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Notre Dame Football: Tommy Rees Is Not the Answer at QB

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 24:  Tommy Rees #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish drops back to pass against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game on September 24, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Dan StockrahmAnalyst IOctober 12, 2016

OK, I’m done. I need someone out there with a higher football acumen than me to tell me why Tommy Rees is still quarterbacking the University of Notre Dame’s football team.

And before the usual parade of clowns that come out of the woodwork with “the kid has moxie” or “he’s just a winner” step up to the debate plate, shut your pie hole and stick your pom poms back in the closet with your polyester prom tux. I want somebody that knows something about football to give me an answer.

There may be reasons that are not clear to me why Tommy Rees is taking snaps for the Irish, but Rees just “has that something” is not an answer, and if it is, it’s wrong.

That being said, other than the possibility Brian Kelly likes a shot and a beer as much as I do, I cannot fathom why Tommy Rees is still behind center for the Fighting Irish every Saturday.

I will make my points and hope there is someone out there that is closer to football self-actualization to tell me what I’m missing, because for the life of me, Tommy Rees looks more like he should be the starting QB for Notre Dame...

…High School.

 

Despite Rumors to the Contrary, Rees Does Not Have the “It” Factor

So why is Rees the Irish QB? I truly do not know.

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 10: Tommy Rees #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Dayne Crist #10 talk during warmups prior to playing the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on September 10, 2010 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Almost 2,100 yards passing on over 300 attempts with a 64 percent completion rate isn’t terrible. Fourteen interceptions and six fumbles for a QB that can’t run is terrible. Those numbers with a solid offensive line and a stout running game to back it up leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

 

The Rees' crowd that says Tommy just has that leadership quality and that the team responds is full of it. In the last three games he’s 15-for-41 (36 percent) on third down conversions. Rees has looked lost for long stretches in every game, cannot create and has turned over the ball way too often to keep calling him a “leader.” Most of his leading has been the first one off the field after another missed receiver.

Make no mistake, Brian Kelly is the leader, and the team is backing whoever Kelly backs.

And before the untold acres of comments show up to restate the preseason QB debate, I want reasons Rees is the QB, not man-love for Tommy. To circumvent the Rah Rahs, please note these few points before rehashing hopelessly flawed logic.

Point One: Because somebody is at quarterback when a football team wins a game does not make that QB a “winner;" it means he didn’t screw up enough to actually lose; no more, no less. Don’t tell me he’s a winner; tell me what he did to make the team win, and if you have any true understanding of the game, why someone else wouldn't have done it better.

There is no reason to believe that someone with more talent in the same situation would not have done the same or better because Tommy is a "Winner" and the other QB was somehow a “Loser.” I am 52 with a bad rotator cuff, and I can make most of the throws Rees makes without hitting a defensive back every fifth time, except on Friday night after my bout with whiskey pong sets in.

28 Jan 2001:  Quarterback Trent Dilfer #8 of the Baltimore Ravens points from the sidelines during the Super Bowl XXXV Game against the New York Giants at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The Ravens defeated the Giants 34-7.Mandatory Credit: A
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

 

Point Two: Do not say the terminally stupid “He’s 6-1 as a starter” argument in support of Rees. Rees played all but two series of the Tulsa game, and his bad interceptions were main contributors in the loss.

Yards aside, he was a turnover factory in his half of play against USF, another loss. He was abysmal against USC and did everything but hand the game to the Trojans as moron Kiffin kept handing it back. He played poorly against both MSU and Pitt, games won despite miserable QB production and more bad turnovers. Without his two horrible interceptions and junior high non-contact fumble against Michigan, the Irish win in a laugher, even with the fourth quarter breakdowns on defense.

Point Three: You can be a really bad QB with a great defense and win games; ask Raven Super Bowl Champion QB Trent Dilfer, who mastered the art of having his team win despite his record poor play. While there are a parade of good quarterbacks that actually are the primary reason their teams win, do not mistake wins for good QB play.

Notre Dame’s defense and running game has dominated every Tommy Rees win—by necessity. There are a number of reasons why.

 

Rees Cannot Handle Pressure

Other than when he just takes a short drop and fires a quick bullet at whoever Kelly tells him (typically a variety of flat passes or a slant to the middle by the TE or Michael Floyd, covered or not), Rees' passing performance has three consistent outcomes.

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 24:  Andrew Taglianetti #41 of the Pittsburgh Panthers hits Tommy Rees #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and causes a fumble during the game on September 24, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Under heavy pressure, he panics and gets sacked, throws it out of bounds or, more frequently, fumbles or unloads into lots of traffic. He seems terminally incapable of hitting the hot read.

 

Under moderate pressure, he steps up into the pocket and then rumbles right. If someone is wide open short, he throws it at them; if not, he sails it into the stands or runs out of bounds for no gain.

With little or no pressure, he stands in the pocket, looks left, then back at his primary receiver, who will get the pass for an intermediate gain. If the primary receiver is blanketed by at least two defenders, Rees will look around, then gets jumpy enough to prematurely unload at his safety valve sitting under coverage or crossing in a short route for minimal or no gain.

