Thursday, December 14, 2006

Season of Backlash | by Jay

As it turns out, it wasn't even a silver medal; it was a bronze for Brady. Herewith a final word on the Heisman voting, and a couple of notes on the season at large.

Troy Smith won the Heisman, and Darren McFadden came in second, with Brady a distant third. I think it's important to note that anti-ND bias is not necessary to explain those Heisman voting totals. If quarterbacking the top-ranked team was enough to garner Gino Torretta and Jason White the Heisman, it's easy to understand a Smith victory; his excellent passing numbers were just the icing on the cake of an undefeated, #1 season. While McFadden's 3:1 advantage over Quinn in first place votes was initially surprising, it's less so when you factor in SEC provincialism. I don't doubt that many in Dixie honestly believe that the best player in the SEC has to be the best player in college football.

Heisman Trophy voting by region

Player Northeast Mid-Atl. South Southwest Midwest Far West
Smith 431 413 409 447 451 389
McFadden 107 117 227 209 120 98
Quinn 171 112 96 119 151 133

No, where I think the anti-ND bias was really evident was in the media's coverage of the Heisman campaign. Pundits engaged in a lot of purposive data-mining to criticize Quinn, while failing to mention glaring issues with other candidates. For instance, I can recall several talking heads arguing that Quinn played poorly against Southern Cal because he completed less than 50% of his passes. Anyone making this argument is either stupid or disingenuous. First, Quinn was barely under 50%, and had even one of the dropped passes that he laid in a receiver's hands been caught, he would have been over 50%. Second, Quinn put up 348 yards of total offense and three touchdowns without a single turnover. When someone picks out the lone part of Quinn's stat line that isn't impressive and focuses on that exclusively, you can't help but wonder at their motivations. The really stunning thing is that Quinn's numbers against Southern Cal were exceptional in comparison to what others had achieved against the Trojans: Quinn put up more total offense and threw more touchdown passes against the Southern Cal defense than anyone else this year.

The same people that searched so hard for Quinn's flaws were just as quick with excuses for his competitors. That Darren McFadden could only manage 36 yards against USC on 11 touches was blamed entirely on his (self-induced) injury, if it was acknowledged at all. You would be hard pressed to find media criticism of Troy Smith's performance against Illinois, though it was statistically worse than the performance against Michigan that hung around Quinn's neck like a millstone.

Midway through the season, many commentators (including one ESPN Heisman Watch writer) offered Smith's superior TD-INT ratio as proof that he was the nation's best QB. When Quinn ultimately finished ahead of Smith in this statistic (recording the fifth best such ratio in CFB history), I can't recall the stat's previous champions acknowledging this. At the end of the season, Quinn and Smith were in a near statistical dead heat, but save Allen Barra of the New York Sun, not a single columnist sought to seriously weigh the merits of the Irish quarterback. His numbers were written off as inflated, coming against a spate of cupcakes including -- gasp -- all three service academies! Nevermind the fact that one academy actually went 9-3, or that Quinn's lowest outputs in passes and yardage came against Army and Air Force, respectively. If you bothered to look at it, ND's strength of schedule (19th in the country) was of a magnitude tougher than Ohio State's (40th). Incredible rallies against Michigan State and UCLA were denounced as meltdowns by the opposition rather than courageous comebacks by the Irish; the revisionist slant on the UCLA game -- at the time, a "lucky win" against a vastly inferior opponent -- is especially ironic given what happened to Southern Cal at the Rose Bowl in their final game against the Bruins.

But what really gets me is the venom directed at Quinn. In a field of candidates that included an admitted NCAA rules violator and convicted criminal (Smith) and someone who put FnDC -- Fightin' 'n Da Club -- before his team (McFadden), many commentators acted like Quinn was the asshole, an overrated impostor who scammed his way into the conversation by virtue of his good looks and the ineluctable star power of the Notre Dame brand. Quinn's stumbles (or stumble, singular) was cause for great celebration. You might remember this representative article from Mike Freeman of CBS Sportsline, back in September:
C'mon, be honest. You chuckled when you heard Notre Dame got beat by Michigan one cajillion billion to seven, didn't you? You laughed. You giggled and burped. You frolicked around the house like you were being tickled on the feet by a supermodel in her skivvies. You spit mustard and bratwurst all over your shirt when you saw Brady Quinn's face planted in the turf and throwing sloppy interceptions like Kerry Collins. I can tell you loved it. I still see the smirk cemented on your face.

