Thankless Tommy

A look ahead at Brian Kelly's starting quarterback, Tommy Rees. (Robin Alam/Icon SMI)

(Robin Alam/Icon SMI)

When Tommy Rees takes his final run out of the tunnel in Notre Dame Stadium, he will surely be met with a mixed reaction. While I am certain boos won’t be audible (and if you are planning to do so, please give away your ticket and never return), the fact remains that opinions and feelings on Tommy vary greatly.

To me, there are three distinct groups. The first, and smallest, are those that simply love Tommy and think that the starting job was always his. The second, and unfortunately at times the loudest, is the polar opposite and believe he might just be one of the worst quarterbacks to ever take snaps for the Irish. The third, that I consider myself a part of, recognize Tommy’s shortcomings, but also realize that he is the best man for the job for 2013 after Golson got the boot from ND.

No matter which group hat you believe best describes your feelings on Rees, it is safe to say that the majority of ND fans do not give Tommy the appreciation that he deserves. Throughout most of his career he has done a largely thankless job.

And that in itself is somewhat ironic as Tommy probably got too much credit for his success as a starter in 2010 when the Irish closed out the season on a 4-0 run. After coming in for an injured Crist, Kelly heavily leaned on the freshman, going to the air 54 times, including the first true “TOMMY, NO!” moment with an interception in the endzone to seal the Irish loss. Despite claiming we should “get used to it”, Kelly radically changed his game plan and Tommy only threw more than 30 passes in one game, a win against Southern Cal. Defense and the rushing attack propelled the Irish through those four wins as Tommy simply managed the game as best he could; in fact, his highest yardage total in those wins was against Army with a pedestrian 214 yards.

Then 2011 happened.

Rees was called to step in once again for a struggling Crist and kept the job for the entirety of the season. Unfortunately for Tommy, that season was so full of interception memories that you’d probably be surprised to learn that Tommy actually threw more TDs than INTs, had a 65% completion percentage, and was just 139 yards shy of a 3,000 yard season. Those four wins in 2010 were a distant memory. The quarterback that was once lauded for his 4-0 start had seemingly everyone fly to the opposite direction, anxiously awaiting the day Everett Golson would take over.

Despite clutch performances as a backup in 2012 and noticeable improvement in 2013, #11 never shook the 2011 narrative.

And that narrative has clouded what Rees has done for Notre Dame in his career, which brings us back to the point of him performing a mostly thankless job. Yes, Tommy hasn’t lit up the stat sheet nor does he have the physical tools that someone like Golson or even Zaire has. Without him though, this program probably takes a radical turn for the worst.

When Tommy signed in 2010, he did so as a 3-star and in the same class as fellow QBs Andrew Hendrix (4-star) and Luke Massa (3-star, whom hasn’t seen a snap yet). When Brian Kelly inherited this class from Weis, certainly he did not expect for Dayne Crist to have so many issues before he had a chance to install “his guy” at QB nor did he likely expect that Rees would be the guy that would rise as the top signal-caller from that class. Kelly likely thought he had a year or two of Crist to bridge the gap, but that didn’t happen.

When Crist went down against Tulsa, the 2010 season could have fallen into shambles. The 4-5 Irish went up against #14 Utah in a game that looked like certain doom. With a trip to Southern Cal on the horizon, the Irish going 5-7 and no bowl game wasn’t out of the question. Instead, Tommy held it together and helped the team end the season 8-5 with a Sun Bowl Victory.

Even in 2011, Rees was option B. When Crist faltered, Rees stepped in and, while 8-5 with a bowl loss wasn’t an optimal result, saved Golson’s redshirt. That saved year looms incredibly large right now as Golson lost a year of eligibility due to his expulsion. While Golson certainly has the option to head to the NFL this year, that option would surely look a lot more attractive if he plays in 2011 considering that 2014 would be his final shot. Instead, we now have the potential for two more years of Golson instead of one or even none.