All deep throws are high and long for Michael Floyd and almost always are underthrown jump balls. Despite countless vertical routes and frequent press coverage, there are no deep balls caught in stride behind the safeties. Period.

There have been maybe three Rees’ passing plays in two seasons that this script hasn’t been followed.

When the slant and seam routes are open or the underneath coverage is soft, Rees completes lots of short high percentage passes and everyone says he’s managing the game.

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 03:  Tommy Rees #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks for a receiver as Trevor Robinson #78 and Braxston Cave #52 move to block against the University of South Florida Bulls at Notre Dame Stadium on September 3, 2011 in Sou
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When the D-Line brings pressure and coverages are mixed and pressing, Rees works the entire game in panic mode, throwing into tight or non-existent windows and praying for his tight end and/or Floyd to come up with a play. When that doesn’t happen, Rees spends the night looking a lot like he has antlers with a Buick’s grill coming straight at him.

 

Rees is a Turnover Machine

 

It is no secret that Rees is just over 300 passes into a nine-game career that already has 14 interceptions. He’s also had six fumbles.

While these numbers are atrocious in and of themselves, the game film behind it is even worse. One interception against South Florida bounced off the receiver, and one fumble against MSU was on a blindside hit. The rest of the picks and fumbles were off of horrible decision making, weak throws and unbelievably bad ball protection despite relatively few hits.

Even that I can deal with if it wasn’t for the three to five blown chances DB’s have each game when Rees whips it into traffic that makes LA’s freeways look deserted. It is not surprising that Rees has 14 interceptions in nine games; when you watch the film, it’s amazing it isn’t double that number.

For those of you that think Kelly’s pass-first spread offense may naturally generate more interceptions, his 2009 Cincy offense with Pike and Collaros ended the year with 39 TD’s against eight picks on over 470 attempts.

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 10:  Head coach Brian Kelley of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts as the Michigan Wolverines kick a extra point after scoring the game winning touchdown with two second left at Michigan Stadium on September 10, 2010 in Ann Arb
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

I, for one, can understand why Kelly looks like a train whistle every time Rees comes off the field.

 

Rees' Lack of Athleticism is Killing the Offense

It is no secret that Tommy is not a gifted athlete, but it is less widely understood what a  true anchor he has been to Kelly’s spread offense. Simply put, without a QB to throw deep, the defense isn't going to spread.

 

The lack of a big arm has made Kelly’s vertical passing game have to go increasingly horizontal, putting safeties closer to the underneath routes and nearer to the line for run support. Without a deep threat to stretch the field, ND receivers are finding passing lanes bumper to bumper or are constantly on the business end of big hits after short throws with no running room.

Notice it is getting to be a very rare thing to see an ND receiver catch a ball with any space to run.

The snail-like quickness of Rees has meant the running game has no QB option, leaving a talented line and even more talented running backs having to breach a wall of waiting meat that could care less about a potential fake and quarterback bootleg or designed run.

LONDON - JUNE 27: A snail sits on top of a match ball in this photo illustration at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship on June 27, 2004 at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London. (Photo Illustration by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Worse, on downs where the coverage is run deep and the short out routes are covered, the middle of the field has been wide open, with no hope of Rees getting to it and forcing the defense to be honest and respect his running lanes.

Add Kelly’s increased reliance on the run to hide Rees’ deficiencies, and it’s a testimony to Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray and the offensive line that this offense is still generating anything on a consistent basis.

 

What is Rees Doing to Keep His Job?

The big knock on Crist is he isn’t making the right reads and getting the ball out quickly enough. When he does, he has a tendency to hit somebody’s ankle every fifth toss. He has made some very good plays, but hasn’t shown enough consistency to satisfy Kelly that he has mastered the offense.

 

Alternatively, Rees is definitely getting rid of the ball, but to where?

Is Rees making the right reads? The answer to that is watch the film. Rees either guns it at his primary receiver or throws into his tight end or Floyd, coverage be damned. The film isn’t showing Rees making any meaningful progression through receivers then hitting the open man…he’s just as likely to throw into coverage or not on any given play. No matter how much time he has, he rarely gets to his third or fourth receiver, explaining why TJ Jones and Theo Riddick are getting so few looks in such a diverse offense.

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 10: Quarterback Tommy Rees #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and head coach Brian Kelly exchange comments during the game against University of Michigan at Michigan Stadium on September 10, 2011 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Wol
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Add Rees’ complete inability to recognize when a screen is blown up or that the safety valve is not open, and it gets difficult to understand what he sees when a play breaks down, if anything. One thing is for sure, the ball is coming out even if the receiver is 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage with a linebacker in his face.

ND must lead the nation in completed passes for loss.

Despite piling up passing yards, Rees’ turnovers against South Florida hurt any chance of a comeback against a secondary that backed off to protect against a big play. His untimely and ill-advised turnovers against a bad Michigan defense lost the game. Rees was basically helpless against the Pitt defense, just as he was against USC last year and MSU this year. He had one good drive against Pitt at the end. As for that drive after a horrible game, look at the replay and answer honestly: Is there a QB on ND’s roster that could not have made every one of those throws?

