Cleveland Browns: DeShone Kizer helps and hurts team, himself

DeShone Kizer’s debut for the Cleveland Browns was exciting, frustrating, exhilarating and infuriating.

In reason for cautious optimism, Cleveland Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer’s debut showed some ability to make plays, but he did as much to hurt himself as he helped. The only thing that seems to be predictable about Kizer is that at points in a given game, he’s going to have moments where he looks like he can be a franchise quarterback and at others, shouldn’t be in the league, let alone on the field. He is a quarterbacking paradox in just about everything he does.

For the game, Kizer took a horrifying seven sacks. Five of those sacks were Kizer’s own fault. He held onto the ball too long, left a clean pocket and ultimately took hits he didn’t need to take, putting the Browns way behind the sticks and killing drives. All of this because he didn’t want to give up on plays, which made the offense more predictable and put him in position to take a beating.

On the other hand, Kizer may have helped himself by avoiding just as many sacks as he caused. There were multiple examples where Kizer maneuvered himself in the pocket to avoid pressure and put the offense in position to gain significant yardage. They were nothing short of fantastic plays.

Two examples included one with Joe Thomas and one with J.C. Tretter. On one play, Tretter was beaten by Javon Hargrave (a matchup which proved difficult for Tretter all day), which had Hargrave coming right up the A gap at Kizer. Kizer was able to not only make Hargrave miss the rush, but Kizer kept his eyes up, found a receiver, made a good throw and turned what could’ve been a negative play into a positive one.

On another, Joe Thomas was beaten around the edge. Kizer managed to step up and avoid the pressure, throwing the ball down the field. This one was incomplete, but whether it was an innate feel or completely blind luck, Kizer avoided what could’ve been a sack fumble from behind and had a shot to make a big play down the field.

So Kizer ultimately took seven sacks and five of those were his own fault. Meanwhile, he might have eluded just as many sacks as he caused. There were a few situations where a different quarterback takes those sacks and no one thinks anything of it. That’s the paradox that is Kizer right now.

If Kizer doesn’t take those five sacks and the Browns don’t lose those yards, they would’ve been in better position to continue a few drives. One situation where this had a visible impact was on the possession where Ricardo Louis was almost decapitated by William Gay.

Louis was unable to secure the pass, but even if he was able to catch it, the play was going to be short of the first down. That’s because it was 3rd-and-18 due to a sack Kizer took the play before. Had they run the exact same play on what would’ve been 3rd-and-10, Louis is beyond the sticks and a catch gives them a first down.

The good news is that later in the game, Kizer did finally throw a pass away rather than put a drive and his own body at risk. In the red zone on third-and-2, Kizer dropped back to pass and ultimately couldn’t find a receiver so he threw the ball out of the back of the end zone. On fourth down, Kizer hit a quick slant to Corey Coleman for the touchdown.

Kizer showed discretion. A bad sack may have forced the Browns to kick a field goal and try to get the ball back to score a potentially game tying touchdown. Instead, the Browns went for it and Kizer, himself, answered the bell and made a good throw and Coleman made a great catch. The hope is that Kizer can use this as a very real lesson on why it’s okay to get out of a bad situation, not make it worse.

CLEVELAND, OH – SEPTEMBER 10: Quarterback DeShone Kizer #7 of the Cleveland Browns passes during the first half against the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 10, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

The same contradiction existed when it came to passing the football for Kizer. There were a few situations where Kizer was uniquely qualified to make or create a certain play. Then others, where Kizer was the instrument of his own demise.

His arm strength and velocity in addition to his pocket movement created some opportunities like those already discussed. Kizer was also able to hit Ricardo Louis on a seam and deliver a deep ball to Kasen Williams that should’ve been a deep completion and potentially a touchdown, but Williams misjudged how close he was to the sideline and caught it out of bounds.

