GREEN BAY — DeShone Kizer hasn’t gotten any indication from his coaches he might get the starting nod Sunday.
If Aaron Rodgers gets his way — the Packers starting quarterback has said he wants to play the team’s final two games, despite having been eliminated from playoff contention — then Kizer will be there to back him up, just as Kizer has throughout his first season in Green Bay.
But if something changes, and the coaches decide to play it safe with Rodgers given the team has nothing to play for, Kizer would love nothing more than to show how far his game has come since a less-than-stellar relief appearance in the season opener.
“I think my fundamentals have gotten a lot better, my footwork has gotten a lot better — which has allowed me to be a little more accurate than I’ve been in the past,” Kizer said in advance of Sunday’s game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium. “I think I’ve been able to show that in some of the scout-team reps that I get and the few reps I get with the first time when Aaron was a little banged up during some of the weeks.
“With that, I think I’ve been able to develop some confidence and hopefully develop some of the confidence of the guys around me to believe in me if that time ever comes where it’s my job to step in.”
Kizer had to step in against the Chicago Bears in the opener, when Rodgers went down with the left knee injury that has bothered him for much of the season. It didn’t go well — Kizer was 4 of 7 for 55 yards with two turnovers (one fumble, one interception) and two sacks (42.8 rating) — before Rodgers came back and rallied the Packers from a 20-point deficit in a 24-23 victory.
Since then, his only playing time was a kneel-down at the end of the Packers’ Dec. 9 win over Atlanta.
“I’ll tell you, DeShone has made a lot of progress, in the classroom just learning the system; in the weight room when you look at his strength and conditioning, the shape he has himself in,” quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti said last week. “I think every day you see him in practice getting better — his decision-making, his ball placement, his leadership skills with his teammates. DeShone’s done a really good job. He’s put himself in a good position where if he needed to step out there, we could trust him.”
Unlike last year, when Kizer started 15 games as a rookie second-round pick for the winless Cleveland Browns before being dealt to the Packers last March, no one beyond the Packers staff and Kizer’s teammates has been able to see that progress he’s made this year, since the team’s 11-on-11 practice periods come after media access ends.
But while the Packers coaches believe Kizer’s experience with the Browns was valuable for his development — even though he completed only 53.1 percent of his passes, threw only 11 touchdown passes against 22 interceptions, and finished with the worst passer rating among qualifying starters (60.5) — perhaps the most important experience Kizer has gotten came earlier this season, when Rodgers’ knee injury prevented him from practicing regularly.
Rodgers rarely practiced on Wednesdays during the first half of the season and wasn’t practicing on Thursdays, either, immediately after the injury. While that limited practice time might’ve played a role in Rodgers’ un-Rodgers-like season, that gave Kizer the chance to run the No. 1 offense in practice while Rodgers was rehabbing.
“I had the first five weeks’ worth of Wednesday practices and some of Thursday practices — and those reps for me were a cool opportunity to show that the transition will hopefully be seamless if there is one for me to step in if Aaron happens to get hurt or goes down and my number gets called,” Kizer said. “It’s my job as a backup to do whatever I possibly to communicate the way he communicates and do my job the way he does his job.
“(Being around Rodgers), I learned a lot about how to play this game, I learned a lot about — and am learning a lot about — what it takes to have the sustainable good play at the quarterback position that he’s been able to have, and now it’s about making sure if my number’s called that I’m able to hopefully have some of the success that he’s been able to have.”
Cignetti, who was working for the New York Giants when Kizer came out for last year’s NFL draft, said the Giants seriously considered taking Kizer as a possible successor to Eli Manning.
Kizer, who’d come out of Notre Dame after his redshirt sophomore season, measured at 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.83 seconds. Teams liked his athleticism and strong arm, although some scouts had questions about his decision-making and the fact that he threw an interception in 15 of his 23 college starts. Cignetti indicated he didn’t have those concerns.
“Obviously, you look at the physical measurables, you’re talking about a young man who has the size and strength, a young man who can make all the throws,” Cignetti said. “(He has) functional intelligence, he can think and react out there. He’s a good decision-maker. He has some escape ability. He can improvise outside of the pocket. There’s huge upside with DeShone.”
The next challenge for Kizer might be on the horizon. If interim head coach Joe Philbin isn’t Packers team president/CEO Mark Murphy’s choice to be the permanent head coach, Kizer will likely have to learn a new offensive scheme in 2019 — his third in three NFL seasons.
“Obviously, I made the transition from the Cleveland offense to the offense we’re running this year, and if it’s required that I have to learn a new one, it’s on me to make sure that I’m doing whatever it takes to grasp as much as I possibly can and play at a high level within that,” Kizer said.
“This is a very unique experience for a young quarterback to go out and start in 15 games and play with the live bullets and now to take a step back and learn from one of the great ones. And I think acknowledging that early has allowed me to develop at a rate that I’m pretty proud of. I think I’m throwing the ball at a much higher rate when it comes to accuracy and fundamentals than I was last year at this time.
“And now it’s just making sure that when my number is called — if that time comes — I’m able to go out and prove that to my teammates and the fans, that I can be a winning quarterback in this league.”