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The thing about Jimmy…

Mar 4, 2010, 2:30 PM EDT

Over the next 50 days, both Jimmy Clausen and Sam Bradford will somehow see opinions on their quarterbacking play seesaw back and forth without ever taking a snap. That’s what happens in the days before the NFL Draft, a season in and of itself that’s powered by television viewers. The consensus top two quarterbacks in a draft that before the season started looked heavy on quarterbacks, will be flogged by pundits on television and radio on whether either truly deserves to be picked at the top of the first round.

This is a Notre Dame blog, so I’m going to skip the analysis of Sam Bradford. To be completely honest, I don’t think I’ve seen enough of him play to make a true judgment on his ability to lead an NFL football team. (Not that something like that should stop someone in the media from expressing an opinion…) That being said, Bradford’s sophomore season was one of the most impressive statistical seasons I can remember. If people simply compare apples to apples and look at Bradford’s body of work against the other top quarterbacks drafted in the past few years, I’ll take Bradford every time. The injury that derailed his final season in Norman is an understandable cause for concern. But the case against Jimmy Clausen is much more complex.

There is no easy narrative with Jimmy Clausen. Statistically, his junior numbers are far more impressive than Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez, two quarterbacks taken in the top five last year. His junior season was a triumphant finale to three seasons that followed an impressive career arc. His ability to play at a high level even after suffering a foot injury that robbed him of his mobility did plenty to show his toughness to teammates, opponents, coaches, and most importantly, NFL scouts. As a pure specimen, he’s adequate athletically, he’s got enough size to handle the physical nature of the NFL, and his arm strength and accuracy are already well above average.

Yet Clausen will forever be plagued by an image problem, and for plenty of good reasons. Our first impressions of Jimmy Clausen seemed to be managed by PR handlers, handlers that should’ve been fired for the job they did. Clausen was never just a blue-chip high school quarterback, he was the “LeBron James of high school football.” He wasn’t just adored by the recruiting websites, he was adoringly profiled by magazines like Sports Illustrated. Here’s a snippet from the nation’s introduction to Clausen by SI’s Kelli Anderson:

But Clausen throws enough to both impress and depress opposing coaches. “He is as technically perfect as anyone I’ve ever seen,” says Carpinteria coach John Hazelton, whose team lost 48–10 against the Lions on Oct.
28. “He has every ball. He can throw a 50-yard ball on target to the
corner of the end zone. He can throw a rocket up a seam between
safeties. He has the deep ball over the top, with a perfect touch on
it, very accurate. And he has great, great feet. He is beautifully
coached. I’m sure he could play at some Division I colleges right now.”

In fact, no one can think of many flaws Clausen needs to correct, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t continuing to work to improve. In addition to the time he spends with Clarkson –at least 10 hours a week in the off-season, less during the season– Clausen
watches an hour of film every night, and he talks with his brothers
almost daily. “What amazes me is his ability to keep things in
perspective,” says Clarkson.
“He knows people are there to watch him, but he is able to shrug that
off and play. People don’t think he can live up to the hype, but in
most cases he exceeds it.”

It was all too much even before his notorious press conference announcing his commitment to Notre Dame. The ridiculous pomp and circumstance, the infamous Hummer stretch limo and  College Football Hall of Fame announcement, still memorialized as the first image in a google search for the quarterback. Frozen in time, a high school junior smirks as he flashes his championship rings. From what, exactly?

In many ways, Clausen could never live down the horrible first impression he made. While his collegiate career could hardly be considered a failure, he’ll never go down in history as one of the greats at Notre Dame. He’ll never deliver on the stated goal of “four national championship rings,” that he mentioned during that introductory press conference. (He never even managed to lead the team to a .500 record, though hardly a fault of Jimmy’s.) Unlike many of the greats to play at Notre Dame, Jimmy Clausen will never be defined by his time in South Bend. He always felt like a hired gun, a quarterback merely working as an apprentice before moving on to the NFL. It never felt like Clausen bought into the Notre Dame experience, at the very best it was a short-term rental. (Or possibly just a quick real-estate flip, like the house purchased by his father for Jimmy’s South Bend years.)

