CLEVELAND — DeShone Kizer didn’t deliver a victory in his NFL debut. That would have been asking a bit much.
However, the rookie did bring something to the Browns and their browbeaten fans.
“This young man gives us hope,” coach Hue Jackson said Monday.
Just think: Cleveland, a quarterback wasteland for nearly two decades, may have finally found its man.
Shaking off a rough start — a three-and-out followed by a blocked punt for touchdown on his opening series — against a Pittsburgh defense eager to baptize him with blitzes and bruises, Kizer showed presence and poise. He kept the Browns close enough to have a chance to win before falling 21-18 to the Steelers.
The predicted blowout never materialized and much of that had to do with Kizer. He completed 20 of 30 passes for 222 yards, threw a touchdown pass and pushed his way through a goal-line pile for another TD. He celebrated his first career score by jumping and clicking his heels together in a move that surely made Notre Dame’s leprechaun mascot proud.
After the game, Kizer spoke with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who praised his fellow Ohioan and No. 7.
“I thought he played a great game,” Roethlisberger said. “He did some great things against a defense that gets after it, but I told him afterword, ‘What an awesome start.‘ I know it’s not getting a win, but just to play the way he did, I was proud of him.”
In some ways, Kizer’s more-than-satisfactory performance validated Jackson’s decision to roll with the second-round pick out of the gate. When the Browns drafted Kizer in the second round, there was a sense the team would bring him along slowly, avoiding a mistake the franchise made with other notable rookies by rushing them onto the field.
Jackson, though, was impressed with Kizer’s development from rookie minicamp through two exhibitions and chose him as starter following a summer competition with several veterans.
There were risks. Now there is reward.
Kizer’s first game had a few warts, none bigger than his interception in the third quarter that could have ended Cleveland’s chances at a comeback. But the 21-year-old recovered and threw a 3-yard dart to Corey Coleman on fourth down to pull the Browns within five before a 2-point conversion made it 21-18.
“He gives you an opportunity to make plays,” Jackson said. “When I looked up, the game was 21-10, and here we are in the fourth quarter with a chance to win the game late in the game and that is because of some plays he made. That is what you expect out of your quarterback. We are talking about a young rookie quarterback who is one of the youngest players in the league at that position. That is exciting for me. I think it is exciting for our organization.”
Jackson has believed in Kizer for a while, and there’s a growing list of converts.
“From my perspective, I thought he did a nice job in his first opportunity out there playing in the NFL,” said tackle Joe Thomas, a 10-time Pro Bowler who has protected 19 Browns quarterbacks over a decade. “He showed composure. That is crucial for any NFL quarterback. I think the future is bright for DeShone.”
Standing tall in the pocket as black-and-gold defenders scratched and clawed their way toward him, Kizer surveyed the field and connected with deep passes of 29, 23 and 19 yards. He was guilty of holding onto the ball for too long while waiting for plays to develop, a habit he’ll need to break — or he’ll be the latest broken Browns quarterback.
His next challenge will be Baltimore — on the road.
“That was one game,” he said. “He has to continue to grow and get better and continue to show improvement and progress week in and week out, but we played against a good football team yesterday. That wasn’t somebody that just walked in and played against us. That was the Pittsburgh Steelers, I thought he represented himself well. Now, he just has to continue to get better.”
NOTES: Top overall pick Myles Garrett is still wearing a walking boot to protect his sprained ankle. Garrett said missing the opener was tough and it’s possible he’ll miss several more weeks. Garrett has vowed to be patient after rushing back from an ankle sprain last year at Texas A&M. “Me knowing myself, I want to get out there as soon as possible,” he said. “I want to test my limits. I want to go out there and play right away. But I know I’ll be hurting the team and myself if I go out there too soon.”