As different as a spring day in Cleveland before and after a cold front washes over the region. DeShone Kizer and Cody Kessler appear to be polar opposite quarterbacks sitting on the depth chart of the Cleveland Browns. Kessler survives with less velocity on his throws but supreme accuracy he utilizes on the short and intermediate passes. Kizer has inconsistent accuracy- especially short- but enough arm talent to hit any spot on the field. Kessler a shade below the ideal height for the position at 6-foot-1. Kizer stands tall in the pocket at 6-foot-4.
The differences, though, are not as intriguing as the subtle areas where similarities exist. Both quarterbacks came from more traditional offenses with more aspects aligning to NFL responsibilities, and they have spent several years maturing as a starter. Each has pocket mobility wherein their feet move them to safe places behind the protection to delay the rush clock expiration. When moving inside or outside the pocket, they keep their eyes downfield with a willingness to receive impact while delivering a pass.
Another area where they have thrived is in an environment of adversity. While quarterbacks such as Deshaun Watson had the luxury of playing for stable national title contending teams, both Kizer and Kessler thrived despite chaos surrounding them. The character of a man is often not depicted in his moments of victory, but in his times of turmoil. Both of these quarterbacks have had plenty of opportunities there. The Browns promise many more.
Quantitative measures such as strength, speed, quickness, and size are easy to chart. Production on the field another more scientific measure. Intelligence can have some art mixed in with the science, but there are still minimum bars to clear in order to be able to understand the complexities of the NFL game. There are some qualitative components to determine projectable traits to the NFL level, but scouts and draft gurus have become adept at identifying the proper markers. One of the more elusive fields remaining is the ability to sort prospects by character traits. The importance is being recognized more and more too.
ESPN’s Seth Wickersham wrote a wonderful and lengthy feature on Brian Decker who has made it his mission in life to quantify the character of players up for the NFL Draft. Decker had been a Green Beret before he took over and reinvented the entire process for selecting future Green Beret recruits. Joe Banner had his interest piqued and hired him to do the same for the Cleveland Browns, but he was fired before Decker could go through even one draft.
Ray Farmer kept him aboard, but Decker alludes in the article to being ignored on Johnny Manziel when he says “the markers were there.” The Browns did give Decker freedom to interview prospects at the NFL Combine, but they did not interview there nor anywhere else the eventual No. 8 overall pick of that draft, Justin Gilbert. Both players saw their obvious talents undone by their non-Sunday flaws.
Decker distilled his information into a character-risk chart, based on injury-risk charts, so it was easy for coaches to understand: A 1-2 score was a low character risk; 5 was high. Decker’s ideal football player, like his ideal soldier, would have at least average cognitive ability, high self-awareness and a demonstrated ability to handle high-pressure situations and adversity. Think Tom Brady at Michigan or Russell Wilson at NC State. Before they were great, they were in crisis.
Quarterbacks, and the mysterious components that allow a few to thrive and most to fail, always fascinated Decker. He began work on a seven-page character and intelligence model. He tried to find data that indicated what kind of learning curve a college quarterback would have in the pros, based on his relevant experience: whether he had been in a pro system, calling plays, reading defenses, making adjustments. He combined that with information on the quarterback’s ability to react quickly and personal characteristics, such as practice habits and mental toughness, stuff that was straight out of Special Forces training. The model combined all the results to answer two questions about quarterbacks: What have you been exposed to, and how smart are you?
Cody Kessler is no stranger to crisis. The USC Trojans employed two head coaches and two interim coaches during his three seasons quarterbacking for the school. Despite the constant turnover, Kessler continued to pump out quality starts, impressive numbers, and demonstrate his abilities on the field. After the 2016 NFL Draft, WFNY had asked quarterback guru Mark Schofield from Inside the Pylon if this turmoil had helped Kessler prepare for his career. Here was Schofield’s response:
This gets to one of the difficult aspects in evaluating players, particularly quarterbacks, from the outside looking in. We rarely get the chance to sit down with these players to pick their brains, get a feel for their mental composure, and uncover their thought process away from the field. But from a distance, when you see a quarterback go through the twists and turns that USC went through during Kessler’s career, particularly his senior season, you have to appreciate how he was able to handle the turmoil.
DeShone Kizer only had one head coach during his career at Notre Dame, but when that coach is Brian Kelly, crisis finds you.2 Kelly is the coach who refuses to accept responsibility for losses but is quick to take credit for wins. His sideline red-faced persona as he rips into his players is not enough to calm his apparent exasperation as he continues to berate them to the press after the game.
The most obvious example was after a three-point loss to the Duke Blue Devils in the 2016 season. DeShone Kizer threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns, while also adding 60 yards and another touchdown on the ground. “Coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said at the post-game press conference. “Every position, all 22 of them, will be evaluated. Each and every position. There is no position that is untouchable on this football team. And that’s the quarterback, all the way down to — maybe the long snapper’s OK. We’re not going to touch him. But everybody else is vulnerable.”
Despite Kelly also invoking the possibility of pulling the red-shirt off of quarterback Brandon Wimbush, Kizer took the high road. “He has given me the keys,” Kizer said per the Chicago Tribune. “To go 1-3 and not come up on some big drives at the end of games, that all falls on me as the commander of this offense. I haven’t done that well lately.”
When Kizer was asked specifically about Kelly criticizing the team’s lack of fire and energy, Kizer told Comcast SportsNet Chicago “I’m going to have to be more verbal, I’m going to have to make sure that I take my job and put a little more effort into it, in the sense of the energy side of things. Guys are going to go out there and feed off of me and I need to make sure that I have the energy that it takes for all 11 guys to go out and play well, not just myself.”