Clausen hit the Combine unable to workout, yet intent on changing his public image. Still, he was predictably dogged with the familiar storylines. Lately, there has been surprisingly little written about Clausen’s actual play on the field. But were there questions about Jimmy Clausen’s leadership ability? The USA Today thought so. So did Sports Illustrated. And ESPN. And Sporting News.

I’ve never sat in a room with Clausen or interviewed him. For the most part, I’m guessing that the people questioning his leadership ability never did either. But I spent some time talking with people that did cover Clausen these past three years and there was surprisingly little fire behind all the smoke. If there was one universal complaint, it was that Clausen never truly opened up. Every answer sounded rehearsed, every statement, cliched. Too many times, Clausen opened with “to tell you the truth,” only to make it seem like he was doing anything but. Clausen’s familiar refrain this season of not considering his NFL future until after his junior season didn’t jive with the fact that he gathered his family on the field for a photo after the devastating UConn loss, the final home game of the season. Walking away with Jimmy’s helmet tucked under his brother’s arm after the Stanford loss certainly isn’t something a player considering another season does either.

There’s something almost refreshingly honest about the football player that uses college football as a vehicle to the NFL, but it’s just not something that happens regularly at Notre Dame. While Clausen may not have admitted it while playing under the Golden Dome, every step of his athletic career was done to put him in the position that he is today. While that may not make him the best dorm-mate or the guy that you sell jerseys of in the bookstore, it makes him an extremely attractive NFL prospect.

It took longer than expected, but Clausen’s teammates eventually grew to respect him as a leader. They wouldn’t have named him a junior captain if they didn’t. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to Clausen that NFL teams have the same preconceived notions that just about everyone else does. But once they see past the antics of a hot-shot high-schooler enabled by his family and handlers, they should look carefully at the quarterback that absolutely carved defenses apart, all while playing on one good foot.

Clausen may have blown his first chance at being the face of a franchise, but he was never intent on making his name in college. Whether it’s the Rams or another team at the top of the draft, somebody is going to get a quarterback that’s as close to NFL ready as any prospect in years. And if he learns from the mistakes he made his first time around, he’ll enjoy making teams pay for the mistake of not picking him for the next 10 to 15 years.

  1. Luke - Mar 5, 2010 at 7:20 AM

    I have talked to Jimmy during a Notre Dame football practice that was open to Faculty and their families. He is a genuinely nice guy. He talked to my 3 year old son for probably 5 minutes, when he could have just brushed past and headed to the showers like most of his teammates. I think he got a horrible start with the media in South Bend, and it’s going to take some time for that to settle down. I have not idea where he’ll be taken in the NFL draft, but the guy has some SERIOUS pressure on him after what happened to his older brothers.

  2. Paul - Mar 5, 2010 at 12:42 PM

    Great blog again Keith – really enjoy your updates. Would have loved if Jimmy had stayed for one more year under coach Kelly – he could have become a ND Legend – shame. He leaves with a disappointing feel to the initial hype.

  3. REVDJD - Mar 6, 2010 at 10:29 AM

    I would think that Clausen is going to end up like the last two Notre Dame quarterbacks to go to the NFL. Yes, that remains to be seen but……………

  4. Rob - Mar 7, 2010 at 9:11 PM

    The purpose of attending college is to prepare for a career in your chosen field. This is what Jimmy did. Nothing wrong with that. This isn’t 1975 anymore, where young kids grow up with their goal being to play at Notre Dame. All kids want to play in the NFL these days, and Jimmy is no different. If a kid went to ND to prepare for a career on Wall Street and was able to get a high paying job there after 3 years at ND, nobody would begrudge him that, so why does Jimmy get criticized for doing the same thing? I’m no Clausen fan, but you’ve got to understand that times have changed.

