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Notre Dame's NFL quarterbacks have never ascended Mount Montana

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Joe Montana set an impossibly high standard for NFL quarterbacks from Notre Dame. Ryan Nanni looks at the difficult climb and the illustrious names who have attempted it.

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Following Joe Montana, Notre Dame Quarterback was always going to be a tricky proposition. There are no gaudy statistics to match - by the time he left South Bend, Montana had thrown 25 touchdowns and 25 interceptions while completing slightly more than half of his pass attempts - but, man, the storybook expectations. As a sophomore, Montana introduced himself to Fighting Irish fans with fourth quarter relief appearances that brought the team back from late deficits against UNC and Air Force. As a junior, he started third on the depth chart, wound up taking the starting job midseason, and led Notre Dame to a national championship over Texas. And Montana's last college appearance has its own nickname.

Now quadruple that degree of difficulty when you're talking about Joe Montana, Notre Dame Alumnus in the NFL. Four Super Bowls (three with an MVP award), 273 touchdowns, over 40,000 passing yards, and a spot in the Hall of Fame aren't goals, they're impossible summits to climb. There's no shame in saying that, either at Notre Dame or as a professional football player, you didn't reach the same level as Joe Montana. The number of people who can say they were could fit in a school bus.

Having acknowledged that reaching the peak of Montana's legacy, we still have to ask: how far up the mountain did Rick Mirer, Brady Quinn, and Jimmy Clausen make it?

Mount Montana

RICK MIRER

Like Montana, Rick Mirer burst onto the Notre Dame scene as a sophomore with a fourth quarter comeback. The media did not take long to notice.

On the whole, he lived up to that lofty billing in his first year as a starter, helping the Fighting Irish go 9-2 in the regular season before a narrow and controversial loss to #1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl. The rest of Mirer's college career was similarly successful; Notre Dame won ten games in both his junior and senior seasons, including a win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl. And to really boost the Montana comparisons, Mirer's finale was the same as Joe's - a victory in the Cotton Bowl.

There were disappointments amongst the successes. Rick Mirer never won a title at Notre Dame, and the Irish finished lower in the final AP poll than they started in the preseason rankings in all three years he was the starter. Still, Mirer left South Bend having thrown 41 touchdowns and run for another 17, and his skills were so impressive that Bill Walsh declared him "the outstanding athlete of the draft" after the Seattle Seahawks picked him second overall.

But college success only gets you to base camp on Mount Montana. Rick Mirer started every game as a rookie for the Seahawks in 1993 and did enough to make you think he'd develop into a successful pro. He took too many sacks, and he wasn't always great at connecting on deeper throws, but Mirer mostly avoided interceptions and showed he could be a running threat. Considering the team he joined had won two games and thrown nine touchdowns the year before, even rookie growing pains were an improvement.

What nobody realized was that this wasn't Rick Mirer learning how to be an NFL quarterback. This was just Rick Mirer. Before the 1997 Draft, he was traded to Chicago, and a year after that he asked to be released so he could sign with the Packers. Mirer bounced around for six more seasons, but he only appeared in 27 games after leaving Seattle. In his 68 starts as a professional, Rick Mirer was held below 200 yards passing 49 times. Joe Montana's heir had become one of the biggest busts to come out of Notre Dame.

mt montana mirer

BRADY QUINN

As a true freshman in 2003, Brady Quinn wasn't expected to start for Notre Dame. Senior Carlyle Holiday was coming off a 9-3 season, his second atop the depth chart, and while Quinn was a highly regarded prospect, he was not widely seen as the sort of talent you had to get on the field right away. Yet two games into the season, there was Brady Quinn, throwing a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Michigan State and trying to lead a comeback. Unlike Mirer and Montana before him, Quinn couldn't get the win for the Irish.

