Jackson's brazen decision
Browns coach Hue Jackson has decided to punt the 2017 season.
The Browns coach did so the moment Wednesday he all but declared DeShone Kizer his club's starting quarterback when it opens the regular season at home Sept. 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Nominating the rookie to start Saturday night’s “dress rehearsal” exhibition against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers means the kid will become the 27th different starting quarterback for this franchise since 1999.
Whoever starts that game on the exhibition schedule is traditionally a virtual certainty to begin the regular season in command of the offensive huddle.
In explaining his choice of Kizer over Brock Osweiler, Jackson said, “Development is so important for a young quarterback. This is the next step he needs to take and he deserves this opportunity.
“We are very excited about seeing DeShone in the role of starter for this week, as he is certainly positioning himself to earn the starting job heading into the regular season.”
The only thing that could possibly change that scenario is a total Kizer meltdown against the Bucs. Unless he goes out and sets off the mother of all stink bombs, he has officially won the competition.
So what do I mean by Jackson punting the season? By starting Kizer, he signals that this likely will be a long season fraught with peril because he is placing the club’s welfare in the hands of an unknown quantity. Losing will be commonplace.
With the veteran Osweiler, he had a shot – not as long as with Kizer – at looking respectable, the tall quarterback’s lackluster exhibition performances notwithstanding.
Starting a rookie quarterback in the National Football League is risky at best. But when that quarterback is clearly not ready, that is asking for a whole bunch of trouble. Even though it’s a popular choice with the fans, Jackson has to know that.
This very well might be a case of the Browns having nothing to lose by starting the kid. Can it be any worse than last season’s 1-15 embarrassment? If the answer is no, then why not go with him? It’s like on-the-job training, only this time it’s real, not an exhibition game.
The decision admittedly ratchets up the intrigue that much more for the 2017 season. Kizer, who arrived with the reputation of thrilling you one minute and breaking your heart the next, is the X factor, the unknown dipping his feet into water that might be a little too deep for him right now.
There is no question that what he sees in the regular season will in no way resemble what he is seeing now. Unless he has an extraordinarily rapid learning curve, chances are he will be swallowed up and spit out in a hurry. How he reacts will be telling.
The Browns’ first four games are against Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. That’s a minefield with quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton on the docket, not to mention three pretty good defenses.
Three of the four are division opponents; two of them manhandle the Browns on an annual basis. The Browns are 27-82 against the Steelers, (6-31) Ravens (9-27) and Bengals (12-24) since 1999.
Choosing Kizer over Osweiler is simply a case of Jackson falling in love with what Kizer brings physically to the table. Quarterbacks coach David Lee, who might have supplied the necessary input to help Jackson’s decision, agrees wholeheartedly.
“What I see in him is a big, strong guy, which is defined in this division by (Pittsburgh’s) Ben (Roethlisberger) and by (Baltimore’s) Joe Flacco and this kid is in that mold,” Lee gushes. “He is 6-4¾, he’s got a 10-inch hand, he‘s smart, he can run, he can move. . . . He’s got a great future.”
By picking Kizer, Jackson bravely puts his reputation as a quarterback whisperer squarely on the line. “I’ve done this long enough in my career and know what it looks like and what it feels like and what it should be,” he said. “I feel pretty good about it.” Whistling past the graveyard?
Kizer’s meteoric rise to starting status flies in the face of those who believe he isn’t nearly ready to face the NFL grind. That doesn’t seem to bother Jackson. Right now, his biggest concern should be how the rest of the offense is going to handle being asked to trust a wet-behind-the-ears kid who has no idea what lies ahead.
Of all the teams to break in a raw rookie against, the two you don’t want to face are exactly whom the Browns will face right out of the chute. The Steelers and Ravens are past masters at making life miserable for Cleveland quarterbacks since the return in 1999.
Jackson is relying on an age-old blueprint for winning in making his choice. “If we can play good defense and score some points on offense, I really and truly believe in the National Football League that’s the formula for victories,” he said. A strong running game helps, too.
A perfect example of that is the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who won the Super Bowl with the spectacularly mediocre Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Great defense, terrific running game and Dilfer’s ability to minimize his mistakes that season proved valuable in hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
This Browns team is nowhere near as strong on defense as that Ravens club. At least not yet. And it is not in the same neighborhood as that Ravens team with regard to the ground game.
As for Osweiler, he has to wonder if his NFL future lies somewhere other than in Cleveland. He has no one to blame but himself for his dismal play in the first two exhibitions.
His only salvation is the club keeps him, Kizer flames out and Jackson has no recourse but to install him as the starter. I can’t see the coach elevating Cody Kessler over him. If he does, that further amplifies the notion that the coach, indeed, is punting this season.
There is a great deal more to quarterbacking than merely handing off or dropping back to throw. The game is played as much, if not more, between the ears as it is with other parts of the body.
There’s calling the correct play. There’s recognition of what the opponent is planning on doing on defense and calling an audible if necessary. Do they show blitz? Are they overloaded on one side? Where are the safeties? Where are the weak spots to exploit? Where can I maximize what I’m seeing? Don’t forget the snap count.
On pass plays, protection calls by the quarterback are the most important part of the play. Calling it incorrectly can mean the difference between a completed pass, an interception or a sack.
Factor in that quarterbacks in the NFL have to make snap decisions all the time with precious little room to be wrong. There are so many different elements that can disrupt the flow of an offense.
Sticking in a raw rookie, especially one who experienced a tough season last year at the college level, tempts fate. Even now, Kizer still looks somewhat uncomfortable lining up under center. But this is the route Jackson has chosen. How Kizer performs will impact him directly.
It’s great that Kizer can laser a pass on an 18-yard out. It’s great that he has the wheels to make something out of nothing. And it’s great he breathes fresh air into a franchise that yearns for it.
But he’s a raw rookie. That can’t be stated enough.
So what? It has happened many times before with a variety of results, mostly negative. There are exceptions, of course. Russell Wilson, for instance, won the job in Seattle as a rookie. Went to two Super Bowls. Won one. Turned the Seahawks into a perennial contender.
Then there is the case of another heralded rookie quarterback back in 1989 who started the season for his team and went 0-11. The team: The Dallas Cowboys, who finished 1-15 that season. The quarterback: Troy Aikman, now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This is not to say this is the beginning of a Hall of Fame career for Kizer. Just one decision that could turn out to be one made for the wrong reasons.
So was it the correct decision? I’ll let you know by Dec. 31.
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One other fact, this one concerning season openers: The Browns since 1999 have won just one opener – a 20-3 victory against the Ravens at home in 2004 – and lost an NFL record 12 straight openers. They are 1-13 at home in first games.