Unfortunately, Kizer also missed two other seams. One was to Duke Johnson who got behind a defender and had a ton of space in front of him. Another was an attempt to Seth DeValve, both of which were overthrown.

Most notable was the interception, where Kizer made a terrible decision to throw attempt to throw a pass to a receiver that wasn’t open. It was intercepted by T.J. Watt who was playing underneath. He almost had another intercepted by Gay on a quick slant, but he couldn’t hang onto the ball.

None of this is surprising for Kizer. He’s a rookie and an incredibly young, inexperienced one at that. These are all things that Kizer did in college as well. It shouldn’t be surprising that Kizer looks just like the wildly inconsistent quarterback that he was at Notre Dame.

The question that awaits an answer is will he make the changes necessary to improve? Those who are optimistic want to believe that it’s simply a matter of time and learning. He’ll make the adjustments with experience and improve accordingly. But projecting quarterback development and growth is an incredibly tricky business, which is what makes finding a franchise passer so difficult.

These are areas where Blake Bortles and Jameis Winston were expected to improve when they came into the league. Bortles hasn’t and instead is one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Winston is every bit the quarterback he was in college. He has an incredible arm, can be remarkably precise as a passer and racks up yardage and points. The knock on Winston is that he was too prone to making risky decisions and turnovers. Entering year three in the NFL, nothing has changed.

If Kizer can develop and grow, the Browns might finally have the franchise quarterback they’ve been looking for the past two decades. If not, he basically remains the same and that isn’t going to be good enough for the long haul.

The biggest X-factor in Kizer’s success, particularly as a rookie, is head coach Hue Jackson. Certainly Jackson is coaching him, but he has so much control over the offense that he can really make his life easier, putting him in position to succeed.

Kizer’s promising, albeit flawed debut, seemed to happen almost in spite of Jackson. Even while having a 21-year old rookie quarterback in his first game ever in the NFL, Jackson only ran the ball 22 times. And a pair of those were with Kizer. Meanwhile, the Browns called 40 pass plays. Kizer took seven sacks, scrambled three times and attempted 30 passes.

Every team in the league is going to come in to play the Browns with the mindset of trying to make Kizer beat them. They are going to try to shut down the run and make the Browns one-dimensional. The running game was not particularly effective in this game, only averaging two yards per carry on the 20 carries they gave to running backs.

Nevertheless, abandoning the run plays right into the opponent’s hands. In the second half of the game, the Browns only gave Isaiah Crowell two carries and Matthew Dayes one. Everything else was a pass down the field, so the Steelers could pin their ears back and focus entirely on rushing the passer. That led to more pressure, the defensive backs poised to cover the receivers and longer down and distances.

Whatever anyone wants to believe about Kizer’s chances of becoming good or even great, that’s not a winning formula out of the gate and unlikely this season. Everything that has happened to Kizer both in college and in his short time with the Browns suggest he is going to be an up and down player. Some great moments and some awful ones.

As awful as the interception was for Kizer (it was), more of the frustration here is with Jackson. It might have been a great play call with an open receiver on the other side of the field that Kizer simply missed, but it was 1st-and-10 on on the Steelers half of the field and an 11-point deficit. Try to run the ball. Run a screen. Help the rookie quarterback. Keep the defense off balance.

The best possible situation is that Kizer is not doing harm, protecting the football, but occasionally making some big plays. Instead, Jackson put Kizer in a situation where he had to go out and win the game.

The argument can be made that these type of situations might help Kizer develop and grow faster, but the lumps are extremely costly. In this case, it didn’t cause the Browns to lose, but it did take away a scoring opportunity that might have hurt their chances to win.

The focus for DeShone Kizer is to try to be reduce and ultimately eliminate the unforced errors as this season rolls along while getting more consistent on the plays he can make. Should that happen, it will put him squarely in position to be the longterm answer at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. Meanwhile, Hue Jackson needs to do a better job in protecting Kizer, maximizing his chances of success with how he calls plays, manages the game.