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Notre Dame Football: “Turnover Tommy” Endures — And I’m Unsure Why

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Trying to understand why Tommy Rees — the quarterback — gets a bad rap among some Irish fans.

Notre Dame v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

One sunny September day, Michigan State Spartans defensive tackle Kevin Pickelman hit Tommy Rees from the blindside, causing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback to fumble.

Pickelman’s effort would be negated by Aaron Lynch strip sack of Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins just three plays later, but Rees’ fumble inspired a pejorative that still dogs him to this day: “Turnover Tommy.”

While a counter-narrative — #TouchdownTommy — blossomed, it hasn’t been indelible. Meanwhile, Rees’ occasionally questionable decisions while under center resulted in an equally sticky hashtag two years later: #TommyNo.

I turned to data to answer a single question:

Was Rees more turnover prone than any other quarterback during the Brian Kelly era?

Quarterback Turnovers, 2010-2019

Category Crist Rees Golson Kizer Wimbush Book
Category Crist Rees Golson Kizer Wimbush Book
QB carries (including sacks) 62 58 208 263 214 245
Pass plays 338 1049 746 697 382 788
Interceptions 9 37 20 19 12 17
Interceptions per attempt 2.7% 3.5% 2.7% 2.7% 3.1% 2.2%
Fumbles by QB 5 8 19 10 8 6
Fumbles lost by QB 4 6 12 5 5 3
Fumbles lost per QB carry 6.5% 10.3% 5.8% 1.9% 2.3% 1.2%
Total turnovers by QB 13 43 32 24 17 20
Turnovers in opponent's territory 5 18 19 12 5 14
Turnovers in red zone 2 8 8 7 0 3
Red zone turnovers as % of total turnovers 15.4% 18.6% 25.0% 29.2% 0.0% 15.0%
@ndjrs / Twitter

There was a 3.88 percent chance that Rees, on any non-handoff play, would turn over the ball. That was higher than Everett Golson (3.35 percent), Dayne Crist (3.25 percent), Brandon Wimbush (2.85 percent), DeShone Kizer (2.5 percent) and Ian Book (1.94 percent). The difference between Rees and Golson, however, is one turnover every 189 plays that aren’t a handoff. One quarter of Golson’s turnovers were in the red zone, but there there were no “Golson’s gaffes” or “Exasperating Everett” campaigns.

BACK BREAKING TURNOVERS

If Rees were only slightly more turnover prone than Golson or Wimbush, then I theorized that the stickiness of the “Turnover Tommy” hashtag had more to do with how memorable the miscues were.

(Think: When you think of bad quarterback turnovers in the last 10 years, what plays come to mind?)

To test this hypothesis, I logged all 149 turnovers (114 interceptions, 35 fumbles) committed by a Notre Dame quarterback between 2010 and 2019. I used Pro Football Reference’s calculator to assign values for expected points and win probability before each turnover was committed, logged what the opponent did on the ensuing drive and what the win probability was when the Irish regained possession of the ball.

I discovered the Rees was responsible for four of the 10 turnovers that created the greatest negative impact on win probability in the Brian Kelly era. No other quarterback had more than two.

Rees’ 43 turnovers as quarterback decreased Notre Dame’s win probability, on average, by almost 14 percent.

WHAT COMES NEXT MAY FACTOR INTO IT

You could argue that win probability is an imperfect metric because it factors in a variable outside Rees’ control — the performance of the defense immediately following the turnover.

My counter-argument is threefold.

First, I’d argue that, when assigning blame for an opponent’s score following a turnover, fans place a greater emphasis on the quarterback’s miscue than the defense’s subsequent failure.

Second, my hypothesis is that #TommyNo gained popularity because the defense yielded points after more than half of Rees’ turnovers. The hashtag wasn’t simply about a quarterback’s bad decision making; it was a projection of dread about what would come next.

