NASHVILLE — **What was perhaps the best performance of Cody Kessler's young NFL career came after a week of considerable trials both on and off the field. The Browns rookie quarterback threw for 336 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's 28-26 loss to the Titans, which watched Cleveland fall short after rallying past a double-digit deficit late in the fourth quarter. [
"It's another game where we fought really hard and came just a little bit short, like I've said before, they hurt. They hurt really bad," Kessler said postgame. "I want so bad for these guys in the locker room, I told (wide receiver Andrew Hawkins) Hawk and Joe Thomas and guys like that I'm giving them everything I have every time because I want them to win so bad and they deserve it.
"We come so close," he continued, "and we've just got to learn to finish."
To be sure, though, this was an impressive and historic display at Nissan Stadium. Kessler, who was dogged in an effort to return after a ribs injury sidelined him against New England last weekend, accounted for the second-best display by any first-year player in franchise history.
The third-round draft pick from USC also showed plenty of pluck against a Tennessee front that sacked him six times and hurried him another 11 tries.
"He's a warrior, that's what pushes us all when the game's going wrong," wide receiver Terrelle Pryor said. "I just saw him kept getting creamed, man, but he just got up and kept fighting. The kid has unbelievable heart."
"He's taking shots and getting back up. He's a fighter," running back Duke Johnson said. "As his teammates, that does a lot for him to get back up after being taken down so many times."
"There were a couple times where he took some really big hits scrambling on fourth down trying to make plays and you're thinking wow he won't be able to get up from that and pops right back up and gets right back in the huddle like nothing happened and that's really admirable," left tackle Joe Thomas said.
"That's the type of stuff that guys on this team like to see. You want to see a quarterback that's got that toughness, that's going to hang in there and wait till the last second to make that throw."
But the way Kessler overcame a series of personal blows off the field was what seemed to command the respect of his teammates the most.
As he watched film, worked with the Browns' training staff and went about his normal game-week preparations, he was forced to reckon with two sobering situations.
The first: his 17-year-old brother, Dylan, had a heart episode back hometown of Bakersfield, California, something that jarred the older Kessler some 2,600 miles away.
"He's been through a lot," Kessler said, adding his sibling remains in good spirits but "it scared me."
The second: Days before that, Kessler's grandmother — whom he described as a "second mom" after Sunday's game — passed away. "It was the first game she didn't get to see me play, which is tough," he said as his voice broke. "It's just stuff that you can't control."
Take a look at some of the best pictures from the Browns vs. Titans game.
It's also the kind of stuff, Pryor said, "you would never know" at first glance.
"He's just such a hardened, passionate kid. It's unbelievable," Pryor said. "You would never know anything else was going on outside of football. All he wants to do is win.
"The kid's a winner, period. Like I've said before, just because we're losing doesn't mean we're losers. There's a lot of guys on this team fighting and working their butts off on a daily basis trying to win the game before we get here." Kessler helped engineer two late but gutsy drives that watched Cleveland come an onsides kick away from having a chance to win the game.
But it was too little too late for a Browns team that struggled to establish the run and had few answers for Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota.
"Cody continues to get better and works hard at it. He gave us a chance to win, to be in the game," head coach Hue Jackson said. "Our start in the second half wasn't as well as I think it could be, so we have to do that better."
"It was tough because we were trying to get the running game going and they were doing a great job of containing us there and doing a great job in coverage," said Kessler, who also led a drive before halftime that pulled the team within a point of Tennessee's lead.
"We've still got to put drives together like we did at the end of the half," he said. "It was a great drive to build off of and I wish we could've came out and got some momentum going in the third quarter and the fourth. But our guys kept fighting."
As the Browns still search for their first win of the season, there will be plenty of work this week to right the ship against AFC North rival Cincinnati next Sunday. But they said they found a silver lining in a never-say-die approach that nearly erased a 15-point deficit in Nashville.
"I told the guys, I said, 'I appreciate you guys for not giving up on me," Kessler said, "and still fighting with me the entire time."
And after Sunday, surely that feeling is mutual.
"The kid is a baller, period. There's no other way to put it, he has the heart of a lion," Pryor said. "He just doesn't stop until he gets done what he wants done."