Behold Cleveland, the NFL’s saddest quarterback competition for the 10th straight year.
In 2016, Cody Kessler made his case to be the Browns’ quarterback of the future by outplaying Josh McCown and Robert Griffin III as the club’s most efficient passer. Then, for the first six games of 2017, he disappeared, available only during practices as he languished on the team’s inactive list.
Meanwhile, Cleveland churned through rookie passer DeShone Kizer and 2016 practice squad staple Kevin Hogan en route to an 0-6 start. It wasn’t until Week 7, when Kizer was benched again, that Kessler got an opportunity to work his way back into the lineup. And once again, his flashes of competence make him look like the team’s top option behind center.
Kessler led the Browns to their closest contest of the 2017 season to date, a 12-9 overtime slog against the Titans that may stand as the least exciting game of the year. The second-year passer’s performance wasn’t good, but it was better than what preceded it.
With Kizer in the game through the team’s first five drives, Cleveland kicked a field goal after recovering a fumble at the Tennessee 40-yard line, punted twice, and had two Kizer passes picked off. The Browns averaged 3.7 yards per play and 0.6 points per drive with the rookie behind center, a week after he regained the starting job.
With Kessler in the lineup — and not counting a fourth quarter kneel-down to send the game to overtime — penalties and sacks dropped that number to 3.2 yards per play, but one full point per drive.
Those numbers, as objectively bad as they are, paint a picture. Kessler doesn’t have the big-play capability that Kizer brings, but he’s less likely to kill off a promising drive with a points-erasing turnover.
What Kessler does better than the Browns’ other quarterbacks
Kessler’s main attribute is that he typically avoids the game-killing mistakes that have defined Cleveland’s quarterback play — even his first interception of the season came on a third-and-13 deep ball that effectively served as an arm punt. In nine 2016 games as a rookie, he threw just two picks, leading to a 1 percent INT rate that ranked higher than players like Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers.
That, and his solid accuracy numbers, can be attributed to a conservative passing game that limited him to only 7.1 yards per pass. That’s a middling number — it would tie Philip Rivers and Josh McCown this season — but it’s still markedly better than what Kizer and Hogan have brought to the table.
It’s difficult to make a lasting judgment based on Kessler’s first appearance of the season — although if he’s been buried down the depth chart behind Kizer and Hogan, it’s safe to say he hasn’t been ideal in practice. But a look at the team’s recent history suggests the offense is in much safer hands with Kessler behind center. For a team that’s lost four of its seven games by three points or fewer, that mistake-averse approach can be the difference between winning and losing.
Kessler, of course, is still growing as a passer. The 2016 third-round pick came into training camp as the No. 1 QB but was replaced by Kizer and Hogan, who fit the spread, deep-ball heavy attack favored by head coach Hue Jackson. 2017 marks the second straight year he’s gone from third-string to the team’s top option. For him to succeed, either he’ll have to change — or Jackson is going to have to adapt the team’s offensive identity around him.
What will keep Kessler from turning the Browns into a winner?
Jackson wants to air the ball out. Kessler isn’t that kind of passer. At USC, he was an accurate and effective QB, but not a prolific one. As a senior in the Trojans’ talented and wide-open passing attack, he averaged fewer than eight yards per pass. For comparison, Sam Darnold connected for a half-yard more per attempt the next year despite a) playing in largely the same system and b) being a first-year starter.
Even if Kessler had the kind of deep-ball touch Jackson is chasing, he’d be hamstrung by the Browns’ depth chart. The biggest limitation for any Cleveland quarterback in 2017 is a disappointing supporting cast. The team’s most productive wide receiver against the Titans was Ricardo Louis, who had three catches for 21 yards. The franchise’s rebuild has taken aim at improving from the line of scrimmage first, which has left the Browns transparently thin at the skill positions.
That strategy hasn’t paid off in the trenches either — at least on offense. The Browns offensive line never really came together like it should have after Sashi Brown spent $78 million on blockers the past offseason. Opposing blitzers powered into the backfield, adding new angles to Kizer’s learning curve early in the season.
Things will only get worse now that Joe Thomas, the cornerstone left tackle who had played 10,000+ straight snaps before leaving Sunday’s game, will miss extended time due to a triceps injury. Kizer, in theory, is the team’s top scrambling option. However, he’s been sacked 12 times in six games this fall. Kessler has been even less elusive: 23 sacks in 10 games as a pro.
Can Kessler regain — and hold on to — the Browns’ starting quarterback position?
Kessler has a lower ceiling as a big-play quarterback than Kizer, but at present he’s a better option for a team that has a major problem getting out of its own way. The second-year pro avoids the mistakes that have defined Kizer’s early career and has proven capable of doing enough to put his team in position to win — even if Cleveland is 0-10 in the games where he’s appeared.
The player Thomas called “amazingly unflappable” last fall finally got a chance to contribute in Week 7, and while he didn’t look good, he was the man who got the Browns to overtime. Kessler may not pan out as his team’s quarterback of the future, but he can be its quarterback of the present, especially if that keeps Kizer from developing bad habits on the field.
For the 10th straight year, Cleveland is home to one of the league’s saddest quarterback situations. Kessler is a bit of a silver lining to that dark cloud — albeit a dim one.