Physically, he’s had worse. Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee was sacked 43 times in two seasons as a pup quarterback at Tulane in 2014 and 2015. By Thanksgiving, No. 13 started to resemble that poor sap from the Operation board game with a light bulb for a nose. A bum ring finger. A broken index finger. A concussion. A separated shoulder. Bread basket. Funny bone.
“He always had something,” offered Eric Price, Lee’s old offensive coordinator with the Green Wave. Then he chuckled morbidly. “We didn’t protect him well, to say the least.”
The pounding continues, only these days the Cornhuskers junior quarterback, after having thrown 7 interceptions combined in losses at Oregon and at home to Northern Illinois, is getting the snot kicked out of him on postgame shows. And message boards. And blogs. And especially social media:
Tanner Lee strengths:
– Looking like a QB
– Handing off
– Making ungroomed facial hair look good
Tanner Lee weaknesses:
– Playing QB
— Brett Nierengarten (@BDN013) September 16, 2017
I’m going to keep posting variations of this Tanner Lee meme until it’s irrelevant pic.twitter.com/4q1uKEXUhk
— Chris Goering (@chrisgoering) September 16, 2017
For those who know No. 13 best, the days after Lee’s 3-pick tilt against the Huskies feel a bit like déjà vu. Only amplified and blasted on a national stage.
“He has been through some things where something bad happened, everyone’s looking at him, and they’re blaming him, the media and the fans,” said Price, now an offensive analyst with the Jacksonville Jaguars. “He had a lot of pressure on him and he was playing hurt a lot of the time and he was beat up. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think he’s gonna go,’ and he’s going. He didn’t say anything about it — he just showed up. And he’s awesome in that way. And that experience was very valuable to him, especially early in his career.”
After one road contest, Price recalled, the Wave landed in New Orleans and he and brother Aaron, then Tulane’s quarterbacks coach, and Lee’s father, Phillip, waited at a hospital until 3 in the morning for the signal caller to be treated and cleared.
‘He understands what type of quarterback he is, and I think he’s learned throughout his experience at Tulane [that] he’s not going to run, he’s not going to scramble out of trouble.’
— Former Tulane offensive coordinator Eric Price on Nebraska QB Tanner Lee
“You know, the resiliency of a quarterback makes a great quarterback,” Aaron Price said. “Those are the guys that stick with it, and those are the guys that end up coming out and being some of the greats … when things don’t go their way, or they don’t perform the way they want to, they step up and take even more of an important role, as opposed to feeling defeated.
“He’s had plenty [of bumps], unfortunately. He has. We put him in this situation at an early age and we moved up into the American Athletic Conference and we hadn’t recruited for that. We had recruited kids to compete and do well in the Conference USA, and then that bump up a conference, that was too much for us at Tulane, where we threw him into the fire and we threw him into the field early.”
Lee is a tough cookie, and both Prices see him coming through a rough first month as Nebraska’s No. 1 signal caller. But he’ll need help: According to Pro Football Focus’ film reviews, Lee has been under pressure on 52 of 129 drop-backs (40.3 percent) in 2017, and his QB rating while pressured is an unsightly 30.6 — 16 completions on 43 attempts, 2 scores, 4 interceptions and 8 sacks. (QB rating on snaps without pressure: 78.7, with 3 touchdowns and 3 picks.) His PFF adjusted completion percentage — taking away drops, throwaways, spikes, and the like — is 60.7, the lowest mark in the Big Ten so far.
Off the top of my head I count SIX turnover-worthy throws by Tanner Lee of #Nebraska today – neither of his pick sixes among them.
— Josh Liskiewitz (@PFF_Josh) September 16, 2017
“His average time to throw is 2.51 [seconds], which is a little low but I don’t think it’s necessarily a reflection on the line, maybe just the offense,” PFF Big Ten analyst Josh Liskiewitz noted.
“If there’s a younger quarterback on the roster that may have a chance of leading this team in the future, I think it’s time to pull the trigger. Because Tanner Lee isn’t showing any improvements over what we saw of him from 2014 and 2015. He is what he is, at this point. He is what he is.”
Tanner Lee career completion percentages:
High School: 49%
Are we naive to think he can turn this around?
— Husk Guys (@HuskGuys) September 16, 2017
In 19 games with the Wave, Lee completed 328 of 612 throws (53.6 percent) with 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. If we project his first three tilts with the Big Red out over 19 contests, he’s on a pace to complete 398 passes on 756 attempts (52.5 percent) with 32 touchdowns and 44 picks.
Passing efficiency then: 108.6
Passing efficiency now: 109.8.
“Everything doesn’t go perfect,” Eric Price continued. “He understands what type of quarterback he is, and I think he’s learned throughout his experience at Tulane [that] he’s not going to run, he’s not going to scramble out of trouble.
“He’s got to rely on his quick release and getting the ball out quick and keeping it within his abilities. So I think that’ll help him [in tough times].
“He’s always going to be positive. He’s a really coachable kid. He’ll buy into whatever you tell him. In that sense, he’s going to at least buy into what the coaches are going to do. That’s comforting for a coach, when you trust a kid to do it the right way.”
But when the misfires pile up and the Twitter mobs start pounding on the gates, even trust has its limits. PFF charted Lee with completing just 5 of 17 throws that were 10 or more yards downfield. And the scouting site says the Huskers signal caller sports a 49.9 QB rating when he’s not under pressure from the opposing pass rush.
“It is worth pointing out that his QB rating when throwing in 2.5 seconds or less is 80.2, but when he throws later, it plummets to 30.3,” Liskiewitz said. “A 39.6 is the standard rating for an incomplete pass. So the key to watching his games, as a fan, is to take a stopwatch, and once you get to 2.5 seconds on a pass play, close your eyes.”
Or cover them. Your call.