Brady Quinn doesn't need me defending him, but in light of recent criticism leveled at BQ on the eve of the NFL draft, I'm going to do it anyway. Quinn detractors are repeating the mantra that BQ is a nice quarterback, but that he "didn't play well in big games." ESPN's resident moron Merrill Hoge stated on national radio that he didn't feel that BQ was worthy of being selected in the first round of the draft. We'll take these one at a time.
First, the "Big Game" canard. Despite the fact that Brady Quinn has completely re-written the record books at Notre Dame, a University with a pretty fair quarterback tradition, some assert that Brady padded his numbers against inferior teams and failed to perform in big games. I'm not sure which inferior teams they refer to - probably the service academies. And it's true, the service academies are not perennial Top 25 teams. But are they really less credible than the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Tulane, North Texas State, or Appalachian State? LSU's JaMarcus Russell fattened his stats on these lesser teams. How do the service academies stack up to Miami of Ohio, Bowling Green, Cincinnati, San Diego State, and Northern Illinois? Those are some of the fearsome opponents that Ohio State and Troy Smith faced over the past two seasons. So not all of Brady's games came against big-time competition, but he certainly didn't play a notably weaker schedule than the quarterbacks to which he is being compared.
But what about the "Big Games"? How do we define a big game? I suspect that many commentators define a "Big Game" as "any game that Notre Dame loses." Over the past two years, using that definition, the Irish have played in six big games, having lost to USC (twice), Michigan, Ohio State, LSU, and Michigan State. I think we can all agree that Michigan State in 2005 (despite the Irish loss) is not a big game. Besides, if we include the MSU game it messes up the critics' hypothesis since Brady played out of his mind in that game (He went 33 of 60 attempts for 487 yards and five touchdowns with a passer rating of 147.35). Brady played well, ergo, it wasn't a "big game."
What about the other five losses over the past two years? Here's the breakdown:
- USC 2005. Brady's stat line was 19 of 35 attempts (54.3%) for 264 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, and a passer rating of 121.36. All against a defense that would play later that season in the BCS Championship game (losing to Texas). At the time, the 2005 ND v. USC game was considered the Game of the Century. Brady led the Irish to a late touchdown that would have sealed one of the greatest Notre Dame wins of all time, if only the defense could have contained USC on 4th-and-9. How can anyone look at that game and question BQ's Big Game bona fides?
- Ohio State (2006 Fiesta Bowl). Brady's Stat line was 29 of 45 attempts (64.4%) for 286 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs, passer rating of 117.83. Is that really a bad performance? Against one of the top defenses in the country? Despite the total inability of our defense to slow down OSU, Brady and the offense was able to keep the game in doubt until about 6 minutes left in the game. Yes, the Irish lost the game. Was it because Brady played poorly? With a passer rating of 117+? In a game where the running game and the defense were so invisible that BQ had to throw the ball 45 times? I don't think so.
- Michigan 2006. Brady's stat line was 24 of 48 attempts (50%) for 234 yards, 3 TDs and 3 INTs, passer rating of 99.07. This game was the beginning of the end for BQ's Heisman campaign. People like to point to the three interceptions in this game as proof of Brady's poor Big Game performance. And it's true he wasn't sharp in that game (at least early). The first INT bounced off his receiver's shoulder (thrown a bit behind him). The second INT came when his arm was hit on a throw. The third came late in a desperation situation. Brady didn't play a great game. But he did throw three TD passes and pass for a decent percentage against another very good defensive team.
- USC 2006. Brady's stat line was 22 of 45 attempts (48.9%) for 274 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs, passer rating of 122.04. What else is BQ supposed to do? Three touchdown passes and almost 300 yards against one of the best defenses in the country. Only Washington State (287 yards) and Michigan (309 in the Rose Bowl) hung more passing yards on that defense. Not to mention that the pass protection in front of Brady was porous and that he was running for his life much of the night. But this performance is counted as another failure to perform in a "Big Game."
- LSU (2007 Sugar Bowl). Brady's stat line was 15 of 35 completions (42.9%) for 148 yards, 2 TDs and 2 INTs, passer rating of 85.81. This was a tough game to watch. Notre Dame was outplayed in every facet of the game, and quarterback play was no exception. But if you watched that game, you realized that BQ's performance wasn't quite that bad. There were several dropped balls that killed drives. (Both Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija played poorly, and Rhema's repeated drops probably cost him a lot of money as his NFL draft stock fell drastically that day). LSU was able to single cover our receivers, and put more players into rushing the passer. Brady was under a lot of pressure the whole game, and he wasn't getting a lot of help. It wasn't a good performance by BQ or anyone else in a gold helmet.
