CLEVELAND — The DeShone Kizer era in Cleveland began with a bang.
And a CRRAACK!
And a KAPOW!
The only things missing from the Toledo native’s first professional start Sunday were the comic book word bubbles and stars orbiting his helmet.
Kizer proved he can be the Browns’ long-awaited answer at quarterback ... if he stays upright.
For all the promise the rookie displayed in Cleveland’s 21-18 season-opening loss to the Steelers, what impressed us most was his single-minded resilience — in body and mind.
All day, the 21-year-old endured as brutal of a drubbing as an NFL defense can deliver. He took two bone-clattering blows on downfield runs, and although he gets some of the same blame here, was sacked seven times. For perspective, the most prolific quarterback eaters last year — the Arizona Cardinals — averaged only three sacks per game.
“He took some pretty good shots,” coach Hue Jackson said.
Yet while the rest of us cringed, Kizer never did.
He kept firing, kept making plays.
By the end, you looked up and the Browns — with the playmaking Kizer and a half-decent defense of their own — were looking eye to eye at their imperious division rivals.
Kizer coolly led Cleveland on an eight-play 73-yard drive — punctuated by a 4-yard touchdown pass to Corey Coleman — that pulled the hosts within three points with 3:36 remaining.
He would not get the chance to conjure any late magic. With a big hand from Antonio Brown — who pulled in everything inside of a three zip-code radius and proved the biggest difference between a Browns team that won one game last year and one that has the second-best Super Bowl odds — Steelers counterpart and fellow northwest Ohio native Ben Roethlisberger played keep away in the final minutes.
But as the stadium known locally as the Factory of Sadness roared to life, I left the place with the strangest feeling.
I couldn’t wait to watch Kizer play next week.
When’s the last time you could say that about a Browns quarterback?
Tim Couch? Maybe, but the Browns’ No. 1 overall pick came here with the fresh slate of a new era. The conga line of passers who have followed arrived under the cloud of desperation that thickens with each lost season. Kizer — the Browns’ most physically gifted passer in decades — represents the latest, best hope.
On the field afterward, Roethlisberger made sure to find Kizer.
“What an awesome start,” the Findlay native told the Toledo kid, who was 20-of-30 passing for 222 yards and a touchdown, and ran for another score.
“I know it’s not getting a win,” Big Ben said, “but just to play the way he did, I was proud of him.”
So, too, were his family and friends and fans — a base that has expanded from Toledo to include all of northern Ohio. The Browns’ locker room in the entrails of the stadium sits opposite a field-level bar for suiteholders. After changing into jeans and a sport coat, Kizer exited to a standing ovation from fans cheering his name.
“This guy gave us a chance,” Jackson said. “He put the team in position to give us an opportunity to make something special happen.”
Of course, a long road awaits.
Kizer must improve first at avoiding hits. The Browns are fortunate their cornerstone passer from the Glass City — unlike cornerstone rookie pass rusher Myles Garrett — is not made of glass. A brick wall but without the brick feet, the 6-foot-4, 233-pound Kizer said he felt fine after the bruising.
“I’m good,” he said. “Completely healthy through it.”
But he knows no quarterback can regularly withstand similar days. A couple of the sacks were on the offensive line, but more were on him for holding the ball attempting to extend plays.
“He has to take care of himself a little bit better,” Jackson said. “We know that. He can’t keep taking hits like that.”
Kizer, too, must be smarter when he lets it rip.
His biggest mistake came with the Browns down 21-10 in the third quarter but deep in Pittsburgh territory. In what could only be termed a rookie mistake, Kizer made the wrong read and a bad throw. Instead of throwing it to Ricardo Louis streaking wide open down the middle, he tried to float a pass just so to the corner of the end zone.
It was intercepted by Pittsburgh linebacker T.J. Watt.
“I am trying to put the ball over top of him,” Kizer said. “Obviously, this is all going to be a learning process. These guys who are stepping out there, who I’m playing against are quite athletic and he goes up and makes a good play on the ball.”
Jackson promptly pulled Kizer aside.
“He knows that is a ball you can’t throw, not in that situation,” he said. “I have had a lot of young quarterbacks make that choice and decision like you can get it over a guy, and there is a little miscommunication about the route and those things. If you’re not sure, it is OK to say ‘uncle’ and throw it away. ... I’m going to continue to coach him through it through every series. I have to because him and I are joined by the hip in this thing. I think this guy is going to be a really good player, but he has to keep getting better.”
And you know what? Even within the game, he did just that. On the Browns’ late touchdown drive, Kizer fired the ball into the Dawg Pound with nothing going on 3rd-and-2 at the 4, then threaded the laser to Coleman on fourth down.
Working with next to no running game — Isaiah Crowell rushed for 33 yards on 17 carries — and an underwhelming cast of receivers, the Central Catholic graduate left the place dreaming.
For so many years, the Browns and their eternal search for a quarterback resembled the taunting old sign at the corner bar: “Free Beer Tomorrow.”
Finally, Sunday, just maybe tomorrow arrived.
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