Rees is still Kelly’s quarterback

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You can spend a day trying to analyze the Irish quarterbacking conundrum. I just did — spending a solid 18 hours with a draft open before ever successfully committing a word to page.

It hasn’t been for lack of effort. Or lack of dissenting opinions. But here’s the rub: Ask a thousand Irish fans what they think the solution is at quarterback and you won’t hear many good answers, you’ll just spend the next few hours hearing a thousand people repeating what problem is.

Such is life during a quarterback controversy.

And that’s with a quarterback like Tommy Rees, a sophomore that’s 6-1 in his first seven starts. I’d spend a few hours researching who the last quarterback was to win six of his last seven starts but it’s a waste of time. Those that are calling for Rees’ head will just tell you that the Irish have won games in spite of the sophomore, not because of him.

But here’s the thing: The Irish should be 3-0 with Rees at the helm. The sophomore calmly drove the Irish down the field for what should’ve been a game winning touchdown with just 30 seconds left on the clock against Michigan. It’s not the quarteback’s fault that the Irish defense played its one abominable quarter in the midst of 31 other good ones, giving Denard Robinson 80 yards and a winning touchdown in 28 horrific seconds.

But after the Irish won a closer-than-expected 15-12 game over Pittsburgh on Saturday, a game where Rees completed 58.5% of his throws, don’t expect head coach Brian Kelly to shake up his quarterback depth chart. (Rees’ mediocre game? His completion percentage was a shade better than Crist’s career average in South Bend.)

“Right now, Tommy is 6-1 as a starter,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He’s led two very huge drives for us late in the game against Michigan and of course against Pittsburgh. He’s obviously not a finished product, nobody is. He’ll continue to get better and better.”

Rees has certainly made some noticeable mistakes: six glaring ones in the form of interceptions. A couple more in the form of fumbles lost. Those certainly contributed to the Irish’s losses to USF and Michigan, though his five touchdown passes and 70 percent completion percentage might absolve him from the lion’s share of the blame — and from listening to Kelly you can assume it has with the coaching staff.

I’ve been implored by many to ask the difficult question to the head coach: Why does Rees get lenience when senior Dayne Crist got the quick hook? Kelly already answered that question once, and there’s little doubt his answer will change in the three weeks since Rees has been in charge of the Irish offense.

“Production,” Kelly said after the Irish’s 23-20 loss to USF. “We didn’t feel like we produced the way we should have. Mistakes were made. You know, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make. It was difficult because it threw us into an area where we weren’t thinking we had to go to.”

While fan’s might thirst for more explanation, Kelly’s decision on playing Rees still comes down to the same reason he gave just minutes after the Irish lost that bizarre weather-filled Saturday.

Production.

It might not quell the angered masses looking for a change behind center after Rees has failed to stop making critical mistakes, but it’s the only thing that matters.

In hockey, players are judged by their plus/minus rating. For Irish fans in need of a reminder, here’s how the two Irish quarterbacks measure out the last two seasons:

Crist: -2 (8+ games in 2010, 1/2 game in 2011)
Rees: +105 (5+ games in 2010, 3.5 games in 2011)

It’s probably one of the more simplistic statistical breakdowns you’ll ever see between these two quarterbacks, but the results are staggering. With Rees at quarterback, the Irish are 105 points better than their opponents. With Crist, the Irish are two points worse.

(Others have attempted to do a little bit more in-depth analysis this week, and I credit them for trying to bring evidence to a debate that’s been framed by opinions and emotion, often time lacking much support.)

Dayne Crist only got 15 throws as the starting quarterback of the Irish in 2011, never strapping on his helmet again after the Irish came into that two-hour halftime in a 16-point hole. Is that a fair shake? Probably not, but there’s very little fair in the high stakes game of college football.

If we’re to believe that Crist won the starting quarterback job by the narrowest of margins, perhaps all Kelly needed to see in that first half against USF is what Dayne delivered, and Rees’ instant turnaround to the offense buoyed his bold decision and nearly salvaged a game the Irish should have won.

A little less than a season and a half into the Kelly era, we’ve gotten a hint at what the head coach can deal with and what he can’t. When it comes to his quarterback, he can deal with a guy that makes aggressive mistakes, if it means he benefits from that aggression as well.

A quarterback has one main job: Score points than your opponent. For the most part, Rees has done a pretty good job at that early in his career, and a 16-game sample size has shown he’s done it much better than Dayne Crist. Is he perfect? Of course not, and his turnovers are the most obvious sign of a work in progress, something all quarterbacks less than 10 games into their career are.

But there’s no reason to believe a guy that’s won 6 of his 7 starts at quarterback — and has only had a negative plus-minus in one game in his career, thanks to the Irish’s 4th quarter implosion — isn’t the guy for the job. It may not always be pretty, but Rees has earned his head coach’s trust.

Whether the fans get on board, that’s another matter.