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Nobody is safe in our nihilistic sporting culture. Every athlete is subject to disapproval, doubting and inevitable deconstruction, the “yeah, but” crowd always lurking with a takedown whenever imperfection arises. When praise flows, backlash awaits its turn to launch a counterattack.
And in these treacherous times, no position is fraught with more peril than quarterback.
Tom Brady is the biggest winner in the history of the sport, but much of America outside of New England eagerly churns up reasons to dislike him. It took most of Peyton Manning’s career to outlive the “Can’t-Win-The-Big-One” rap, and when he did capture his second Super Bowl many people dismissed it as a product of Denver’s defense. Aaron Rodgers is now being derided as a coach killer.
And those guys are all-time greats.
Pity, then, the college QBs who are routinely built up and torn down. Even while authoring the most efficient season in FBS history in 2018, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa was dogged by criticism of his stressed-out performances against Georgia and Clemson — proof to some haters that his gaudy season numbers were only the product of a weak schedule.
But tell me, please, what Nihilism Nation is going to do with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.
He is, at this point, un-rippable. There are no knocks. Which, if that continues, may ultimately become the knock — somewhat like Brady, he might be too perfect for some to tolerate. At age 19, however, it would take a special kind of hater to be down on Lawrence.
At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, with the arm of Zeus and the hair of Samson, he appears to have been spit out of a quarterback laboratory. But it’s far more than just the look test. His 2018 production was unlike anything we’ve seen from a true freshman QB.
This was Pro Football Focus’ appraisal of Lawrence’s season: “No true freshman has put forth the kind of grades we saw from Lawrence last year as he dominated game in and game out. He took remarkable care of the football with just five turnover-worthy plays to his credit, the fewest among quarterbacks with at least 250 dropbacks. He also was a maestro with the ball, unleashing 27 big-time throws, a true freshman record and the fifth-most among active quarterbacks. His 27 BTT to 5 TWP is one of the best ratios we’ve ever seen from any quarterback, let alone a true freshman and he did it all with a media circus following him around since high school.”
(I asked Pro Football Focus’ Cam Mellor to explain what constitutes a “Big Time Throw” and a “Turnover Worthy Play.” His response: “Big-Time Throw – PFF's highest-graded pass attempts based upon ball location, accuracy, velocity, distance downfield and other factors. … Turnover-Worthy Throw – PFF's lowest-graded pass attempts are throws that should be intercepted or should be turnovers but for whatever reason, dropped INT, pass interference, etc. are not.”)
In terms of more traditional statistics, start with the most important one: His team did not lose. Clemson went 15-0, won the national title and bludgeoned a pair of undefeated opponents in the College Football Playoff. Lawrence started the final 11 games, and after being injured early in his first start, against Syracuse, the Tigers’ average margin of victory in the next 10 games was 36.1 points. They destroyed everyone.
Along the way, Lawrence’s personal performance kept improving. After being intercepted on his final throw against Boston College on Nov. 10, Lawrence has since compiled a 171-pass streak without being picked off. His season efficiency rating was 157.56, 12th in the nation, but in the two playoff games it rose to 173.83 — and that was against a pair of top-25 pass defenses.
Yes, his absurdly gifted wide receivers often made him look good with acrobatic catches — something Lawrence volunteered after walloping both Notre Dame and Alabama. But Lawrence also showcased both spectacular velocity and impressive accuracy all season, able to make every kind of throw in the quarterback repertoire. Throw in the ability to read defenses and think on his feet, and there is nothing he wasn’t able to do right away as a college quarterback.
Lawrence basically detonated the expected learning curve at the position. The standard setters for college QB precocity earlier this decade were Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston, each of whom won the Heisman Trophy as redshirt freshmen and one of whom (Winston) led his team to the national title. But the key word in the above sentence was “redshirt,” something Lawrence did not do.
He did go through spring practice at Clemson before his freshman season, which gave him a chance to be ready for the fall. But there is a big difference between a redshirt year and three weeks of spring ball.
Lawrence is the ultimate product of the youth quarterback industry that has accelerated the preparedness of young players, via private coaching and offensive philosophies that are easily adaptable from high school to college and beyond. Quarterbacks in general are ready earlier than ever to excel.
But Lawrence is the readiest, earliest, we’ve ever seen.
“Trevor Lawrence ruined it for everyone,” said ESPN analyst and former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy.
Thing is, this precocity was not really unexpected. Those who saw Lawrence while he was starring at Cartersville High School in Georgia were prone to extreme gushing. He was as easily identifiable as a rising superstar as LeBron James was coming out of Akron early this century.
“Every time I see him, he reminds me of Peyton Manning, except he’s more athletic with a better arm,” said Rivals.com lead football recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. “I know that’s heady and ridiculous stuff, and people who know me know I don’t say stuff like that often, but this kid is special. The comparisons are accurate.”
And then there was former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who in September 2017 laid the hype on thick after watching and coaching Lawrence in the Elite 11 Camp. Dilfer said the then-17-year-old was “better than 15 guys in the NFL right now from a talent standpoint. Maybe more."
Lawrence himself isn’t doing much to fan the flames of his own hype. He’s kept a low media profile this summer, skipping the interview session at the Manning Passing Academy in June and not being one of the players Clemson took to Atlantic Coast Conference media days. (It was a lamentable decision by the Tigers.) A quest to find — and interview — whoever cuts his famous hair went nowhere as well.
Unlike Manziel and Winston, Lawrence has done precious little to stir up drama away from the field. That’s another hurdle for Nihilism Nation to confront should it ever get around to trying to take down Trevor Lawrence.
Perhaps the kid will provide a few incompletions — maybe even an interception — to overreact to next Thursday night when the Tigers open their title defense against Georgia Tech. But it’s difficult to project a Clemson loss anytime before Christmas, and even more difficult to project a Clemson loss that is attributable to poor quarterback play.
For now, the haters have nothing on Trevor Lawrence. Which, in and of itself, they must hate.
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