan of an average NFL athlete is three years. This is year three for me. I’ve gone out there, I’ve put things on tape and now it’s about making sure that from here on out everything that I put on tape really reflects who I know I can be.”
This training camp is important, as are the preseason games. Gutekunst carried Tim Boyle on the 53-man roster all last season for a reason, even as various position groups were decimated by injury.
Competition in and of itself isn’t new for Kizer. He competed with Malik Zaire at Notre Dame. Then with Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan in Cleveland. Then, with Brett Hundley and Boyle last preseason.
“To watch him handle everything he has handled, he is mentally tough — there is no doubt about it,” Dempsey said.
As such, Kizer refuses to bend to the conclusions most have drawn: that he’s competing for a roster spot first. That he’ll back up Rodgers until the Packers determine there’s a different option.
Kizer doesn’t bristle at that. Rather, he looks beyond it.
'A future Super Bowl MVP'
“Personnel, especially in this organization, is strictly upstairs. And I don’t work upstairs,” he says flatly. “My office is downstairs. Therefore, my mentality is about me. I have all the confidence in the world that when I’m playing my best ball there’s no one who can stop me. For me to compare myself to another backup quarterback who’s in or a tryout guy who comes in would be dumb of me in the sense that I would be limiting myself because I don’t see myself as a career backup in this league.
“I don’t see myself as Aaron Rodgers’ backup for the final era of his career. I see myself as a future Super Bowl MVP. That’s the goal that I want to head toward. That’s the level I want to play at. Therefore, if I’m competing and focused in on the backup competition, then once again, I’m limiting myself.”
To get to where he believes he can be, Kizer worked with noted quarterback instructor Adam Dedeaux of 3DQB in California, the same company that has trained Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Andy Dalton, Matthew Stafford and a host of other NFL starting quarterbacks. It was a mission, Kizer said, to find himself as a quarterback — meaning he wanted to solidify what was the best style of footwork for him and to marry that with what the Packers are teaching.
“Aaron obviously has some of the more unique footwork in the world and he has this uncanny ability to throw the ball very off balance at times and make things work. I can’t do that,” Kizer said. “So it’s about making sure I can be as consistent as possible within my footwork to be able to make those same throws that he’s making.”
It’s a work in progress, for sure. The spring practices weren’t always smooth and Kizer could be seen having long conversations with LaFleur between reps.
“For him specifically, it’s really the fundamentals of the position, I think, are absolutely critical,” LaFleur said. “I think you look at most good quarterbacks, and they have pretty good fundamentals. And just getting him up to speed with how we want to operate on offense. He’s still a young quarterback. This is really his third system that he’s been in, so there is a transition period. This is a critical offseason for him as well as it is for all of our guys.”
And it will go fast. Training camp opens July 25 at Ray Nitschke Field. The Houston Texans will be on site Aug. 5, and the first preseason game at Lambeau Field is Aug. 8.
Less than a month later, it’s full speed ahead for game-planning against the Chicago Bears for the league’s 100th opener Sept. 5.
The heat is always turned up, and 2019 is just another set of elements with which Kizer must mold. One way or the other, another version of him will be poured out onto the turf.
“I’m not going to allow the Detroit Lions situation or the Chicago Bears situation or the 0-15 in my starts in Cleveland situation to deter my confidence because of the specific situations that those came in,” Kizer said. “Each of those situations are so unique to themselves that my confidence hasn’t wavered.
“I truly believe that I’m on an upward trajectory. I’m playing the best football I’ve ever played. I’m not turning the ball over as much anymore. I’m seeing the game. I’m learning so much from Aaron. I’m learning so much from the systems that I’ve been in that I truly believe that at any point in time as we speak, if I can continue to stay on the path that I’m on right now, that I can get back to the path that I thought that I was on as a rookie starting in this league.”