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

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Notre Dame Football: Tommy Rees Is Not the Answer at QB
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Tommy Rees isn't scaring any defenses.

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.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Tommy has a lot to learn, and that still might not be enough.

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.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Trent Dilfer will be the first to tell you there is such a thing as a good team with a bad quarterback.

 

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.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Tommy does not take to contact well.

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.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Rees does not carry the long ball in his bag of tricks.

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.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Brian Kelly makes a teaching point right before his head pops off.

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.

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Tommy Rees recently took in a tennis match.

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.

Leon Halip/Getty Images
Rees usually has a lot of explaining to do.

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?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Dayne Crist had a bad half against South Florida, so much for him.

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.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Rees has skills in the range of the legendary Matt LoVecchio.

 

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.

John Gress/Getty Images
I think we all need some answers to the QB situation.

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.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
This is not the future of ND football, but if it is, we're all screwed.

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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