CLEVELAND — When the Browns watched Joe Thomas suffer a season-ending triceps injury last month, they lost so much more than their 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle.
They lost a team captain and central leader of one of the NFL's youngest teams. So as Cleveland searches for its first win, coach Hue Jackson has challenged several offensive players — including rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer — to step up in his absence.
"Joe Thomas isn't out there," Jackson said Monday. "What I've said to DeShone because obviously, the quarterback position is the guy who's the face (of the team), true? I think you guys would agree with that."
Jackson has stressed that dynamic throughout this season as the young Kizer, who struggled in Sunday's loss to the Jaguars, has experienced highs and lows throughout his rookie campaign. Jackson says there's more to playing quarterback than throwing the ball or reading defenses, emphasizing the need for his signal-caller to be a leader on offense. He saw that from Kizer two weeks ago in Detroit, where the youngster put together the best performance of his career.
"Last week in Detroit, he was up and down that sideline 100 miles an hour. You can't be different from week to week," Jackson said. "You have to be that same guy because they need you. That's what it is, but he's learning that. I'm being very honest with you because there isn't a Joe Thomas to say, 'Hey guys, let's go.'"
As Kizer continues to learn on the fly, Jackson said he's turned to fifth-year left guard Joel Bitonio and third-year running back Duke Johnson to help fill that void.
"I put my finger in front of Joel Bitonio today and said, 'Joel, that's what you're going to do.' That's what somebody else is going to do that Joe Thomas might've done because it was easy to look down the left side and see Joe and go, 'OK.' Joe isn't there anymore," he said.
"Duke Johnson, these guys have to understand, 'Hey guys, let's go,' if the quarterback isn't doing it."
Jackson made clear that's no knock on Kizer, who finds himself growing with each passing week.
"It's hard to put on him. He's so young. He really is. He is trying to figure out this protection. He is trying to make sure of the coverage. He has a lot on his plate," Jackson said, "but that's what he signed up for. That's what I told him so he is going to have to do it every week. That's his charge."