Cleveland Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer runs during the second half of his pro debut Thursday. ASSOCIATED PRESS
CLEVELAND — Welcome to Cleveland, DeShone Kizer.
If first impressions count for anything, the Browns might have found their quarterback.
The rookie from Toledo punctuated his tantalizing pro debut with a game-winning 45-yard touchdown pass, thrilling the home crowd who remained late into the night to watch Cleveland rally past New Orleans 20-14 in its exhibition opener.
Kizer mixed the uneven with the wow, saving his finest for the final quarter — and then the final minutes.
His last heave wasn’t even the best of the night. Earlier in fourth, with two Saints linemen closing in, the big-armed passer calmly stepped forward, spotted Richard Mullaney streaking downfield, and let fly the kind of throw only a handful of quarterbacks can make. From his own 38-yard line, Kizer fired a 60-yard laser that fell perfectly into Mullaney’s grasp at the 1. The Browns scored on the next play.
Kizer then wrapped up his pro debut the same way he did his college one at Notre Dame, tossing a game-winning touchdown pass — a 45-yard strike to Jordan Payton with 1:58 remaining. Next thing you knew, the Isley Brothers were screaming about shouting, FirstEnergy Stadium was rocking, and Cleveland’s quarterback battle was wide open once more.
"A really cool experience," Kizer said.
It was a storybook ending that emerged from nowhere, the night beginning so inauspiciously.
In what seemed a presumptuous move for a franchise so deprived of recent glory, the Browns began the preseason by unveiling a big and expensive new statue.
They started Brock Osweiler.
The $16 million-per-year quarterback wasted no time confirming the bridge to Kizer could be a rickety crossing.
If there is a crossing at all.
Osweiler’s unsatisfying performance coupled with Kizer’s inspired one — albeit against reserves who might not be on an NFL roster next month — further clouded a muddled quarterback picture.
If Thursday was Osweiler’s chance to strengthen his standing as the Browns’ starter, the 26-year-old acquired from the Texans as a salary-dump throw-in as part of a trade that landed Cleveland a second-round draft pick did little to change minds.
The first boos of the season officially rained down at 8:18 p.m., and it was mostly downhill from there. Osweiler opened with three drives, three three-and-outs, in a hail of overthrows, penalties, and general offensive ineptitude.
In a bid to jump-start the home team’s confidence, Cleveland coach Hue Jackson left Osweiler and the starters in for a fourth possession against New Orleans’ reserves, but the Browns ultimately came up short just the same.
Osweiler completed 6 of 14 passes for 42 yards in four scoreless drives. Second-year quarterback Cody Kessler was 5 of 10 for 47 yards in relief. Kizer, though he held the ball too long at times and still has a ways to go, played the entire second half and finished 11 of 18 for 184 yards.
"It's my job to step up when the reps are given to me," Kizer said, "whether that's against the [first team] or the 3s."
Sure, it is a fool’s errand to try reading much into an exhibition contest.
Just as the famously mischievous Municipal Lot here is ostensibly dry — Real Rule No. 3: No alcohol; Proposed Rule No. 4: No breathing — the preseason opener is ostensibly a football game. Both teams rested their top veteran stars, the Saints sitting quarterback Drew Brees and the Browns holding out left tackle Joe Thomas.
Still, for one night, there was but one passer who resembled a starting quarterback in the NFL. His name is DeShone Kizer.