Bears

Is the ‘not a winner’ label fair to DeShone Kizer?

Is the ‘not a winner’ label fair to DeShone Kizer?

DeShone Kizer has plenty of the traits desired by NFL scouts, like a strong arm and a 6-foot-4, 230 pound frame. What he doesn't have, though, is the label of being a "winner." It's the opposite for Kizer, who quarterbacked Notre Dame to a 4-8 record in 2016, the program's worst since that embarrassing 3-9 year under Charlie Weis a decade ago. 

Both Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox have touted a quarterback's ability to elevate everyone around him, with Pace at the Combine specifically pointing to Drew Brees' success at Purdue. Kizer, then, doesn't check off that box.

But it's worth noting Kizer was a "winner" two years ago, when he was thrown into action seven quarters into the 2015 season and led Notre Dame within six points of a berth in the College Football Playoff. Kizer threw a last-second game-winning touchdown to Will Fuller at Virginia, led a furious comeback (that fell short on a failed two-point conversion) on the road in a rainstorm against national runner-up Clemson and scored what should've been a game-winning touchdown late against Stanford (only to have Brian VanGorder's defense blow it with under 40 seconds left). 

So how did Kizer go from being a "winner" one year to losing that label the next?

A point to note here is that 2015 Irish team had a bunch of players drafted in the first two days of the 2016 NFL Draft: Fuller and left tackle Ronnie Stanley were first-round picks, while center Nick Martin was a second-rounder and running back C.J. Prosise went in the third round. Kizer not only had less talent surrounding him in 2016, but most of those players he had to rely on were now inexperienced underclassmen. 

Notre Dame's offensive line and running game both regressed without the likes of Stanley, Martin and Prosise. That put more offensive responsibility on the passing game and Kizer, who was without six of his top seven targets from a year ago (the only returning one, Torii Hunter Jr., was sidelined for four games with various injuries). 

But Notre Dame's plummet wasn't just due to that talent drain on offense. Fired were VanGorder (four games into the season) and special teams coordinator Scott Booker (after the season) as both those units struggled do much of anything well. Two games in September were particularly egregious, with Kizer playing well in both but the Irish still conspiring to lose. 

In Week 1, Kizer threw for five touchdowns, ran for another and didn't turn the ball over in Notre Dame's 50-47 double-overtime loss at Texas. Kizer had a few chances to do more later in the game, but it's worth noting he was without Hunter, who left the game in the third quarter due to a concussion. Is it fair to assign "fault" to the guy who had to sub in and out with Malik Zaire in the first half and still had six total touchdowns and no turnovers? 

Twenty days later, Kizer threw for 381 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and one rushing score in Notre Dame's 38-35 home loss to Duke. After earning a quick 14-0 lead in the first quarter, Notre Dame allowed Duke's backup returner to run a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. Duke ripped off touchdown plays of 25, 32 and 64 yards against a feeble Irish defense, with that 64-yarder coming less than a minute after Kizer pulled Notre Dame ahead midway through the fourth quarter. 

In those two games, though, had Notre Dame's defense and special teams merely been below average instead of a complete disaster, Kizer would've done more than enough to earn his team the two wins it needed to reach a bowl game. A 6-6 record hardly is good -- or acceptable in South Bend -- but it probably would've been more forgivable than the ugly stain of 4-8. 

Consider the records of the other four top quarterbacks' teams:

Clemson (DeShaun Watson): 13-1, national champs
North Carolina (Mitchell Trubisky): 8-5, lost Sun Bowl
Texas Tech (Patrick Mahomes): 5-7
Cal (Davis Webb): 5-7

The other side to this, though, is that Kizer and Notre Dame had a chance to win or tie late in the fourth quarter in seven games, with six losses (Texas, Michigan State, Duke, N.C. State, Stanford, Virginia Tech) and one win (Miami). No matter how little help Kizer had, he still had a chance to convert those opportunities and for the most part did not. 

Kizer never wavered in accepting responsibility for those losses during the season, and that message didn't change at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis last month. And it's one that should play well in draft rooms as teams decide whether or not Kizer, after a 4-8 season, is worth the investment of a first-round pick. 

"I just didn't make enough plays," Kizer said. "The ball's in my hand every play. It's my job at Notre Dame to put us in position to win games, to trust in the guys around me and develop the guys around me to make those plays with me."

View from the Moon: Bears 'siestas' continue, leaving progress difficult to find, but it’s there ... somewhat

View from the Moon: Bears 'siestas' continue, leaving progress difficult to find, but it’s there ... somewhat

Consider this a connect-the-dots exercise, with the end game being to figure out what the overall picture is. Because the Bears’ 27-24 loss to the Detroit Lions was many things, a couple actually very good, but too many of them kinda-to-very bad...

The overarching point of the 2017 season, per senior Bears management, is progress. Not just on the part of rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who had a fourth solid performance in six NFL starts; but on the Bears as a whole. A week after showing anything but, the Bears showed something that could masquerade as progress.

How real is it? The Bears in the past eight days have given few reasons to trust it.

Because while coming close against a respectable Lions (6-4) team counts for something, the Bears are still 3-7 at the end of the day and 3-13 under John Fox against the NFC North – a division winning percentage of .188, which would be lower than that of the Marc Trestman Bears (.250), who managed to win their three NFC North games in two seasons vs. Fox’s three.