  5. robertg - Mar 8, 2010 at 11:47 AM

    1. brady quinn an nfl bust? that is a real joke.
    2. brady ended up at a seriuosly terrible nfl franchise with no real wrs or tes.
    3. watch, brady will get out of cleveland or cleveland will get him the surrounding cast and brady will have many excellent years in the nfl.
    4. what happened with jimmy’s 2 brothers in the nfl are experiences that jimmy learned and benefitted from.
    5. in addition to all of that special training even before high school, jimmy had the best possible preparation for the nfl from charlie and ron powlus.
    6. if jimmy needed to prove how tough he was, he sure did that at notre dame,
    7. the phyicians who performed the surgery on jimmy’s turf toe were astonished, when they saw the extent of that injury, that jimmy had been able to endure the pain from that injury and, not only play, but have such an outstanding season.
    8. jimmy and golden will do just fine in the nfl, golden ran a 4.4 40 and showed remarkable route running, pass catching and open field break away skills.
    9. sam bradford is a fine qb, but bradford cannot come close to jimmy’s skill set and mentall and physical toughness.
    10. remember that bradford played behind an outstanding oline every season.
    11. it is a shame that certain elements at notre dame drove jimmy and golden away from notre dame to the nfl.staying on with kelly and his staff were simply not sensible options for jimmy and golden.after all, what could they possibly learn from kelly and his staff?
    12. they both trust charlie and his staff and, along with their teammates, expressinly told swarbrick and the press what would happen if the cancers illegally fired charlie and his staff. addition, jimmy and golden, for very good reasons, simply do not trust kelly and his staff or the cancers in notre dame’s current admistration, although they both love notre dame dearly.
    14. they will both finish their notre dame degrees and fine nfl careers and personall and business lives after the nfl.
    GO IRISH!!!

  6. robertg - Mar 8, 2010 at 4:20 PM

    1. we understand that sometimes some of the fraudulent propangada from the south bend tribune, irish illustrated, blue and gold and other so called notre dame fan sites creeps into your subconscious.
    2. we suggest the you take the trouble to speak with jimmy and golden’s notre dame classmates and temmates and confirm that jimmy and golden fit in at notre dame perfectly, as student athletes and as members of the notre dame community.
    3. before and after home games and many away games, jimmy and golden had their own cheering sections( “golden is thy name”).
    4. both jimmy and golden love notre dame dearly and certainly would have stayed if the cancers within notre dame had not left charlie and his staff and their families and notre dame’s student athletes hanging out to be vilified by the usual media suspects.
    5. right now, the university of notre dame owes both jimmy and golden and their teammates many apologies.
    6. when we drive the cancers away from notre dame, jimmy and golden and their teamates will get those formal apologies.
    7. in the meantime, jimmy and golden could very well be the 1st multiple nfl 1st round draft choices in recent notre dame history.
    8. jimmy’s and golden’s notre dame classmates and teammates fully understand why the cancers within notre dame gave them no other option tan to go to the nfl early.
    9. after all, many notre dame students and student athletes do not trust purcell, swarbrick, jenkins,or kelly and his staff any more than we do and they have more than ample reasons for feeling that way.
    10. we congratulate notre dame’s men and women student athletes who also play basketball on their most excellent seasons and wish them well in march madness.
    11.the notre dame’s mens’ ice hockey team has finished a very disappointing season. the team was riddled with injuries. we do not hear anyone vilfying coach jackson and his staff or the members of the ice hockey team.
    12. we are just as proud of coach jackson and his staff and of every notre dame student athlete who also plays ice hockey as we are of every student athlete on the mens’s and womens’ fecncing team, who are both currently ranked no 1 in the us.
    GO IRISH!!!

  7. ourlady$ - Mar 11, 2010 at 4:25 PM

    Excellent article Keith, I think your bang on about how Jimmy viewed Notre Dame, does that make him a bad guy? absolutely not, but at the same we always wish for that little bit more, especially when it comes to Notre Dame. I know one thing for sure, Jimmy Clausen’s heart will never have to be questioned, he gave 100% when he was playing and when he injured his toe, ( which I know from experience is painfull). Fought like a warrior when called upon. I wish nothing but the best for him and hope he has a succesful carreer in the pros. Having had Charlie Weis coach him in a pro style offence won’t hurt either.

  8. marleyman - Mar 13, 2010 at 10:56 AM

    Good article; fair and balanced. A couple of well known particulars:
    1. Under coach Weis, Notre Dame developed into an explosive offense. Had they had even a decent defense, they go 10-2. Mediocre defense, medoicre results.
    2. JC doesn’t need to prove his toughness to anyone. Plays hurt, tough kid. What he does in the NFL remains to be seen.
    3. On a separate note, Quinn needs to be given a legitimate chance to prove himself. The Browns will hopefully turn it around. Don’t be surprised if BQ or JC end up with Charlie in KC.

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