Before Garrett Gilbert joined the Browns in April, he had accrued five years of NFL experience spent mostly on practice squads and waited until last December to finally play in his first game.
In the Browns second preseason game Saturday against the Colts, however, Gilbert looked like a seasoned NFL veteran. He squeezed passes into tight windows and found open receivers to lead the Browns offense in the first half of their 21-18 win over the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Gilbert finished 13-for-19 with two touchdowns and built on a quality Browns debut from the first preseason game a week ago. His sharp performance Saturday added more intrigue toward the Browns impending decision to save a roster spot for a third quarterback, and if the Browns do decide to stash an additional quarterback for the regular season, Gilbert’s stellar preseason play is certainly a reason why.
“It's all about improving every day, and from there, the chips will fall,” Gilbert said. “If I worry about that and control what I can, everything will take care of itself.”
Check out photos of the Cleveland Browns vs the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium by team photographer Matt Starkey
The Browns planned to give Gilbert an equal amount of playing time as David Blough, an undrafted rookie from Purdue competing with Gilbert to squeeze into the Browns’ regular season plans. Gilbert originally sputtered after receiving the opening call in the first quarter and began the game 2-for-6 after the Browns were hampered by a string of penalties that set up third-and-long scenarios.
After the first two drives, though, Gilbert was nearly perfect. He marched the Browns down the field with two first-down completions to Rashard Higgins and found an uncovered Jaelen Strong in the back of the end zone for the Browns’ first touchdown.
After the Colts responded with a touchdown on the next drive, Gilbert went to work again. He sent the Browns deep into Colts territory with a 32-yard strike to wide receiver D.J. Montgomery and completed a short pass to running back D'Ernest Johnson for another passing touchdown that put the Browns on top for good.
Gilbert’s teammates noticed his veteran-like presence in the huddle. With Gilbert under center, players who might still be acclimating to the Browns’ offense found a rhythm.
“He knows how to take control of the huddle and take control of the play,” Johnson said. “He's a leader on the field and off the field. He's just going to go out there and make plays, and that's what he does best.”
Kitchens left no question, however, about whether Gilbert was pushing Stanton for the backup quarterback role.
“Drew is our backup quarterback,” Kitchens said. “Drew brings a lot of value to our team, so he’s our backup quarterback.”
Kitchens has said he wouldn’t mind additional depth at quarterback. He dealt with a lack of quarterbacks on the roster on more than one occasion in his 11-year stint as a positions coach with the Arizona Cardinals, and he’d rather not face that situation again should it arise in his first year as a head coach.
Gilbert is just hoping to build a case for a role with any NFL team, but he’d prefer it come with the Browns. He entered camp a bit more comfortable, perhaps, after his short stint in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football, where he led the league in nearly every passing category.
The Browns also plucked Ishmael Hyman and Johnson, who each played with Gilbert on the Orlando Apollos, to see how the chemistry would translate to an NFL setting.
Now, Gilbert has shown a rapport with anyone who plays with him.
“I feel very comfortable in this offense, but I've only been here a few months and still finding my way,” Gilbert said. “I do feel like I'm still improving and getting better.”
It’s what the Browns hoped when they signed Gilbert for training camp. After Saturday, the decision to keep him past the preseason likely became a little tougher.
And both sides are OK with that.