The loss to Duke had dropped the Irish to 1-3 on the season. Of course, the Irish lost in Week 1 to the Texas Longhorns despite Kizer throwing for five touchdowns and running for a sixth. Perhaps if Kelly did not continue to pull Kizer for Malik Zaire- who did not score or even move the ball on any of his drives- the Irish would have had another win. Don’t expect Kelly to admit even the most obvious of mistakes though as he refused to commit to Kizer despite the performance.
Kizer never gained public admiration from his coach, but those who covered the team were as impressed with his poise as they were sickened with Kelly’s act. Paul Skrbina from the Chicago Tribune detailed as much in an op-ed.
Notre Dame’s season of struggles continued. Kelly would continue to deride his own players after each loss. The media would attempt to bait Kizer into complaining about his coach, but he would each time stick by him. “We have complete confidence in coach Kelly,” Kizer told the Tennessean. “He has experience, he’s a winning coach, he knows how to win and he’s going to figure out whatever it takes to win. And as long as we continue to have the mentality that he is the successful coach that he is and trust in that, we’re going to be fine.”3
After a particularly hurtful loss to the Virginia Tech Hokies, the Irish’s longest running blog, UHND, wrote how thin Kelly’s act had worn.
“Zero. None. Absolutely none,” Kelly answered when asked what culpability he felt he had in the matter.
Whatever happened to the buck stops here? Oh wait, that is something a leader who have said. Notre Dame fans have gotten used to this sort of behavior and attitude from Kelly who has a record of 31-20 since beating USC to cap off that undefeated 2012 season that may end up getting erased from the history books if Notre Dame loses its appeal with the NCAA.
One might believe the final straw in the Kelly-Kizer relationship would have been when the head coach decided to add one more major critique just two weeks before the NFL Draft- well after the decision to enter it had been made. Apparently, Kelly was not happy that his quarterback had decided to exercise his early eligibility. “Well, he still should be in college,” Kelly said in a Sirius XM radio interview. “You know, but the circumstances are such that you have to make business decisions and, you know, he felt like it was in his best interest and I’m going to support him and his decision. But the reality of it is he needs more football. He needs more time to grow in so many areas, not just on the field but off the field. He’s a great kid, he’s got great character.”
Kizer did not respond with any particular quotes on the topic, but he did invite Kelly to join him in Philadelphia on the day of the draft. The high road is well worn with the soles of Kizer’s shoes.
Perspective might be a reason Kizer has been able to absorb so much flak directed from Kelly without breaking. Before he was Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, Kizer was a third-string quarterback struggling to prove himself worthy of elevating past Zaire and Everett Golson in the spring of 2015. It was during this crucial time of development when his hometown girlfriend called from Ohio State to deliver horrible news. She had a tumor in her neck that would require a 17 hour complex surgery and leave her with unknown amounts of rehabilitation- if she survived.
Kizer had a choice. He could have invested fully in himself and pushed towards the NFL dream with the complete focus that is said to be required by coaches from across the country. Kizer could have begged away from his girlfriend’s troubles because it was too much for him or any 19 year old to handle.
Kizer didn’t have a choice because of the man he has proven to be. He would drive from her surgery back to South Bend for the Spring Game, then turn around back to Columbus. Kizer would make that 217 mile trip an untold amount of times to ensure she knew he was there to support her as she recovered from a paralyzed tongue and a leg the doctors thought would never regain movement among her complications.4
While balancing school, football, comforting his girlfriend, and constant travel- let alone the emotional baggage of each of them- Kizer became the starting quarterback for one of the best Notre Dame teams since Lou Holtz walked the sidelines. Golson had transferred to Florida State once he lost the starting competition to Zaire, which left Kizer as the backup. When Zaire broke his ankle in Week 2, there was nowhere left to turn for Kelly. Kizer would win eight of the next nine games before ending the season with losses to Stanford and Ohio State. He had managed to put the Fighting Irish back on the national consciousness and his own name on scout sheets looking ahead to the 2017 NFL Draft.
Given the on field adversity Kessler had faced alongside the full adversity Kizer overcame, it is possible that the Browns still utilize the formula from Brian Decker. If so, then there should be no doubt that the quarterback whom this note was written for scored the highest marks for character possible.
While there were many people who entered the scary journey with me, there was one who gave me the strength to make it through each day. I sit back everyday and thank God for placing this person in my life during such a tough time. We fought together. We fought a battle no 19 year old ever plans to fight. While I dropped my life to fight the battle, he not only fought my battle but he fought his own. All the 271 mile trips he incorporated between school exams and football practice are what kept me going.
Yesterday I sat in the stands at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with my family. 6 months ago I was told this was not going to be possible. Play after play I watched you do what you do best. I watched you fight. I cheered for you just as you cheered for me. With each play I felt butterflies of nervousness just as you felt for 20 hours on April 16th. Through all the change encountered over the past 8 months, no matter what, I will forever remain grateful. I am so proud of you.
High character does not guarantee success in the NFL though it is encouraging team’s believe there is weight behind there being a higher chance of success. And, it sure is easier cheering for those players too.
- Decker was fired along with Farmer’s staff. He was recently hired by the Indianapolis Colts. [↩]
- Kelly is the coach whose first major headline as coach of the Fighting Irish was to explain the tragic death of student Declan Sullivan in 2010 (well before Kizer attended the school). He had been filming football practice from an elevated scissor lift on a day with gusts of winds over 50 miles per hour when the lift tipped. [↩]
- There are so many more horrific Kelly quotes that I need to just stop here. There are some after a one point loss to Navy in which Kelly’s decisions left Kizer on the bench for the last seven minutes of the game. There is the Stanford game where Zaire was continually inserted despite no production, while Kizer was at minimal relatively successful. Each postgame presser demonstrating defiance from Kelly and grace from Kizer. [↩]
- They were wrong, by the way. [↩]