- Pittsburgh 2005. Unranked Notre Dame was on the road against #23 Pittsburgh in a nationally broadcast night game. It was a much-hyped match up between two former NFL coaches, each in their first game as college head coaches. BQ went 18 of 27 (66.7%) for 227 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT, passer rating of 154.33. The Irish destroyed a Pittsburgh team that still has never recovered. Looking back, you can say that Pitt wasn't very good, but at the time nobody knew that and it was considered a very big game.
- Michigan 2005. #20 ranked Notre Dame playing in the Big House against #3 ranked Michigan. Does it get much bigger than that? Really? Quinn went 19 of 30 (63.3%) for 140 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INts, passer rating of 124.53. You can maybe see why I wonder if "Big Games" are only those that ND loses. This was a big upset against a #3 team on the road, and BQ was magnificent. How can you look at this game and say he doesn't play well in big games?
- Tennessee 2005. Granted, the Vols weren't awesome in 2005. But a Notre Dame home game against a traditional SEC power is still a pretty big game. A win brings a lot of credibility, a loss kills your season. Quinn went 20 of 33 (60.6%) for 295 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs, passer rating 165.70. That's pretty big.
- Penn State 2006. Notre Dame ranked #4 versus #19 Penn State. A Top 20 opponent. Quinn goes 25 of 36 (69.4%) for 287 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs, passer rating 163.91, as the Irish destroy the Nittany Lions. A huge performance in a Big Game.
- Michigan State 2006. This might not have been a Big Game going in (Irish ranked #12, MSU unranked), except that it was a very important game for the team. MSU had beaten Notre Dame at home the previous year, and humiliated the Irish by planting a flag in the turf at Notre Dame stadium. MSU had owned the irish in recent years. We had to get the Spartan monkey off our backs. At halftime the Irish trailed 31-14. At the beginning of the fourth quarter it was MSU 37, ND 21. By the time it was over, Brady Quinn had engineered a 40-37 miracle win in a driving rain storm. Brady's stats were 20 of 36 (55.6%) for 319 yards, 5 TDs and 1 INT, passer rating 170.27. IN A MONSOON!
As for Merrill Hoge. He made big headlines for himself last week by stating on the radio that he didn't think Brady Quinn was worthy of a first round pick. He thinks Brady is a "nice" pro prospect, but not "special." According to Hoge, quarterbacks like BQ come along every year, while players like JaMarcus Russell are "once in a decade" type players. When pressed for specifics, Hoge observed that Bradys' accuracy wasn't the best. That's it. After all these huge proclamations, all Merrill could really point to was BQ's accuracy. Duh. Anyone who watched Quinn over his career observed that Brady was not as consistently accurate as might be hoped. Especially early in games, it seemed that adrenaline caused BQ to throw a lot of high balls (much like Brett Favre). He was sometimes behind receivers on crossing routes, or short on sideline routes. Sometimes those were unforced errors, but sometimes BQ was throwing under a lot of pressure. Too frequently his receivers dropped pretty good passes. But I think Hoge misses some very key points. Unlike JaMarcus Russell, or Troy Smith, or Matt Leinart, Brady Quinn seldom had the luxury of throwing to receivers running free down the field. Despite the acclaim that Jeff Samardzija, Mo Stovall, and Rhema McKnight have earned, rarely were any of them wide open. They were usually covered, often quite well, and it took either a great throw or a great catch (or both) to get a completion. To put up the numbers he did, Quinn had to squeeze a lot of very accurate throws into very tight spots. Which he did, often enough to shatter almost all Notre Dame passing records.
Hoge also downplays the things that Brady does exceptionally well. BQ took a physical beating for four years at ND, and didn't miss a game. His size, strength, and toughness will serve him well in the NFL. His work ethic is almost unparalleled. And he's smart. He understands the offense and the defense, gets the play called, audibles to a better play, makes his reads, delivers the ball to the correct receiver, and makes very few mistakes. Accuracy can be improved, but the ability to handle the game mentally at a high level is a much tougher proposition. Quinn has proven he can do that, which makes him a very hot prospect. NFL history is littered with big-arm guys who washed out because they could never master the mental aspects of the game. Brady Quinn will not be added to that list. Will Merrill Hoge's "special" player, JaMarcus Russell be next?
Brady Quinn doesn't need me to defend him. But I'm sick of the anti-Quinn talk and had to vent a little. I actually feel a little better now.
UPDATE 4/13/2007: I just ran across a nice analysis comparing the performances of Brady Quinn and JaMarcus Russell against quality defenses. My post wasn't really intended as a comparison between the two quarterbacks, but the post provides some good fodder for discussion. Thanks to "ckparrothead" at finheaven.com for crunching the numbers.