 

 

 

I doubt it.

Answer me: Is there any QB on our roster that couldn’t have done what Rees did against MSU and Pitt?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 03:  Dayne Crist #10 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish awaits the snap against the University of South Florida Bulls at Notre Dame Stadium on September 3, 2011 in South Bend, Indiana. South Florida defeated Notre Dame 23-20. (Pho
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I sincerely doubt it.

Answer me one last question: Is there any QB on our roster that doesn’t have a greater upside than Rees?

The answer to that is just plain no.

 

Notre Dame Has Better Options

I saw the first half of the South Florida game, and yes, Dayne Crist had a tough two quarters, with one interception that was just plain awful. He also has had stints last year where it was obvious that he had the necessary skills to maximize Kelly’s offense and to push the ball against some pretty good defenses.

Crist has the arm and enough mobility to threaten defenses deep and move the chains with a decent scramble if required. Although he was hesitant against South Florida, he basically had one bad mistake and got pulled due to a sluggish start. Since then, he has been benched even when Rees struggled even worse than Crist did, which has been often.

On the other hand, Rees has made a boatload of bad mistakes since becoming the starter and has shown little ability to consistently move this offense against college defenses like MSU and Pitt, or even Michigan’s revamped D for most of the second half. He is not going to fare well against USC and Stanford, or even Maryland and Boston College.

14 Oct 2000: Quarterback Matt LoVecchio #10 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish scarmbles as he looks to pass the ball during the game against the Navy Midshipmen at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida. The Fighting Irish defeated the Midshipmen 41-14. Manda
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

 

As for hoping for a defense to consistently hold offenses to 12 points a game, only Boston College has an offense as remotely horrible as Pitt’s.

It is abundantly clear that against the better defenses, Rees is a liability that will require ND to play great defense and depend even more on the running game to carry the load, since Rees' ability to create seems limited to an ability to create turnovers.

So what can Kelly do?

Tommy has done nothing to suggest he’s the long term answer, and his ceiling is so low you have to bend down to get into the room. Think Matt LoVecchio or Evan Sharpley with a better coach.

Crist should be given the chance to show he had a bad half; at least there is an upside if he can show some of the ability that was sprinkled around last year. Kelly managed two QB’s at Cincy, and this team is not going to sputter much worse under any other QB on the current roster.

As for other options, if the year goes south, Golson is the best long term option for Kelly’s offense and the chance for some early experience may override the need a redshirt year. If nothing else, at least give Hendrix a package or two to see what he can do in a limited role, and expand his playbook if he shows promise.

Hell. My mom turns 90 on Sunday; her arm has a few good weeks left and she hasn't panicked since the Nixon administration. Give her a shot.

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  Head Coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on while playing the Michigan State Spartans during the second half September 17, 2011at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan
John Gress/Getty Images

If Kelly Doesn't Fix This Now, It Will Become a QB Nightmare

Kelly has created a QB disaster, and it is up to him to fix it.

An athlete well suited to his offense, Andrew Hendrix was redshirted last year because Kelly felt the year was already in shambles and he thought he should save Hendrix for later - now Hendrix is in his second year without a snap watching a kid with half his arm and a 5.0 forty time play in his place - if he walks it is directly on Kelly, and he probably will.

Golson will stick because he needs to beef up and will get a real shot soon - which will only add to Hendrix' frustration and likely early departure.

Crist is getting royally screwed and no one would blame him for walking - which he will unless he is the starter soon. In the meantime Kelly is on record about how Crist worked hard, came back from injury twice, and earned the chance to start, then pulls a senior for the year after 30 minutes of football for a guy with a third of his talent that is a turnover disaster.

Not exactly the messages you’re trying to give top-flight recruits a year after you didn’t land a quarterback is it?

It all adds up to heading into next year with Rees as your only returning experience at QB and Golson as your only backup (although Massa will probably be brought back into the QB fold). Rees will again be the main guy in an offense he doesn't have the physical tools to run with a schedule that drops Wake Forest, Air Force and South Florida and adds BYU and Miami at home and Oklahoma on the road – is anyone in ND Nation honestly thinking Tommy Rees can handle that schedule because I sure as hell don’t see it.

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 03:  Tommy Rees #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish drops back to pass against the University of South Florida Bulls at Notre Dame Stadium on September 3, 2011 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I Need an Answer

That having been said, my question remains: Why is Rees still the option that gives ND the “best chance to win?" Could Crist honestly do worse? How?

This is not an indictment of Tommy Rees; he’s a good kid that has worked hard. He does what the coaches tell him to the best of his ability, almost to a fault.

In brief stretches, he has moved this offense and is capable of some decent intermediate throws, but for long stretches, he has been highly ineffective even with good pass protection and a productive running game behind him.

But the biggest problem is that he is just not very good. There is little question his lack of physical talent and high propensity for turnovers has seriously handicapped this offense game after game, and his inability to read complex defenses, deal with pressure or create plays with his feet has further sentenced the Irish offense to continued mediocrity.

So somebody out there please tell me: If we have to watch crappy quarterback play, why don’t we at least play someone that has the potential to be uncrappy?

I really want to know.

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