During his introductory news conference Friday, new Browns General Manager John Dorsey said he liked DeShone Kizer, his rookie quarterback.
After watching Kizer’s Jekyll-Hyde performance in the 27-21 overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers Sunday, he might be humming a different tune. Strictly to himself, of course.
What Dorsey saw is what fans of this team have seen all season long, an uneven performance that makes you shake your head in a combination of disappointment and what was he thinking?
Kizer arrived out of Notre Dame with the reputation of a quarterback who will thrill you one minute and break your heart the next. Those attributes were on prominent display against the Packers.
He had never thrown three touchdown passes in a game in the National Football League until Sunday. His touchdown strikes to Josh Gordon, Duke Johnson Jr. and Corey Coleman were perfectly on point. Thrilling.
For the first three quarters, he made only one mental mistake late in the first half,, one that had no effect whatsoever on the outcome. He was playing easily his best game of the season, looking nothing like a rookie.
With the exception of angering coach Hue Jackson twice because of timeouts that were taken needlessly, he was in complete control. The running game, absent most of the season, was very much alive and well.
He was sharp with his throws, lasering at least four passes as straight as a taut string and on the mark. He was a confident, poised veteran-like quarterback, not the wide-eyed rookie operating somewhat out of control in an effort to please his coach.
Mistakes were kept at a minimum. In the first half, he was 12-of-14 for 170 yards and two touchdowns at one point. The second possession of the second half resulted in a nine-play, 88-yard scoring drive.
A 21-7 lead was crafted as a result and the team’s various losing streaks were in jeopardy of being smashed to smithereens. And then the unexpected rudely interrupted the thrill most Browns fans felt entering the final quarter.
It came when Kizer attempted to throw a third-down pass in overtime that should never have been thrown. Instead of either taking a big sack and punting the ball away or just throwing the ball away to avoid the sack, he tried to make a play as he was being chased by Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews III.
Wisdom is often the key ingredient that separates winning from losing and vice-versa. Kizer unwisely made the wrong choice at the wrong time and it cost his team, a team that hungers for a victory of any kind at this point, a chance to do so.
His second interception of the game, and 17th of the season, rendered all the work that went into building that two-touchdown lead as fruitless. All that hard work went for naught. Winning, no matter how it is achieved, triumphs over everything. Heartbreaking.
When you win, they rarely ask how. But when you lose, that is usually the first question. How could that happen? The difference between winning and losing in the NFL often times is finite.
Kizer after the game said he was focused on wide receiver Rashard Higgins, racing wide open down the field, and tried to get the ball to him. Matthews hit his arm as he threw, the ball popped almost straight up like a pop fly in baseball and was picked off by Green Bay safety Josh Jones.
“At critical times,” Jackson said after the game, “our team, it’s understanding what we have to do in the fourth quarter to win. . . . We’ve got to find a way to make those plays when the opportunities come.”
One would think that after a dozen NFL games, Kizer is not that wide-eyed rookie anymore. That he has learned the game is played as much, if not more so, from the neck up as the neck down.
It’s obvious he still hasn’t learned it yet and it cost his team a victory. And you can be certain Dorsey has made more than mental notes on what he witnessed from on high.
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Somewhat lost in the aftermath of the bitter loss is the where-did-that-come-from game from Isaiah Crowell, who ran for a season high 121 yards on a season-high 19 carries.
Crowell, who has lobbied Jackson all season to ramp up his carries, ripped off 55 of those yards on runs of 18 and 37 yards on the Browns’ final touchdown drive of the game midway through the third quarter as the club took a 21-7 lead.
He was much quicker to the hole than at any time this season as the offensive line, playing its best all around game this season, provided the needed space as the Browns pounded out 136 yards against the Packers.
It obviously impressed Jackson to the point where he went almost strictly on the ground after taking the two touchdown lead late in the third quarter. Unfortunately, that’s when the holes disappeared and the Cleveland ground game ground to a halt down the stretch, managing only two first downs in the last three possessions.
Interestingly, Jackson dialed up 30 passes and 27 runs in the game, easily the best ratio of pass to run this season from the coach who said in training camp that his goal this season was to have a more balanced offense.
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It was very obvious the Packers’ game plan paid tribute to the Browns’ sixth-ranked run defense. How else can one explain why Green Bay quarterback Brett Hundley put the ball up 46 times, completing an amazing 35 for 265 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Most of his passes were of the short- to medium-range variety, keeping the Cleveland defense honest, and were gone before the Cleveland pass rush reached him. He targeted wide receivers Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and Geronimo Allison 31 times and connected on an incredible 26.
The Packers’ run game, even with Hundley’s 31 yards scrambling when he failed to spot open receivers, totaled only 85 yards, topped by Jamaal Williams’ 49 yards.
It was clearly Packers coach Mike McCarthy‘s goal to keep the Cleveland secondary busy all day. When cornerback Jason McCourty is the Browns’ leading tackler with 10, you know it worked.
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In his first game back from three years of inactivity due to a number of suspensions, Gordon was targeted 11 times by Kizer in the loss to the Los Angeles Chargers a week ago. He didn’t score, but caught six balls and put a heartbeat back into the Cleveland passing game.
On the Browns’ first possession of the game against Green Bay, he caught passes of 38 yards on Kizer’s first throw and 18 yards, a perfect touchdown strike thrown where only Gordon and his magic hands could catch it. Two receptions, 56 yards and a TD.
And then he all but disappeared.
Gordon caught only one more pass, a 13-yard slant en route to the second Cleveland touchdown of the afternoon, a seven-yard shovel pass to Duke Johnson Jr. that gave the Browns a 14-7 lead with 5:12 left in the second quarter. Gordon was targeted only three more times, twice in the second half.
It’ll be interesting to see in his news conference Monday how Jackson explains away what happened against the Packers at the Factory of Sadness, an extremely apropos nickname for that facility in light of the final outcome.
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Finally . . . The Packers have won 12 of their last 14 games in December, the crunch time month on the calendar for most NFL teams. The Browns are 2-19 in December dating back to 2012. . . Kai Nacua made his starting debut at free safety for the injured Jabrill Peppers and acquitted himself well after two early misfires. He committed way too early on a pass play on Green Bay’s opening drive and blew the coverage on running back Williams, who was alone two yards shy of the end zone when he caught a Hundley pass and merely backed in for the TD. Nacua also was baited into a personal foul penalty by Adams, head-butting him in front of an official shortly after the Browns stopped the Pack on third down. . . . The Packers were 0-for-6 on third at one point before recovering to finish 8-for-16. The Browns were 7-for-13. . . . Duke Johnson Jr, touch watch: Six carries, eight yards; four receptions, 41 yards and a touchdown., Total: 10 touches, 49 yards. Getting lower each week.