The Legacy of Taylor Martinez

Back in August, I kept hearing about how the 2013 season would “define Taylor Martinez’s legacy”.

At the time, I thought that statement was a hot load of crap.

After three full seasons with Taylor Martinez as Nebraska’s quarterback, his “legacy” was already defined.  The definition of that legacy all depends on how you view Martinez.

If you are optimistic on Martinez, you view him as one of the most dynamic and explosive quarterbacks in school history, somebody who owns nearly every school record a quarterback can own.

If you are pessimistic on Martinez, you view him as a frustratingly inconsistent turnover machine, who never won a championship or bowl game.

Here’s the thing – both of those perspectives are correct.  I get it:  there is a certain subset of the fan base who will never forgive Martinez for this actions during (and after) the 2010 Texas A&M game.  There are fans who will never fully support a player who quits and rejoins the team (allegedly), no matter how talented and successful he is (see also:  Crouch, Eric).  I don’t subscribe to that theory, but I understand where those people are coming from.

With injuries having cut his senior season short, we can look back on his career; his triumphs and tragedies, and really dig into what made Taylor Martinez the player that rewrote the record book while alienating a section of a fan base that loves to love their quarterbacks.

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Taylor Martinez’s legacy can be summarized in six words.

Wow.  I will remember Martinez for the highlight reel of “wow” moments.  The plays where his speed and athleticism turned disaster into touchdowns.  I’m talking about 80 yard runs against Washington and Kansas State, his run against UCLA, the mad scramble against Wisconsin.  But there was more than just big runs.  Despite his funky mechanics*, he put up four 300 yard passing games, and delivered several key touchdown passes to help Nebraska win games.

And when he put it all together?  Then you get wow moments like the fourth quarter of the 2012 Michigan State game, where he led a comeback win with a combination of big throws and back-breaking runs – against one of the best defenses in the conference.  Or the 2010 Oklahoma State game, where Martinez threw for 300+ yards.

*Ah yes, those mechanics.  At best, they were unorthodox.  At worst, they were a horror show.  There were several deep balls where I truly believe he yelled “500!” as he released the ball.  But let’s not pretend that other Husker greats had textbook mechanics.  They had to replace the Memorial Stadium turf after the 1995 season because Tommie Frazier had bounced so many passes on it.  Scott Frost threw as if he was taught by a women’s shot put champion.   

Turnovers.  If Taylor Martinez’s performances were a coin that was flipped before every snap, one side of that coin would say “wow”.  What would the other side say?  I’m not sure, but it is probably an expletive uttered by fans after another Martinez turnover.

Without sugar-coating it, Martinez was a turnover machine, leading the nation in fumbles and fumbles lost in 2011 and 2012.  He regularly threw ill-advised passes into double coverage or over his intended receiver.  Often these turnovers were momentum killing soul crushers that put the defense in a bind, or contributed to blow out losses.  Making matters worse, many of them appeared as if they could have been prevented with better decision-making.  Martinez did not discriminate in who he turned it over to (FCS teams, non conference foes, division rivals, etc.), but it always felt like most of his turnovers came in crucial moments of games against ranked opponents.

Records.  Simply put, Taylor Martinez owns just about every offensive record that a quarterback can own.  Among the big ones:  career starts at QB, Total Offense, Passing Yards, Touchdown Passes, Rush Yards by a QB, and multiple testing records for quarterbacks.

From a purely statistical standpoint, Taylor Martinez may be the greatest QB Nebraska has known.  And as great as his stats are, it is scary to imagine the numbers he could have put up had he been healthy throughout his career.

Injured.  Of the 44 games that Taylor Martinez played at Nebraska, how many did he play at 100% health?  At 90%?  Below 75%?  Martinez, when healthy, was an amazingly dynamic player – a legitimate threat to score from anywhere on the field.  But when injured, Martinez struggled to be an average QB.  Without the healthy legs, he had to rely on his arm (and decision-making skills) to lead Nebraska to victory.  Without the threat of him running, defenses were free to focus on the pass, and often confused him with blitzes and different coverages.

To be sure, Martinez is a tough kid.  He absorbed a ton of hits over his career and did not miss a meaningful snap in the 2012 season.  Even when he was hurt, he wanted to continue playing – even if it was detrimental to the team.  Part of the blame falls on Martinez for being too proud/stubborn/foolish to try to play when he was injured.  But I feel the majority of the blame falls on the coaching staff for a) not recognizing their injured QB was becoming a liability, and b) not having a capable backup on the roster.  Seriously, as poorly as Martinez played in some of the games where he was hurt, was the option on the bench (Brion Carnes, Ron Kellogg III, Cody Green, etc.) going to be any better?

