A very special mailbag, with just one question. This one has been asked, or implied by people sending me reasons the play of the team is definitely the fault of the coaches, by many, many people the past couple weeks. If you sent one, I read it. I'm not responding except here. Sorry. Usually I try to be better about it.
The platonic ideal:
Just talk me off the ledge...
Please explain what it would take for you to no longer support Rich Rod. What specifically has to happen? And then, please state not just what you expect to see from the program in the coming years, but how the team will improve? To me, that's why I just can't support Rich Rod anymore. Show me where are the underclassmen who will show improvement and how you actually see the coaches making them better.
I just don't see it. Instead, I see a mentally soft team, that while yes, has serious deficiencies, is currently losing to teams that also have serious deficiencies. Our players seem to be all over the place and just poorly coached in general.
Like I said, talk me off the ledge..
I get emails like this because I've been a supporter of Rodriguez throughout his tenure at Michigan and am moving much more slowly towards the conclusion that Rodriguez should be fired than the rest of the universe. The emailer asks for specifics. To set ground rules, here are the assumptions I am working with.
Virtually nothing that happened in 2008 was avoidable, and it was mostly not Rodriguez's fault. Michigan's program had already been gutted by attrition and poor motivation by the time Rodriguez made it to campus, and the exodus of offensive stars in the aftermath of his hiring was an inevitable consequence of the radical shift in offensive philosophy.
I have it from reliable sources Ryan Mallett was gone no matter who was the coach and that Manningham was headed for the NFL after three years from day one. Arrington left because Mallett left. Boren left because he was asked to put in the same amount of effort as the rest of the team and not given special exemptions to go be Mr. Plow. If you want to blame Rodriguez for Boren, fine. Add him to the team last year and you still have a disaster of an offense that starts Nick Sheridan most of the year.
Arguments that Rodriguez should have stuck with a pro-style offense he's never coached and forgo the installation of his system in order to get to 5-7 when hardly anyone on the roster has even played in a pro-style system have been discussed already; I think they are silly.
Rodriguez is not responsible for the enormous holes on the roster. Rodriguez has had a single full recruiting class and had a brief window in which to patch some spread-type players onto Carr's last class. The gaping holes on defense and the lack of talent at outside receiver and offensive line are almost entirely Lloyd Carr's doing. The freshmen quarterbacks are a combination of Carr putting every egg for three years in Mallett's basket and the radical shift in offensive philosophy.
This has been discussed elsewhere on the blog; I won't belabor the point.
Hiring Scott Shafer was a terrible mistake, and the other hires are questionable. At the very least it was a misjudge of the guy's ability to fit in on the staff. At worst, he allowed his DC to get submarined and saw the defense implode because of his assistants' impatience.
This may extend to Rodriguez's other hires as well: Jay Hopson has recruited very few players as Michigan withdrew entirely from Mississippi after last year's debacle; Hopson also secured the commitments of both defensive tackles who went elsewhere on signing day. His linebacking corps has regressed horribly.
And while the jury is still be out (very, very out) on Robinson given the players he has to work with, but his track record since his salad days with the Broncos is one of relentless failure with a single good-not-great year at Texas mixed in.
It is worth noting that the guys who can really be considered DeBord-style crony legacy folk are Magee, Tall, Smith, and Gibson. Dews is a vagabond who was a grad assistant at WVU for a few years before wandering around to Holy Cross, CMU, and UNLV. Frey was picked off from South Florida a year before Rodriguez left WVU and had no prior connection to Rodriguez. Hopson is obviously new. Fred Jackson was an enforced hire by the Michigan AD.
The crony guys are the offensive coordinator who everyone loves, the DL coach who is, IME, doing a very good job, the QB coach who helped Pat White be Pat White, and… well… Tony Gibson. At this point I'd rather see Rodriguez hire a guy he knows inside and out; the folk he brings in from the outside haven't done that well.
We are not at the point yet where the deficiencies in the team are clearly the doing of the coaches. It's pretty suggestive at linebacker, sure. But the secondary is just a disaster zone and would be a disaster zone if Monte Kiffin cloned himself eight times and had all eight players try to teach the safeties how to play football. The offense has improved greatly from year one to year two and has done so with true freshmen at quarterback. Since Rodriguez has a track record of success, he should be extended the benefit of the doubt.
They're not "soft." They don't play like mincing Frenchmen. They play like speed-addled kids with ADD. They are irresponsible and sometimes dumb. This is because they are terribly young or Michigan's linebackers. What does "soft" even mean? Jonas Mouton blowing coverages and cutback lanes game after game is not soft. Mike Williams overrunning everyone on Illinois is not soft. Michigan blowing assignments on the Illinois goal line stand is not soft.
It takes time to dig out.
Michigan was not a 3-9 team by accident; they had the talent of a 3-9 team. If you disagree with that, it's probably to suggest that Michigan was really a 5-7 or 4-8 team that Rodriguez screwed up into being a slightly more horrible team, right?
If you think that Michigan's downfall was entirely Rodriguez-made and you're pointing to the gutted recruiting classes that were in the top ten at their inception but have been ground down to dust, you can safely move on from this post since nothing in it will convince you. My opinion is that a combination of poor late stewardship from Carr and the wrenching transition to the opposite of Lloyd Carr in so many ways is what doomed us to this transition.
I expect Rodriguez to provide continual improvement until Michigan is back to being Michigan. That's my baseline. I'm not exactly thrilled with what's gone on this year but I think it's understandable. Given the roster situation and the chaos at DC—which Rodriguez is responsible for—this Michigan team is within the range in which Rich Rodriguez is not an idiot who got lucky with Pat White and Steve Slaton. It's towards the lower end of the range but it is in the range. It takes time to dig out from the hole they were in.
Next year, Michigan must be better than they are this year. I have no idea where the emailer is getting the idea that Michigan can't be a better team when they return at least 16 starters on offense and defense, with Donovan Warren a potential 17th, some combination of Dorrestein and Omameh a potential 18th, and Darryl Stonum a functional 19th.
Additionally, the players on this team are still extremely young. There are 11 starters on the team who are sophomores or freshman by eligibility, and many of the guys with redshirts in there are guys like Hemingway, Huyge, and Molk who missed large chunks of time with injury. The quarterbacks should take huge leaps forward in their second year. The only spot at which Michigan should be appreciably worse next year, excepting special teams, is Brandon Graham. That will be a major loss; it won't offset improved play at every position on the field.
So, sure. If you really don't think Michigan is going to be better next year I can understand why you'd want to see Rodriguez fired. I also think you're completely nuts.
If they aren't obviously better, then Rodriguez should be fired. If they don't make a bowl game, if they aren't obviously moving away from the Big Ten cellar, if they don't approach yardage parity against BCS opponents, Rodriguez should be fired. I think all of those things are seriously unlikely, and am willing to invest a year to find out. Where it is in black and white: acts of God nonwithstanding, Michigan has to go 8-5 next year or Rodriguez should be cut loose. 7-6 might be okay if the bowl matchup is obviously bad.
This is the last I'll say about it until next year.