2012 likely doesn’t end with a BCS Championship berth without Rees as well. Instead of transferring once he lost the starting job, Rees stuck it out as Golson’s backup. Wins against Michigan, Purdue, and Stanford likely don’t happen without Rees fulfilling his role as “closer” during that season. Further, the unique “closer” role allowed Golson to develop and make mistakes with Rees serving as the security net for the Irish if things went wrong.

This season, Rees is saving yet another redshirt: Zaire’s. Before Notre Dame received the news that Golson wouldn’t be available this season, Kiel did what most QBs that feel they won’t see playing time do, transfer. In less than a month, Notre Dame found themselves without their two top recruited QBs, placing Zaire’s originally assumed redshirt year in danger. But Rees again has stepped in to make a program-building save.

Further, Rees has done all this at a 60+% passer, finds himself just shy of 7,000 yards despite not starting for a full season (2013 will be his only full year starting), and throwing 58 TDs along with 34 INTs. Again, the numbers aren’t stellar, but they aren’t awful either.

When Golson was announced as the starting QB post Tommy’s arrest, I made a Dark Knight reference, but I think I was a season too early. Rees is the QB we deserve, but not the one we need right now. He’s taking all the criticism and blame in Golson’s absence and doing so because he can take it.

Rees may not be the straw that stirs the drink, but he’s definitely been the glue that helped hold this program together when it could have easily fallen apart. For that, we owe him our thanks and our cheers on senior day.

About NDtex

Texan by birth, Irish by choice.

Born and raised in the great state of Texas, Tex is a first-generation Domer and a former student manager. After graduation, he left the cold winters of South Bend behind and returned back to his home state with a computer engineering degree in tow. Missing the daily grind of working football practices and talking football with fellow Irish fans every day, he took to blogging, a path which eventually led him to Her Loyal Sons. Continuously diving into stats and game film, Tex strives to break down every aspect of Fighting Irish football--even though it's determined to kill him.

Read all posts by NDtex

  • Brian McKeown (@BrianJMcKeown)

    Nice write-up, Tex.
    I appreciate all that Tommy has given us even though I’ve aged at warp-speed these last few seasons. He never gave in to the criticism and continued to take the higher ground. I sometimes tire of the talk of “heart” but Tommy has definitely shown a lot of it. The images of him with his head in his hands after the Pitt loss were gut-wrenching.
    Am i the only one that things Zaire’s saved redshirt had less to do with years of eligibility and was more a result of his not being ready to take the helm? If he were ready, I seriously doubt BK would have went with Tommy. Instead, he would have played Malik and allowed Tommy to fill in the gaps. I hope this decision is not indicative of a larger issue with Malik’s development.

    • NDtex

      When I speak of saving a redshirt, I definitely consider the readiness aspect is a part of it as well.

      For Golson, there is no guarantee he would’ve been ready in 2011. As good as he did in 2012, he had some serious growing pains that Tommy came in to relieve. I can only imagine it would’ve been worse in 2013.

      I don’t think it would be a stretch to put Zaire in the same boat.

  • @thereidy

    I really appreciate the way Tommy handled the whole situation. If I came in as a freshman starting QB, praised for my performance, then demonized by many fans the next year, and finally booed by my own fans, I would spend this whole year walking around with 2 middle fingers raised. Tommy is obviously way more mature than a college-aged me.

  • Patrick Burns

    Tommy Rees is the type of man that I would hire in a instant. While certainly not one of the premier QBs, he has done the most with his skill set than we could have expected.

    His public persona shows him to be unflappable. That is rare in this day and age especially for one so young. I, for one, appreciate everything he has done for the school, the team and the fans.

    Without him, we NEVER would have had an undefeated regular season in 2012 and this season would have been a disaster (worse than the 3-9 debacle in 2007).

    I know that he will be a huge success in his post-grad career.

    •!/PootND PootND

      Solid analysis. Nice job Larz!