Mercurial.  This may be my favorite on this list.  Why?  Name another athlete – college or pro, football or any other sport – who is widely described as “mercurial”.  In doing a search for a good definition of “mercurial”, I came across the following description:  “cool and willful at one moment, utterly fragile the next.”  I don’t know Martinez at all, so it’s not fair for me to comment on the true depths of his personality.  However, given how often that word appears in articles about him, one can assume that the media who covered him for four years certainly felt that way.

To be sure, Taylor’s personality is a big part of his narrative.  He comes across as quiet and reserved, and appears as if he doesn’t trust people outside of his circle.  Most of us see truth in Tunnel Walk of Shame’s depiction of Martinez as a childlike Bro:  yelling “YOLO” while getting excited over bounce houses and coloring books.  Simply put, his personality doesn’t mesh with what we expect from a starting quarterback.  Martinez comes across as a passive Type B in a position that seems to require an assertive Type A.  While he could be as bold and confident as any QB, his claims (stated goals of a national championship and a 70% completion percentage) were often met with rolled eyes.

While nobody will argue that Taylor’s personality is wired differently than any other Husker QB, I think the media and fans own a part of this too.  As a redshirt freshman, he was clearly not ready for the fishbowl of being Nebraska’s starter, nor the spotlight brought on by his immediate success.  However, the fan and media criticism for not being a vocal leader, not speaking at press conferences, and having every syllable of every quote parsed and analyzed to death surely did not help his comfort or trust with the media and fans.

Polarizing.  Taylor Martinez may very well be the most polarizing figure in Nebraska football history.  Ask ten people their opinion on Martinez and my guess is most will be at one extreme (“he’s great”) or the other (“he sucks”) with very few in the middle.  As Martinez was rewriting the career record book in 2012, there were fans wondering why his backups were not starting instead of him.  At the 2013 fan day, a female fan brought a life-sized cutout of Martinez for him to sgin.

Here is what I find most telling:  In the almost 40 years that I have cheered for this team, I cannot remember another time where friends, family, fans, and random other day-to-day contacts were truly excited over a Nebraska player suffering an injury.  I don’t think there was a lot of joy that Taylor Martinez (person) was injured. but I have heard and felt unmistakable joy that Taylor Martinez (quarterback) may never take another snap.  Name another Husker player who got the same treatment?

*   *   *

You may notice there is one key word that does not equate into Martinez’s legacy definition:  Rings.  For all of his statistical greatness, his longevity, his 40+ starts under center, Taylor Martinez will leave Nebraska without any championship rings*

*While Nebraska may have ordered rings for the various division championships Martinez was involved with (2010 Big XII North, 2012 Big Ten Legends) not even the most fervent of Martinez supporters would claim those match the rings earned for conference or national championships.  

And this is the big hole in Taylor Martinez’s legacy –  the strikeout pitch for any debate over where Martinez ranks in the pantheon of great Husker QBs – he has zero conference championships (0-2 in title games) and zero bowl wins (0-3) on his resume.  I will point out that the full weight of those losses is not on #3’s shoulders (unless Martinez was somehow responsible for failing to stop Melvin Gordon on the jet sweep) while acknowledging that Martinez was at best inconsistent when the lights were the brightest.

*   *   *

So as he prepares to enter Memorial Stadium for the final time on Friday’s Senior Day, what is the legacy of Taylor Martinez?  How will we remember him?

My son’s first Husker jersey has #3 on it.  He is too young to remember Martinez, so here is how I’ll describe Martinez to him when he is older:  Whenever Taylor Martinez took a snap, the odds were good that the other team’s offense would soon be on the field – either because he scored from 70 yards or because he turned it over.

Personally, I found that risk/reward proposition exciting.  I didn’t always agree with his decision-making process or the sometimes haphazard way he protected the ball.  But often it was worth it for the results – the “did you see that?” moments that likely kept defensive coordinators up all night.

The other stuff?  His aloof appearance, his perceived selfishness, not speaking to the media after losses. and all of the other off the field stuff?  All in all, it didn’t bother me.  Sure, I think we would all like to have seen a personable, engaging, and selfless leader who is as quick to take the blame as he is to deflect praise.  But admit it:  if Martinez’s record in championships and bowls is 4-1 instead of 0-5, a lot less of us would care about the type of person/teammate we perceive him to be.

As Taylor Martinez comes out of the tunnel one last time.  I will stand and applaud a man who gave everything he had to Nebraska, and helped this team win games they should have lost.  

I know it won’t be as easy for some of you, but I hope that you can join m in cheering for this Husker legend (sorry, the stats and records say he is a legend).

If it helps, you can cheer the fact that it will be the last time you see him in a Nebraska jersey.

What do you think?

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