GREEN BAY, Wis. — Not many second-year NFL quarterbacks can say they started in 15 games as rookies. Even fewer can say they started 0-15. In fact, DeShone Kizer is the only QB in the history of the game with that claim to infamy.
The record makes clear the fact that the start to Kizer’s NFL career was not good. But an offseason trade from the Browns to the Packers could turn things around for the 2017 second-round draft pick in a hurry.
“It was super exciting,” Kizer, 22, told Sporting News after a recent Green Bay training camp practice. “Obviously a team who has consistently shown that they can develop quarterbacks, consistently shown that they can win games and that they’re going to have the best fan base you can possibly ask for and to have the opportunity to grow within that and embed myself into the community of great football.
“It was super cool to get that call to go from the situation I was in before to something as good as this.”
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The Browns franchise has been a debacle for years, and it culminated last year when Cleveland joined the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams in NFL history to go winless in a 16-game season. Coach Hue Jackson initially gave Kizer his full support but wavered multiple times during the year, benching him for the likes of Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan. It led to an even more unstable environment for a rookie.
Unfortunately for Kizer, he was the Browns’ QB for most of the 2017 season and will forever be linked to the infamous Cleveland jersey that lists the litany of quarterbacks who have started for the team since 1999. But Kizer insists there is a plus side to starting 15 games as a rookie passer, even when all of those starts result in losses.
“In this league there’s one of two ways of learning: Either you’re learning out there on the field or learning from watching, and (in Cleveland) it was an opportunity where I got to go out and learn on the field,” Kizer said. “There’s not a lot of guys in this league with 15 starts and to pull from those experiences is going to be awesome for me.
“Trying to figure out how to take that losing season and try to figure out what the heck went wrong within that and use that as a motivation and the backing of what I’m doing now and my process and my preparation now, I think it’s an awesome learning opportunity for me to bring over here.”
In Green Bay, Kizer has a different task ahead of him: battling for the backup job behind Aaron Rodgers. His main competition is Packers 2015 fifth-rounder and incumbent second-stringer Brett Hundley, who also had a less-than-stellar season in 2017 going 3-6 in place of an injured Rodgers.
Hundley’s disappointing performance last year might have been a factor in the Packers’ decision to acquire Kizer, a player of whom coach Mike McCarthy spoke fondly in the offseason.
“In my opinion, if he was in that (draft) class this year, he would’ve been part of that group of first four guys, or first five,” McCarthy said, via ESPN . “I always felt there were five — the five quarterbacks — first-round guys.
“I think he has exceptional arm talent. What we’re asking him to do is, particularly the footwork and just how he fits the scheme, and how he operates is brand new to him. That always excites me, because when you see that guy has no experience or background but has the ability, to me that’s an opportunity for a lot of growth. So I think he has a bright future.”
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Kizer’s physical traits have never been in question. He has the arm strength, height and athleticism of the prototypical quarterback teams covet. In Green Bay, he is tasked with learning a new system for the second offseason in a row. Footwork in particular is critical in the Packers’ West Coast-style offense.
“The transition has been pretty easy. It’s a very quarterback friendly offense,” Kizer said. “When you have some great guys in the room like Aaron, Brett (Hundley) and Tim (Boyle) it makes for a good environment to learn in. It’s been pretty seamless coming over to this offense and I’ve been able to find a little bit of success already on the practice field with it.”
But going from a starter — even for a team as dysfunctional as the 2017 Browns — to a backup is a change of pace.
“Typically, your goals are set towards the amount of games you play, the amount of reps you have, the amount of touchdowns you throw,” he said. “My goals have adjusted. They’re now about how good can I possibly become on the sideline? How much value can I create on this team from a backup role? Whether it be making sure Aaron is quick with everything that he needs per game, making sure all of the younger guys are understanding the offense at a higher level, wherever I can fit into this team and create value is where I want to be.”
DeShone Kizer (Photo: Evan Siegle, Green Bay Packers)
Being able to work with Rodgers should help a developing QB like Kizer. In Cleveland, his only source of veteran leadership came from Kessler and Hogan, who each had just one year of experience in the league and were also fighting for their spots on the roster.
Backups to No. 12 in Green Bay over the years, like Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien, have gotten opportunities elsewhere for good reason.
“He’s the best in the league. In terms of a guy who completely understands the ins and outs of playing quarterback and the ins and outs of managing a team, managing a locker room,” Kizer said of Rodgers. “He’s really good at everything he does, and to have that in my room now as a mentor is going to be something that hopefully propels me into the next step of my career, which is becoming a good quarterback.”
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Nobody would blame Kizer for any negative feelings about his rookie year. But given some time to reflect, he is ready to move on and learn from the experience.
“No regrets,” Kizer said. “It sucks going 0-16, it sucks being an 0-15 quarterback, but I think that the last two seasons of my career actually, the 4-8 year at Notre Dame and 0-16 with the Browns, are going to be things that are going to be the pivotal point in my career in terms of my development and my growth.
“Understanding how to lose is a good way of learning how to win, and I think I figured that out in the last couple years. I think I have some sort of an understanding of what it takes to win, and now it’s about going out there and using that as motivation, prepare as hard as you possibly can to get those tough wins.”
So many losses at the beginning of a QB’s career could make things go from bad to worse, but that’s doesn’t appear to be the case for Kizer. With the maturity and willingness to sit and learn, Kizer still has a chance to make it as a starter in the NFL.
And he seems to be in the perfect environment with the perfect team to make it happen.