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DeShone Kizer's rocky rookie season ended with his best game

If the last thing a player does matters the most, DeShone Kizer ended his rookie season on the right note.

In the season finale against Pittsburgh, Kizer played his heart out in pursuit of a win for the Cleveland Browns. He finished with 314 yards passing and 61 yards rushing. According to ProFootballReference.com, only three quarterbacks -- Alex Smith against the Jets, Deshaun Watson against the Seahawks and Kizer in frigid conditions against the Steelers -- had games this season in which they topped 300 yards passing and 60 rushing.

Over the past 10 seasons, only nine times have quarterbacks gone for 300 yards passing and 60 yards rushing in a game.

Kizer showed potential in the finale. He threw some clunkers, but overall he fought, competed and had the Browns in position to win. In the end, he was done in by a Duke Johnson fumble, an interception and a dropped pass by Corey Coleman that will live in Browns lore (Kizer made a great play to evade the rush and get the ball to a wide-open Coleman on the Steelers' 10-yard line on fourth down with less than two minutes left).

The effort gave Kizer something positive to take into the offseason. Kizer was thrust into the starting job as a rookie and quickly learned how challenging it would be, especially with the Browns' dearth of playmakers at receiver.

He struggled with consistency and turnovers, was yanked from a game twice and benched once. But he persevered, firm in his desire to be the Browns' long-term answer at quarterback.

As he heads into Year 2, Kizer has to be ready for the challenge of competing for the starting job with a potentially high draft pick and (likely) an added veteran. He also has to shed the incredible drain on his psyche that goes with being winless. Kizer admitted as much after the loss to the Steelers when he said he’d have to live with the reality that he was the quarterback of an 0-16 team.

The Browns will not give up on Kizer, though. Nor should they. Kizer still has the same size and arm strength that got him drafted in the second round, and he deserves to be in the mix for the starting job in 2018.

“He is just still in that young stage as a young quarterback, but there is no question he is going to be here,” coach Hue Jackson said the day after the season ended. “He is going to have every opportunity to compete, and that’s what it should be.”

The one assumption the Browns will work under is that a young quarterback should make a quantum leap from his first year to his second.

In assessing his rookie season, some of Kizer’s raw numbers are not pretty. His 22 interceptions were a league high, six more than Cam Newton, who ranked second. He ranked 29th in yards per attempt (6.1), 32nd in passer rating (60.5) and 32nd in completion percentage (53.6).

The completion percentage is glaringly low. 
But break down Kizer’s season by quarters and you'll find there are areas where he improved.

His yards per attempt jumped by 1 yard (18 percent) from the first half to the second. He had eight touchdowns in the second half compared to three in the first. And his rating per quarter went from 50.9 to 51.4 to 68.9 to 66.8. Those ratings are not great, but they show improvement as the season moved along.

The breakdowns also show clear areas where Kizer needs to improve, such as completion percentage and interceptions.

Kizer’s best quarter for accuracy was the final one, but he still was below 60 percent. He simply has to find a way to be more accurate. This was the knock on him coming out of college, and it showed in his rookie season. Fundamentals can improve accuracy, as can experience, and improving accuracy takes commitment and work -- two traits Kizer does possess.

His interceptions -- 11 in his first seven games -- got him benched for a game, but he cut down on them midseason, only to throw seven over the final four games. That also must improve. However, at one point of the season his interception percentage was 6.0 and he finished at 4.6, which means he cut it down significantly in the second half of the season.

Kizer isn't the first rookie to struggle. Even Peyton Manning took his lumps as a rookie in 1998, winning only three games while throwing 28 interceptions and completing just 56.7 percent of his passes. Kizer is not Manning, however, and Manning was not below 60 percent passing again until his final season in 2015 (and then just barely at 59.8 percent).

Kizer’s key for success as he enters his second season is to grow and improve in the two key areas he was deficient.