As concerning perhaps, the loss left the Bears 3-9 under Fox in games decided by three or fewer points, the hallmark of what simplistically can be ID’d as “losing” teams.

“We’ve had a lot of close games, and it’s just finding a way to close those out,” Trubisky said. “We’re going to work towards that, and figure it out for sure.”

What makes “progress” difficult to see, though, is that the Bears do not play like a team either coached to be or with the proven ability to play at a professional level all the time. Teams with that problem typically make coaching changes at the ends of seasons, since the conclusion usually is that the talent can be there, just that the coach in hand, fair or not, can’t get it out of the roster.

“We’ve shown spurts and moments, like we have for some time now,” Fox summarized. “But we have lulls. We have siestas. We just don’t do it for 60 minutes. ... People have ups and downs. Well, we’re in a stage as a football team where we have those moments in games. We have to do a better job of coaching it and we have to do a better job of executing it in games.”

The Green Bay Packers were one kind of measuring standard last week, and the 3-7 Bears were embarrassed against a foundering team that had been soundly beaten by the Lions the week before the Bears faced them, and buried 23-0 at home Sunday by the Baltimore Ravens.

The Lions were a different kind of quiz, a real offense putting up more than 27 points per game. The Bears allowed the Lions their requisite 27 points (seven of those coming on a touchdown return of a Trubisky fumble), but put up nearly 400 yards and 24 points of their own in a game that ended on a Connor Barth missed field goal from 46 yards, Barth’s fifth miss in 11 attempts from beyond 40 yards.

(Barth’s miss may have been particularly bitter for Fox, after watching Detroit’s Matt Prater win the game from 52 yards – the same Matt Prater who kicked for Fox in Denver in 2011 when Fox’s Broncos beat the Bears in the Marion Barber Game with Prater field goals from 59 yards to tie with 3 seconds left, and from 51 yards to win in OT.)

“All these games in the NFL – they’re hard games – but when you have a game like this that you should win, you just have to win those games,” said wide receiver Kendall Wright. “I think with us, when we win one of those close games, it will help us get over the edge and we’ll start stacking them up on top of each other.”

Then again...

The Bears seemed to lose their compass in the third quarter, with one rushing yard on four attempts. But they finished with 222 yards and the way they amassed them mattered: 125 and a touchdown for Jordan Howard; 53 for Trubisky, a number of them on designed runs; and 44 plus a TD for Tarik Cohen – all combining to average 7.4 yards per carry.

Bigger picture, the Bears were in the position of having at least a chance to tie because Trubisky managed to drive the Bears 55 yards in the final 1:32 from the Chicago 17 to the Detroit 28. This would constitute something shiny lying there in the mud, and make no mistake: This is a big deal.

To put Trubisky in some kind of context: Rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman, the fifth-round pick of the Buffalo Bills, replaced Tyrod Taylor in the Bills starting lineup Sunday, against a Los Angeles Chargers defense allowing opponents to complete more than 64 percent of their passes. Peterman completed 11 of 14 in the first half, about 79 percent. But – five of the Peterman “completions” were to Chargers.

DeShone Kizer has been in and out and back in the starting lineup for the Cleveland Browns, suffering through a rookie season with one of the worst teams arguably in NFL history. But – Kizer, with 12 interceptions vs. four TD passes, is one of the reasons the Browns are in various “worst ever” discussions.

Trubisky threw 30 passes without an interception on Sunday, and 65 without a pick over his past two games. He’s thrown 145 NFL passes with just two interceptions, an INT rate of 1.4 percent that ranks ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson, Matt Ryan and a list of others. Critics of his development can have their points, but the kid has learned ball security at an early NFL age even while averaging 32.4 pass plays per game.

The next step is getting his team over the top, because he is still completing just 53.1 percent of his passes and was missed badly on a number of throws on Sunday. His deft TD pass to tight end Adam Shaheen in the first half was NFL-perfect (where his guy or nobody catches it), but his throw low and behind running back Benny Cunningham at the goal line in the first quarter forced the Bears to settle for a field goal in a game decided ultimately by three points.

Trubisky clearly gets the big picture, too, pointing the thumb and not any fingers. He paused before answering a question about his rookie learning curve:

“I think adversity is a great teacher,” he said. “Overcoming the struggle is a great teacher. There’s no rookie excuse. You don’t get a freebie because you’re a rookie.

“My teammates trust me and they have confidence in me, so I’m preparing as I should. Coaches have me prepared and my teammates have my back. New situations are going to arise every time, but there are no excuses. I’m just looking at these opportunities as chances to overcome, and not dwell on it.”

Under Center Podcast: Alex Brown goes off on Connor Barth

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USA TODAY

Under Center Podcast: Alex Brown goes off on Connor Barth

On the latest Under Center Podcast, Laurence Holmes, Alex Brown and Jim Miller break down the Bears loss to the Lions on Sunday following Conner Barth’s missed field goal in the last seconds of the game and debate whether or not Tarik Cohen should be a part of the Bears two-minute offensive packages.

Plus, if the Bears hope to keep Vic Fangio past 2017, does he need to finish out the season as the Bears interim head coach?

Listen to the full Under Center Podcast right here: