For the fifth consecutive regular-season game, the Cleveland Browns turn to a new starting quarterback on Sunday (1 p.m. ET) when they visit the Miami Dolphins in a Week 3 matchup of 0-2 teams.
Rookie third-round pick Cody Kessler climbed the depth chart from third string to No. 1 in the span of two games. Robert Griffin III opened the season as the starter, and was replaced Week 2 by Josh McCown due to injury. Both are dealing with shoulder injuries.
Uncertainty pervades each locker room considering the Dolphins have very little gauge of Kessler's NFL readiness.
“I think the hardest thing for our guys is going to be just kind of the unknown,” Miami head coach Adam Gase said. “You can always try to do as much research as you possibly can as far as what looks like could be his strengths and weaknesses in the NFL from the limited exposure you have on him.
“You try to lean on possibly some of the scouting evaluation that went on coming out (of college), as much as you can; but obviously it's such a different game at this level.”
The Browns started Johnny Manziel, who is out of football, and Austin Davis in the final two regular-season games of 2015.
Kessler was drafted ahead of Dallas Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, a fourth-rounder who is 1-1 and has not thrown an interception in 75 attempts.
With a less-heralded collection of skill-position talent and a remade offensive line, Kessler still has the full confidence of Browns head coach Hue Jackson. When Jackson drafted Kessler earlier than pundits rated the USC quarterback, the coach said “trust me on this one.”
He stands by the declaration even headed to South Beach to face defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, defensive end Mario Williams and pass rusher Cameron Wake.
“You're going to trust me this weekend,” Jackson said. “Here we go. Here we go. Trust me. Here we come. Here we go. We'll see what that statement was all about.”
Cleveland has lost 10 of its last 11 road games.
Kessler is disappointed for McCown, who is unsure when he'll play again, but the 23-year-old is eager to validate Jackson's faith in him. He said he doesn't have to change his routine because he has been preparing to start since rookie minicamp in May.
“I think it's been awesome, because Hue's trusted me through this whole process,” Kessler said. “He knows since I got here from Day One, that I really am excited. When you get a coach like that, that really loves the game and also really loves his players and really wants you to succeed, it makes you want to play better.”
The Dolphins have a pair of tight losses to perennial contenders – 12-10 at Seattle and 31-24 at New England. Gase, a first-year head coach who turned down the opportunity to interview in Cleveland as offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos in 2013, gets his home debut in the Dolphins' first game at renovated Hard Rock Stadium. The home digs of the Dolphins underwent a $500 million renovation in the offseason in hopes of being considered as a Super Bowl venue.
Whether the Dolphins can build a team capable of playing in that game is not clear after two weeks.
The Dolphins are operating without center Mike Pouncey (hip) and have 36 rushing attempts this season. Miami has only six first-half points, which has dictated a lean toward throwing the ball. Gase sees promising signs despite the NFL's 27th-ranked running game, which will likely be without running back Arian Foster (groin).
“We know what we're doing as far as what we need to emphasize,” Gase said. “It's like I told our media here, if I feel like there are problems with the run game, I won't be afraid to say it.”
The Dolphins are also 27th in the NFL in points scored. Gase expects things to change quickly.
He credited quarterback Ryan Tannehill with consistent play and called on the supporting cast, including running backs Jay Ayaji and rookie Kenyan Drake, to step up in support.
“I don't know how much more he can really step up considering that he's doing everything right now that we need him to do,” Gase said of Tannehill. “It's just that we need every guy to pull their weight.”
Cleveland can test the Dolphins on the ground to help Kessler settle in, especially considering Miami allowed 136.5 rushing yards per game over the first two weeks of the season. Fellow rookie Corey Coleman had two touchdowns last week and was developing into a featured component of the Cleveland offense prior to breaking his hand in practice Wednesday.
Kessler worked overtime to get ready for the Dolphins. He was at the team facility for 18 hours on Monday and reported early Tuesday, typically a rest and treatment day. He said he watched the first two games of the season six or seven times apiece.
“I want to give myself the best chance to take advantage of this opportunity this weekend,” Kessler said. “It is definitely a long process, definitely a long week, but for me, I'm just staying focused on what I can control. That is how I prepare and how I perform.”