Cleveland Browns quarterback Cody Kessler passed for a touchdown in an exhibition opener against Green Bay, but he didn't bother to keep the ball as a memento — unwittingly denying his dad a prized keepsake for his mantel.
"He's not about records and trying to impress people," Don Kessler said this week from his hometown of Bakersfield. "I would have liked that ball, though."
Beginning Sunday at Miami, Kessler will get more chances, but he'll have to overcome formidable obstacles. The third-round pick from USC will be without starting center Cam Erving, recovering from a bruised lung, and first-round receiver Corey Coleman, who suffered a broken hand in practice last week.
More than that, Kessler is at the helm of the NFL's most unstable franchise in terms of quarterbacks. Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown have been sidelined by shoulder injuries this season. Kessler is the fifth starting quarterback in the last five games, and the 26th since the Browns were relaunched in 1999.
Snapping the ball to Kessler on Sunday will be John Greco, a transplanted guard who will be nose to nose with All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Kessler is the latest rookie quarterback to get his opportunity. Philadelphia's Carson Wentz, Dallas' Dak Prescott and New England's Jacoby Brissett already have turned in impressive performances.
"I guess that's what the NFL is," Kessler told reporters this week. "You get the opportunities and do not know when they're going to come."
There's a measure of irony to Kessler getting his starting chance before Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall pick of the Rams. The two were constantly compared when Kessler was at USC and Goff was at California, with Goff invariably getting the bulk of the praise. Now, while Goff is still adjusting to the pro game — he was constantly working out of the shotgun in college and didn't call plays in the huddle — Kessler is reaping the benefits of being in more of a pro-style system in college.
"Being able to look at a play or concept and say, 'OK, I've done this before' has really helped my process up to this point," Kessler said.
Still, few would have expected that Kessler would get the nod three games into his NFL career, even considering the fortunes of the bad-luck, 0-2 Browns. Some scouts had him going in the late rounds, while others pegged him as an undrafted free agent. NFLDraftScout.com ranked him as the 13th-best quarterback prospect.
Not long after the Browns drafted Kessler, first-year Coach Hue Jackson defended the decision on the team's website, saying: "This guy has had a tremendous career. I understand where everybody is coming from, but you've got to trust me on this one. This is a guy that we feel very comfortable with, and we think he's going to have an opportunity to ascend."
Kessler started all 14 games for USC last season, throwing for 3,536 yards with 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He left as the school's all-time most accurate passer, with a 67.5% completion rate.
He has long felt like an underdog.
"Coming from Bakersfield, it's hard to get recruited," said Kessler, whose father was a corrections officer who later worked as a high school baseball and football coach. "It's hard to get an opportunity, to get a chance. I had to work hard. My parents, my dad was taking me all over the place, trying to get money so we could go to these different camps and get a chance to throw in front of college coaches, or making copies of film tape and sending them all out.
"There were times when people would say I wasn't going to play in college. I was expected to go to the junior college in Bakersfield like a lot of our athletes do. I just kept telling myself I wanted to be bigger. I wanted to be better than that. I wanted to continue to work, and it paid off."
NFL scouts tended to see him as a good college player who could benefit from holding a clipboard for a few years; a smart kid who lacked a big arm and needed to go through his progressions quicker.
Those are all distant echoes now, as the Browns have gone through their own quarterback progressions in lightning-quick fashion — eight quarters into the season and they're on their third starter.
"He had a lot of characteristics we liked, and he needs to display them this weekend," Jackson said. "I think he will."
Don Kessler said his son has never been the type of guy to complain about a reshuffling of the offensive line, or anything beyond his control for that matter.
"What are you going to do, boo-hoo?" the elder Kessler said. "You play with the guys you have on the field."
And if Kessler happens to throw a touchdown pass against the Dolphins? That keepsake football is already claimed.