There is an endless list of factors at play in the Browns’ quarterback decision—contracts, experience, fit within the system, locker-room presence and on and on and on. Hue Jackson’s call to start DeShone Kizer this week, though, boils down to something Jackson told reporters the day after his team’s preseason opener:
“If a guy is good enough and deserving of an opportunity, trust me, we are not in a position to where we wouldn’t give the best player an opportunity.”
That’s all there is to it. Kizer has the most talent among Cleveland’s quarterbacks, and he has been the most electrifying option under center through two preseason games. So, rookie or not, it’s time to find out what he can do.
“Development is so important for a young quarterback, this is the next step he needs to take and he deserves this opportunity,” Jackson said as part of a statement released Wednesday, announcing the change atop the depth chart. “We are very excited about seeing DeShone in the role of starter for this week, as he is certainly positioning himself well to earn the starting job heading into the regular season.”
An important closing line, there. Kizer “is positioning himself” to be the starter when Cleveland opens its 2017 season against the Steelers, but he has not nailed down the job yet. If he seems overwhelmed by the responsibility this week or unravels in Saturday night’s game, Jackson still has time to turn back to Brock Osweiler or even Cody Kessler before September arrives.
This is the last opportunity the Browns have to retain that grace period whilst also giving Kizer a true trial run, and it’s critical that he have one. Stepping in off the bench during a preseason game, against second- and third-teamers, is a much different challenge than preparing all week to start. From a physical standpoint, Kizer will face a step up in competition from the Bucs’ top defensive unit; on the mental side, he has to show both the staff and his teammates that he can handle the responsibility.
In an ideal scenario, the Browns may have been able to delay this moment. Were they in a spot like the Patriots are with Jimmy Garoppolo behind Tom Brady or the Packers are with Brett Hundley behind Aaron Rodgers, they could have taken their time, allowing Kizer the coveted watch-and-learn setting.
They do not have that luxury. Osweiler sure as heck is not an elite NFL quarterback.
That’s not to say this was all a show—bumping Osweiler ahead of Cody Kessler for QB1. The Browns, for a time, legitimately believed Osweiler could serve as an upgrade on Kessler and as a bridge to Kizer.
“I’m speaking from my heart: He has been great,” Browns quarterbacks coach David Lee said following a June mini-camp practice. “... He knows how to play, he knows systems and when a read doesn’t make sense to him, there’s a reason it doesn’t because of somewhere he’s been before. I can’t speak of where he’s been before but I’ll tell you right now … he looks like a guy that’s played before. He’s great at the line of scrimmage, he’s great in the huddle, [has a] calming effect.”
When the Browns reconvened for camp, Osweiler had every opportunity to win the starting job. Thus far, he flat-out has not done so. He was downright putrid in the Browns’ preseason opener, sailing myriad passes above a height reachable by any flightless receiver. Given a second chance to start last week, vs. the Giants, he showed little improvement. He finished that game 6-of-8 for a mere 25 yards, plus had a pass intercepted after it was batted down at the line.
Kizer has not been flawless, either, but he’s at least injected a little life into the Browns’ attack when he has been on field. Again, nitpicking results from the preseason can be a risky proposition, yet there has been no area in which Osweiler has clearly outperformed Kizer. The same cannot be said the other way around.
The best player should play, age be damned. Kizer has been that guy.
“This is awesome, obviously another step in this process that we’ve been talking about for the past couple months now,” Kizer said of his starting duties, during a press conference Wednesday. “Obviously, I know there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with starting a game ... but as awesome as it is, it just means I have to work harder to continue to have success out on the field and hold onto this position as tight as I can.”
The possibility exists, always, that tossing a rookie quarterback into the fire backfires in spectacular fashion—badly enough to stalemate said QB’s development, in some cases. But there is no guaranteed path forward.
Does spending three years as a backup better prepare a young signal caller for a starting job than an accelerated, four-month timetable? It depends on the quarterback, and on the team. Keep in mind that a young quarterback stuck in a backup or No. 3 role has to hone his game while seeing limited practice reps—and little or no game time—during the regular season. That does not work for every player, either.
Osweiler had his chance and failed to take advantage. Ditto Kessler.
Can Kizer step into the void? The Browns are right to find out now. The rookie has been “good enough and deserving of an opportunity,” and he’s about to have it.