  • vairish84

    I think that sums up Tommy and his career pretty well. I agree with the above that Golson may not have been ready at all in 2011 anyway. Also, with the mono, Zaire was probably not a viable option at the start of the season either.

  • Mark G

    I will be there Saturday cheering the Irish, and particularly cheering for and thanking our Seniors and their parents. If anyone near me is idiotic enough to boo Tommy during the introductions, I will not have to smack him down — my wife will do that.

    I share Tex’s assessment of Tommy Rees. Yes, his physical attributes are limited. Yes, his out passes float a loooong time. Yes, he makes some very puzzling decisions (it’s not just that his head write checks his arm cannot cash – it is that his head must see things that no one else sees, probably becuase those things are not there). But, he is doing the best he can with his limited skills. Hard not to cheer for an underdog, an overacheiver.

    Think Seabiscuit.

  • irishize

    Double thumbs up for Tommy!

  • Mike T

    Great piece, Tex! Couldn’t agree more on the legacy that Rees is leaving i.e. holding the program together through adversity.

  • The Biscuit

    I think Tommy is the best we’ve had available and he’s done an admirable job of being that and accepting that role. I think the vitriol is up and down pending his performances, which are also sadly up and down. Just a SLIGHTLY more consistent Tommy and this team has 1 loss and is riding high and he’s a hero. It’s his bad pockets (not even bad games) that have killed Tommy’s rep. Eliminate 1 quarter from UM and 1 from Pitt and he’s a rock star.

  • Dave Steinhauer

    I too appreciate what Tommy has done with he tools that he has. What i find unforgivable is, after 4 years of assessing Tommy’s strengths and weaknesses, the coaching staff continues to put the guy in a position to fail.

    Continuous empty back sets, stupid rollouts, inexplicable play calls…

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  • Irish Twin Too

    Nice writeup, Tex. I think Rees goes down in Notre Dame lore as one of the most complex player stories you could have in college football. This post helps us all recall that Tommy has been a part of gut-wrenching losses, some pretty dismal failures, but also razor thin heroics and an improbable run to the Natty.

    It’s so hard to think of Tommy as a back-up because he has played so many snaps, but his time was almost always a product of some adversity in the QB depth chart. If you (any fan) change your perspective a bit on Rees from blue-chip 3-year starter to an understudy, I think you will find yourself very appreciative of what Rees has accomplished.

    The underlying problem with the boo-birds and message board naysayers is that they fail to frame Rees this way – a back-up. While this is admittedly hard to do because he has started so many games over multiple years, he truly never would have seen the field without the spot opening up. Injury, suspension, redshirt, etc.

    If Kelly recruited Rees as a 4 or 5 star and constantly spoke of him being “the guy” and there was no Golson and Tommy produced the same body of work – then much of what you hear about Rees would be more applicable and deserved. But the means and motions behind why Rees played so much falls more on the shoulders of Kelly, Golson, and fate than it ever should on Rees.

    No one needs to build Tommy up into a marquee starter who contended for Heismans and truly brought another level to the ND offense. A lot of his numbers are a result of playing so many games, at times in conjunction with one of the best defenses D has put out in years. I think it’s much more fair, and easier to see the value of Tommy if you think in terms of ROI as opposed to 2-3 year Notre Dame starter.

  • Irish Twin Too

    If we are eliminating one quarter, I think it should be the 1st against Oklahoma. :)

  • J (@radiofreekruzr)

    I think there are going to be deafening cheers for Tommy in the Stadium. Out of the heat of the moment, I think most fans love the guy, for good reason.

    I also think he has a remarkably large amount of football intelligence and would not be at all surprised to see coaching in his future.

