GREEN BAY — That Matt LaFleur tempered his enthusiasm for his No. 2 quarterback DeShone Kizer’s performance in the Green Bay Packers’ preseason opener last week was somewhat telling.
Even though Kizer put up strong numbers — he was 8 of 13 for 102 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown pass to Darrius Shepherd, for a sparkling 111.7 passer rating — LaFleur didn’t exactly go overboard in his praise immediately after the game.
“It’s consistency on a daily basis, and not just in the game, but in practice,” said the Packers first-year coach, whose coaching path traces through the quarterback position, including coaching Kizer at Notre Dame in 2014. “I thought he did a nice job (against Houston), but it’s got to be each and every day.”
No one knows better that Kizer needs to find consistency more than Kizer himself. As he enters his third NFL season, his circumstances so far have sorely lacked consistency — and so has his play.
Entering the league as a second-round pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2017, Kizer ended up starting 15 games for the Browns, who infamously went 0-16 that season under Hue Jackson The Browns then shipped him to Green Bay last offseason in exchange for the Packers’ own disappointing high pick — 2015 first-rounder Demarious Randall — and Kizer had to adjust to a new head coach (Mike McCarthy) and a new offensive system.
McCarthy was fired with four games left in last season, meaning Kizer once again has a new coach and a new system.
Kizer struggled playing in relief of Aaron Rodgers twice last year: In the season opener, when Rodgers suffered a knee injury but returned in the second half to rally the team to victory, and in the season finale, when Rodgers went out with a first-quarter concussion. In those two appearances, Kizer completed just 20 of 42 passes (47.6 percent) for 187 yards with one interception, one lost fumble and a passer rating of 40.5.
During his year in Cleveland, his numbers were similarly low, and of the 40 NFL quarterbacks with at least 300 passing attempts over the past two seasons, Kizer ranks last in passer rating (58.9), last in touchdown percentage (2.1), last in interception percentage (4.63), second-to-last in completion percentage (53.1) and 38th in yards per attempt (5.95).
“The great quarterbacks are the ones that are consistent every game, every play,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “He’s been in a couple systems now, and I think him just continuing to understand the system is the first battle he has to fight. Just being able to get in there and call the play, and then understand what he has to do from a protection standpoint to then the pass world. That will allow him to just relax and play calm.
“That’s the thing. When you see him out there when he’s relaxed, playing tall and just executing the play, it’s good. Whenever there’s some indecision at times, sometimes he gets a little crazy. I think it’s just about trying to limit that and get him more comfortable within the system.”
Kizer will have another valuable opportunity to show that consistency and comfort in LaFleur’s system tonight against the Baltimore Ravens in the Packers’ second exhibition game. Although LaFleur said he plans to play Rodgers and the starters “a quarter or so” in this game, Kizer should still have some opportunities before third QB Tim Boyle and fourth QB Manny Wilkins get to play.
“This is the NFL. You’re always going to be competing with someone and nothing’s ever given in this league,” Kizer said. “I think I’m a prime example of that. It’s about whatever reps you’re given — whether it’s with the 1s, the 2s, the 3s or a mental rep on the sideline — it’s about getting better and proving yourself. Every time you go out there you want to prove exactly who you are.
“This league is about what you put on tape. Every rep you get, it’s making sure it’s the best one that really shows exactly who you are. This was an opportunity for me to show what I’ve gained in this offseason in terms of my balance and being able to throw with the ball some consistency and accuracy. I was able to show that a couple times (against the Texans). Now, it’s about building on that and showing the consistency that’s needed to be a starter in this league again.”
To that end, Kizer said he lost roughly 10 pounds this offseason (“I think I’m in the best shape of my life”) and worked out with renowned quarterback guru Tom House to improve his mechanics (“I’m pretty confident in my throwing motion now”) and balance. Now he has to put those personal improvements on film.
Kizer acknowledged that he missed some throws he should have made against the Texans — even the touchdown to Shepherd was too high — but he noted that none of his drives ended in a turnover. Having thrown 24 interceptions in two years, including an NFL-high 22 in 2017, Kizer’s mentality has been that drives need to end with “kicks, not picks.” That means, instead of interceptions, that any kick — a field goal attempt, a point after touchdown, and even a punt — is better than a turnover.
“This game is about the ball. If there’s any guy in this league who understands that, it’s me from the experiences that I’ve had in the past,” Kizer said. “Winning is the ultimate goal but in order to win, the biggest emphasis in my game and what I’ve done in the last two years is making sure the ball is out of harm’s way and in the right playmakers’ hands to get into scoring range.”
Asked what he thought of Kizer’s philosophy, general manager Brian Gutekunst – the man who made the trade to bring Kizer to Green Bay – replied, “Before you win the game, you can’t lose it, right? I think that’s the biggest thing – can you manage the game and keep your chances alive? I think both Tim and DeShone, did a nice job in the game. Again, it’s about stacking successes, right? That was a good first start and kind of see what they do.
“(Kizer) is really working on his feet and how that ties into the accuracy part of it. I think you’ve seen through camp, he’s done a lot of what Matt wants to do. … There’s always room for these guys to improve and we have a long way to go, both Tim and DeShone. But I do like the way they’re progressing in Matt’s offense.”
That said, there’s no guarantee that any of the quarterbacks are the best option behind Rodgers. In 2013, the Packers had Graham Harrell, B.J. Coleman and Vince Young in camp and wound up releasing them all in favor of picking up Seneca Wallace and ex-University of Wisconsin starter Scott Tolzien after final cuts.
That was the year Rodgers broke his left collarbone and only the serendipitous return of former Rodgers backup Matt Flynn, who came back and led the Packers to a 2-2-1 record in the five games he played, saved the season from disaster.
Kizer must show that he, like Flynn did, can be trusted if Rodgers goes down. At this point, he has not done so.
“The next step for me is making sure I can consistently be a guy that they know exactly what they’re going to get when I step out on the field,” Kizer said. “I’ve had quite a few outings in a short career so far, and within that we’ve seen a couple of different guys. We’ve seen a guy who’s run a bunch, we’ve seen a guy who’s turned the ball over a bunch, we’ve seen a guy who throws a bunch of a check downs and has a high completion percentage in certain games.
“It’s about making sure that I can consistently show exactly what I want to show, and that’s a guy who’s going to keep the ball out of harm’s way, keep the chains moving forward and end each drive with a kick.”