Introducing Brady Quinn. Fine gentleman, future NFL quarterback, and the most outlandishly overrated player in the history of college football...If I ask who the best college quarterback in the nation is right now and you answer Quinn and not Smith, then you are a brainwashed fool.
Furthermore, while Troy Smith's early indiscretions were being recast as an inspirational story of redemption -- look at what he had to overcome! -- Quinn's four-year odyssey from Diedrickian punching bag to the top of the Irish record books was all but forgotten.

During his time under the microscope at ND, especially during a rough and tumble two years where he was repeatedly thrown to the lions, Quinn never faltered or pouted. Whether he was taking his lumps under Willingham or besting Peyton Manning's marks under Weis, Quinn always carried himself with aplomb. In the volumes of quotes the media extracted from Quinn, you won't find a single damning word. He was never in trouble off the field. He was a good student.

And for such a well-known celebrity, he was exceedingly modest. When Chris Fowler greeted Brady on stage to present him the Maxwell Award, the first thing out of Fowler's mouth wasn't "Congratulations", but, "So, do you consider this an upset, since everyone expected Troy Smith to win?" Quinn might have been shocked, and he might have been forgiven for snapping off some snide retort. But he humbly deflected the slam, and instead praised Smith, calling him a "great player" and saying that "he should do just fine for himself" on Saturday at the Downtown Athletic Club.

That combination of stellar talent and grounded character is so rare in a sport where it seems just about everyone has a checkered past. Quinn's everything you'd want in a college football player, both on and off the field. Everybody, regardless of alma mater, would love to have this guy on their team, wouldn't they? In our "Villains" piece, we stated that we had to respect John McKay because the only reason he gave to dislike him was the success he had against the Irish; he was a consummate class act. I would have thought fans of other programs would feel the same way about Quinn, but obviously I was wrong.


Such was the season for Notre Dame in the media: we really took it on the chin, over and over. The voters who put ND way up at #2 at the beginning of the season and the reporters who touted Brady as the preseason Heisman leader fell over themselves to tear Quinn and Notre Dame from that perch when the season didn't go as predicted. The national mood changed almost immediately as the season began, and it never recovered. As ND struggled (but won) against Georgia Tech (and Ohio State was busy beating Texas), that #2 ranking suddenly seemed terribly undeserved, even if it were the writers and voters who put the Irish there in the first place. The Michigan loss sealed it.

The backlash was ferocious, a negative feedback loop that devoured itself. An offhand comment by Charlie to local reporters about ND's place in the BCS rankings turns into a full-fledged brouhaha, with Charlie portrayed as a big whiner; when Urban Meyer goes on the PR offensive to lobby for the Gators, he's praised for being the squeaky wheel that got the grease. While many top BCS squads are feasting on vastly inferior teams (including some really embarrassing matchups, like Florida-Western Carolina), it's ND that's pilloried for playing -- stop me if you've heard this -- three service academies in one year. The Heisman race becomes a zero-sum game; it is not enough for Troy Smith to win, but Brady Quinn must lose (in fact, it is not enough for Brady Quinn to lose; he must be eviscerated in the process). Other teams lose to inferior opponents on their schedule and suffer lesser consequence; Notre Dame loses to two of the top five teams in the country and is saddled with disdain. And when that 10-2 Notre Dame team gets selected for a BCS bowl, it is, of course, unfair; yet by the BCS's own rules Notre Dame is a clear and proper choice for selection. Such was 2006 for Brady Quinn and the Irish.

But the book on the season isn't closed just yet. There's one chapter left. Maybe a win over LSU will knock the anti-ND narrative off its rail, and recast this Irish team as something more worthy in the eyes of the college football punditry. Oh wouldn't it be nice...

On the other hand, who cares. To hell with the pundits. Let's win it for the only group that matters. Let's win it for us.