  • canuck75

    I have always been a big Tommy booster. I think Kelly always played the guy who deserved to play, and so Tommy clearly earned his playing time. We should be thankful that Kelly saw, long before most, that Crist had a couple of fatal flaws and made that fateful switch.
    I looked at the passing stats the other day, and Tommy is solidly up there around guys like Aaron Murray. If he finishes solidly, he will throw for 3000 with 28 tds and 11-12 ints. Those stats measure favourably in any program.
    I can’t understand the haters. If the running game had been more consistent Tommy might have looked even better.
    But my best memory is one of the early ones-under the bright lights, down a score, 100 seconds left, he cooly led us down the field to score against Michigan. That was qb play at its finest!
    Thanks Tommy.

    • joe murbox

      The haters are there because he loses games.

  • Heidijoy

    I’m a big Tommy fan!! Love the article. If fans want to Boo-they should Boo the guy that transferred or the guy who was suspended. Tommy is a Hero in my book. He will make a Great Coach!! He is a Team Player!! Cheers for him. Yes I would Hire him in a minute!!

  • Alex

    I was already thinking along the same lines…

  • Craig

    A quibble on Golson’s redshirt: if it had been burned in 2011, then he would have been able to redshirt this year and still have two years of eligibility after he returned.

    • NDtex

      Based on my understanding of the rule, you can only redshirt if you are enrolled.

      If I’m wrong in this, feel free to point me in the direction of a source to confirm and I will be happy to amend the post. I couldn’t find anything on it when I wrote so I stuck with my interpretation.

  • Joe Kretschmer

    Whatever Tommy’s shortcomings, this team would not have gone 12-0 last year or done much this year. Thanks Tommy.

  • ralph kuechler

    This year is over. Let Zaire start learning.

    • NDtex

      Thanks for proving my point.

  • Maal

    Tommy has been an inconsistent QB at times, but has done a remarkable job with the skills he has. His value to this team was most evident in the USC game. I can’t lie, I have been a tough critic of Tommy, but through it all he has been able to overcome and lead the Irish to victory. I can see him being an asset to any team as a coach or a leader within a corporation. I wish him well as he enters into the world.

  • TomB

    BK asked a freshman to go into a game after the starter was injured and in the shadow of his own goalposts, execute a flea flicker as his first collegiate pass. Later, same coach turns purple screaming in his face in front of millions. Four years later same coach doesn’t name him a captain. Yet TR hsows up a does a great job every day. I don’t know how he does it, but I am glad he can and does.

    • NDtex

      Warping a post praising Rees into a BK rant.

      Not going to lie, I’m mildly amused. 7/10

  • -Eric

    I rarely respond to articles because I feel everyone is entitled to their individual opinion and rarely will you persuade someone from their viewpoints.

    However, I will say that I feel this has been more of a “system” issue than a Tommy Rees issue. Rees is going out and trying to execute the plays the coaches’ call. Do I think he audibles too much at times? Yes, sure do. But truthfully, I feel Coach BK has him playing in a system that exposes his weaknesses versus maximizing his strengths. To me, Rees is the square peg that Coach BK continues to cram into a circle hole.

    Although Tommy has won lots of games for us over his four years, sadly I feel IRISH fans are longing for Golson’s return because they know the upside Golson brings with his legs and athleticism.

    I wish Tommy the best of luck post graduation. Other than one off campus incident, he has handled everything he has gone through at ND with class and that speaks to the character of the kid.

    • NDtex

      Regarding the system and audible comments, I highly suggest you read this post:

      • -Eric

        Play calls being 50% run and 50% pass is not balance. Every week we have 40 passes and 35 to 40 runs a game. Hardly means you have balance.

        • Andrew

          Nope, that’s actually the definition of balance

        • NDtex

          Either you’re trolling the hell out of me or you had some very strange experiences on a seesaw as a kid.

  • fredex

    15 years from now I expect to look at the sidelines of some major college team and see Tommy standing there as head coach……….

    • joe murbox

      Bahahahahahahaha. Don’t try and sugarcoat that he flat out is not good. He’s an average at best mid level college qb. Quit with the smarts business, if he was so smart he wouldn’t throw where or when he lobbs a lot of balls. He’s awful!

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