Before Wednesday evening’s phone interview even began, Cody Kessler knew where the conversation was going.
Right at the outset, the first words out of Kessler were telling.
“Staying prepared. Staying ready,” he said.
Really, what else is he supposed to do? Or even say at this point of the 2017 season?
The quarterback, who played his high school football at Centennial before taking the field collegiately at USC, is now the backup signal caller for the Cleveland Browns. Yes, the NFL team that currently sports an 0-11 record entering Sunday’s 1 p.m. game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Carson.
Kessler’s in his second year with the Browns, and it’s been a largely uneventful one.
Last year, he took the field as a rookie, and had some bright moments. Granted he didn’t secure a win under his belt during his nine games played (eight of which were starts). On the flip side of that perspective, the Browns only have one victory over the past two years — wins, no matter the quarterback, have clearly been hard to come by.
And Kessler had them mildly competitive, putting up respectable numbers in the process: A 65 percent completion rate (128 of 195), 1,380 yards and a three-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio (six TDs, two INTs).
He had the team in a handful of games, including at Miami (a 30-24 overtime loss), at Washington (a 31-20 defeat) and at Tennessee (a 28-26 loss where he threw for 336 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions).
“To perform at the level he did, being thrown into the fire like that as a rookie, I thought it was amazing,” said Bryan Nixon, Kessler’s high school coach at Centennial, who now is the head coach at Liberty.
When asked to put a letter grade on his performance, Kessler laughed. It’s tough to place a metric on it, he said.
He would add, however, “I thought I played well and held my own…..The biggest thing was getting experience. Especially as a rookie.”
Kessler said he was hopeful that this season he’d have the opportunity to build off his first year in the NFL. But, so far, that hasn’t been the case.
The team drafted DeShone Kizer out of Notre Dame in the second round of last summer’s draft (Kessler, for his part, was a late third-round pick two years ago). With that, the Browns currently seem invested in Kizer as the franchise’s possible quarterback of the future.
Kessler said he was inactive early in the season and didn’t dress for games, although he has gotten on the field here and there in recent weeks.
On Oct. 22 against Tennessee, he saw his most substantial playing time. He completed 10-of-19 passes for 121 yards, an interception and two sacks. He also led the team to two field goals, including the game-tying kick at the end of regulation. The Browns eventually lost 12-9 in overtime.
Three weeks ago against Detroit he completed 1-of-3 passes for 5 yards, while he was sacked three times. Last week against Cincinnati he was 0-for-1, and was sacked once.
Earlier in the year, when Kizer went down, the Browns elected to go with unheralded backup Kevin Hogan over Kessler for a road game against Houston. Hogan promptly threw for 140 yards and three interceptions, in a 33-17 drubbing.
“There’s things you can’t really control. I’ve learned that. Even as a competitor, I want to be in there right now. And that’s the way you should be,” Kessler said. “It was frustrating, but at the same time we have a really good QB room. I’m helping Kevin out, I’m helping Deshone. And that’s the way they are too...It’s been a year for me to grow and improve and kind of learn about myself. Keep that mindset and not get down.”
Kessler said that mental makeup can make or break a player in the National Football League.
“It’s about getting used to the speed of the game. Get used to the mentality of the NFL. It’s not easy. The league is performance based, obviously. But it’s about being mentally tough,” he pointed out. “Biggest thing for me is just staying positive through it all.”
When asked to evaluate Kessler’s play last year, and the reasons the second-year pro hasn’t taken the field as much this season, head coach Hue Jackson said the quarterback performed well as a rookie.
“He did some good things for our football team. Obviously hasn’t played as much this year,” Jackson said. “Cody’s here competing and working hard every week. Chomping at the bit for the opportunity. And he’s just gotta keep working at it.”
In a sense, Kessler has overcome challenges throughout his football career.
While at USC, he started three seasons despite a multitude of coaching changes — from Lane Kiffin in 2012-13, to interim coaches Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton to round out the 2013 season. Then to Steve Sarkisian for a season-and-a-half, before Sarkisian was replaced by Clay Helton to close out Kessler’s senior year in 2015.
Kessler also won his fair share of quarterback competitions. In 2013, he beat out Max Wittek for the starting QB gig as a sophomore. The following season, Sarkisian’s first, Kessler overcame challenges from Max Browne and Jalen Greene to lead the Trojans.
In his USC career, the Bakersfield native appeared in 42 games. He completed 851 of 1,261 attempts (67.5 percent) for 10,335 yards, 88 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. He held a 27-14 career record at the school and a 2-1 mark in bowl games.
Kessler’s not blessed with a rocket arm per se. And while he has sneaky athleticism, he could be described as a pocket passer in the NFL. But he also doesn’t make many mistakes in the line of fire.
Nixon said Kessler’s tenure at USC is helping him during his second year of professional football.
“He’s always battled. He’s always been successful. He’s never wavered,” Nixon said. “He knows he has to continue to battle, and he will persevere.”
Homecoming of sorts
This weekend Kessler is back in Southern California as the Browns seek win No. 1 against a hot Chargers team.
As of mid-week, Kessler was unsure where he’d stand on the Cleveland depth chart. But, he said, as always he’ll be ready.
“Prepare as a starter,” Kessler said. “You’re not getting first team reps during the week. But you can’t lose that mindset.”
In football, things can change at the drop of a hat — an injury, poor play, a simple lineup and chemistry shakeup, and Kessler could be back on the field.
“That’s what my QB coach (David Lee) says. He always tells us that,” Kessler said. “You’re one play away from this franchise being in your lap, being in your hands.”
Said Nixon: “When his time does come, he’ll be prepared to perform and be the best he can be for his teammates.”
Kessler said his mom, dad, grandpa and little brother will travel from Bakersfield to be in attendance Sunday. So could his aunt, uncle and cousins.
He expects other friends in attendance as well, and Nixon said he was looking to make the trip to Stubhub Center in Carson.
“If I get my chance again,” Kessler assured, “I’m going to make the most of it.”
Who knows? His next shot could come this weekend.