Twenty Worst QB Turnovers, Brian Kelly Era

Year QB Opponent Lead/deficit Quarter Own/Opp YL Interception Fumble lost Win probability Opponent result Win probability next drive Result
Year QB Opponent Lead/deficit Quarter Own/Opp YL Interception Fumble lost Win probability Opponent result Win probability next drive Result
2010 REES TULSA -1 4 OPP 19 1 0 83.77% No points 0.00% Loss
2011 CRIST USC -7 3 OPP 1 0 1 54.70% Touchdown 7.20% Loss
2017 WIMBUSH GEORGIA -1 4 OWN 36 0 1 45.71% No points 0.00% Loss
2011 REES FLORIDA STATE -4 4 OPP 28 1 0 52.84% No points 7.33% Loss
2013 REES PITTSBURGH 0 4 OWN 24 1 0 55.00% Touchdown 11.30% Loss
2012 REES PITTSBURGH -4 3 OWN 47 1 0 67.30% Touchdown 29.70% Win
2015 KIZER GEORGIA TECH 7 2 OPP 5 1 0 86.90% Touchdown 52.40% Win
2010 CRIST MICHIGAN STATE 7 2 OPP 27 1 0 79.90% Touchdown 46.20% Loss
2017 WIMBUSH STANFORD -4 4 OWN 25 1 0 33.80% Touchdown 0.10% Loss
2011 HENDRIX FLORIDA STATE 5 4 OWN 31 1 0 82.60% Touchdown 50.00% Loss
2015 KIZER TEMPLE 4 2 OPP 14 1 0 91.10% Touchdown 62.30% Win
2010 REES USC 7 3 OWN 15 0 1 67.40% Touchdown 40.30% Win
2013 REES PITTSBURGH 0 4 OPP 4 1 0 83.10% No points 58.70% Loss
2012 REES BYU 0 2 OWN 31 1 0 75.60% Touchdown 51.30% Win
2018 BOOK PITTSBURGH -8 3 OPP 24 1 0 72.40% No points 49.30% Win
2010 CRIST NAVY -4 2 OWN 7 1 0 44.10% Touchdown 21.10% Loss
2019 BOOK VIRGINIA TECH -3 3 OPP 33 1 0 89.40% No points 66.50% Win
2014 GOLSON NORTH CAROLINA -7 1 OWN 23 1 0 73.40% Touchdown 51.40% Win
2010 REES USC 0 4 OWN 21 1 0 46.20% Field goal 24.30% Win
2014 GOLSON NORTH CAROLINA 6 3 OWN 13 0 1 92.50% Touchdown 71.20% Win
@ndjrs / Twitter

Finally, even if I were to remove the subsequent defensive performance, Rees would still be responsible for two of the most gut-wrenching turnovers.

His red zone interception with 42 seconds left in the 2010 game against the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes dropped the Irish’s win probability from 83.77 percent to zero. The visitors didn’t need a score; they were leading by one.

Likewise, the Florida State Seminoles were leading by four when they intercepted a Rees’ first down pass with 2:54 remaining in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl and the Irish at the Seminoles’ 28. Despite Bob Diaco’s defense subsequently forcing a Seminoles punt, the Irish’s win probability dropped from 52.84 percent before the pass to 7.33 percent when they regained possession with about 15 seconds left.

BUT WHAT ABOUT GOLSON?

Most of the arguments I’m making in support of my hypothesis could have been applied to Everett Golson. Irish defenses yielded an average of 3 points immediately after a Golson miscue; for Rees, it was 2.6 points. Golson had more turnovers within his own 20 (six) than Rees did (two), setting up gimme scores for opponents. The Irish defense gave up points immediately after 53.1 percent of Golson’s 32 turnovers.

The only discernible difference is that the Irish were losing by an average of 2 points at the time of Golson’s oopsies, while Rees’ came when the Irish were winning by 0.8 points.

The difference, perhaps, is that Golson never had a back-breaker quite like Rees did. Golson’s two worst turnovers — again by change in win probability — came during a 2014 game against the North Carolina Tar Heels. That’s a game the Irish won, 50-43.

(Perhaps you disagree, citing Golson’s interception against the Seminoles that year. It certainly extinguished any hope of a victory, but it was also 4th and 18 with 13 seconds left so the probability of winning was already less than 20 percent.)

CONCLUSION

I’ve been grousing for almost three years about how I believe “Turnover Tommy” was an unfair moniker, but I’m certain I still haven’t cracked why Rees’ reputation among a certain subset of fans is as turnover prone and, say, Golson’s is not.

My theories are that Rees’ turnovers were slightly more frequent than the others, that they were more traumatizing than the others and that the Irish defenses playing opposite Rees did him no favors in perpetuating fan dissatisfaction.

Also, the stickiness of “Turnover Tommy” is easy to understand because of alliteration, but it’s harder to explain why “#TommyNo” endures as well.

So I turn to you, reader, to explain to me what I missed.

ONE FINAL NOTE

There is no correlation between on-field ability and coaching acumen. If Ian Book forces a pass next year and it gets picked, it’ll be because he made a bone-headed decision. It won’t be because Tommy Rees is his offensive coordinator and position coach, and Rees made occasionally bad calls during his playing career.

I created this post because I thought it would generate interesting debate, and not to scrutinize any decision by Notre Dame to promote Rees as a coach. (I’m also the longest running Tommy Rees apologist on the Internet.)

Thank you to Brendan McAlinden for the interactive Tableau chart in this story. You can follow him here or on Twitter.