Statistically, Brady Quinn's legacy at Notre Dame is almost unassailable. He still owns nearly every quarterback record, including career completions, passing yards, touchdowns thrown, and wins as a starter, and Quinn is one of eleven players in college football history who have won the Maxwell and Unitas Awards. The numbers were there for Brady Quinn. The on-field results? During Quinn's four seasons, Notre Dame:

- Went 0-2 against Boston College
- Went .500 against Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue
- Never beat USC
- Lost every bowl game they appeared in, with a 16 point average margin of defeat

Scouts and media members believed Brady Quinn was still worthy of a top pick in the 2007 Draft, with most experts predicting he'd be taken in the top ten. And then the drop happened.

Down the board Brady Quinn tumbled. Twelve other franchises left him untouched before the Browns traded up to the 22nd pick to take him. An optimist might have been reminded of the 2005 Draft, when Aaron Rodgers dropped all the way to pick 24. If Quinn could turn into a franchise quarterback in Cleveland, how many teams would regret letting him slip?

20 starts, 17 interceptions, 41 sacks, and 12 passing touchdowns later, we know the answer: none. Injuries and inconsistent play kept Brady Quinn from ever becoming anything more than another entry in the list of failed Browns quarterbacks, and Cleveland eventually traded him away for a sixth-round pick. By the time Joe Montana turned 30, he had won a Super Bowl, been named to four Pro Bowl teams, and thrown 133 touchdowns. Brady Quinn turned 30 last month and works as an analyst on television.

mt montana quinn

JIMMY CLAUSEN

When Jimmy Clausen stood at a podium at the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006 to announce his commitment to Notre Dame, he stated that he planned to "do everything I can to help us win national championships." It's not close to the worst thing a highly touted recruit has ever said, and had it been said about USC or Miami or some other team that had been recently successful, it might have gone unnoticed.

But it is the kind of statement that gets turned against you quickly if you fail, and, oh, did Notre Dame fail in Clausen's first year. The Irish lost their first five games on the way to a 3-9 record -- their lowest win total in 44 years. They were shut out by Michigan. They were shut out by USC. They lost to Navy and Air Force. And Clausen was largely powerless to stop it, finishing the year with seven touchdowns and six interceptions.

Jimmy Clausen's next (and last) two years in South Bend weren't nearly as disastrous, but no one would call them successful. The 2008 Fighting Irish went 6-6 in the regular season, losing to Michigan State, UNC, Pitt, Boston College, Syracuse, and, finally, USC, a game in which Clausen threw for 41 yards and two picks. In 2009, Notre Dame went 6-6 again, though every loss was by seven points or fewer, and the program decided to a) fire Charlie Weis and b) skip a bowl game altogether. Clausen finished the year with his best stats - 28 touchdowns, four interceptions, and over 3700 yards passing. And that was the end of his Notre Dame career, with one Hawaii Bowl win to show for his national championship hopes.

Technically, there is no final grade for Jimmy Clausen as a pro quarterback. To date, he's appeared in 16 games and thrown three touchdowns. To put that into perspective: Joe Montana had ten individual games with more touchdowns than Clausen's reached in his NFL career. He's still on Chicago's roster backing up Jay Cutler, and he may still get an opportunity to prove himself, with the Bears or elsewhere in the future. The possibility, however remote, still exists that Jimmy Clausen will throw the winning touchdown in a Super Bowl.

For now, however, the highest peaks of Mount Montana look oh so far away.

mt montana clausen

Look at the pattern here. As the years pass, the progress each would-be heir makes in trying to live up to Joe Montana's immense legacy diminishes. The NFL numbers they've put up show the same.

Drafted Games Started Wins as Starter Touchdowns
Mirer 2nd 68 24 50
Quinn 22nd 20 4 12
Clausen 48th 10 1 3


It's as if the pressure generated by trying to be the next Joe Montana is disintegrating the careers of Notre Dame quarterbacks. Everett Golson might save himself the trouble and just go straight to the CFL.

★★★

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