It all seems so quaint now.
The seats were always full. The players were always good. You could buy a ticket for $30 and you could park for under $10. The seasons rolled through with the promise of championships, and when the team fell short, it was by a small margin. A play here, a second there. There were losses and there was anger, but not like that felt at other, lesser schools. After all, the question was never whether Michigan would have more than four losses; it was whether they would ever have fewer.
Beginning with Elvis Grbac, every Michigan starting quarterback was considered a star and a serious NFL prospect. Grbac and Todd Collins both had substantial NFL careers, and while Scott Driesbach never developed into NFL material (two promising preseasons with the Raiders were derailed by injury) Brian Griese surprised everybody by becoming a genuine NFL player and earning the role of successor to John Elway in Denver. Tom Brady, of course, became one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time. And Drew Henson may have had the best tools of any of them, excelling under center before unexpectedly departing to play Baseball.
Into this environment entered a little-known Wisconsin kid named John Navarre.
He had prototypical qualities; a strong arm and, at 6’6, ideal height. He had a prototypical career path, too—three years of anonymous training, mostly as a backup to Drew Henson, before a friendly debut as the “new guy” with weapons like Braylon Edward and Chris Perry in 2002.
But things did not go according to plan.
By the time Navarre’s career had finished, he had started games in four different seasons. He held most of Michigan’s significant passing records. He had won 30 games. He had beaten all of Michigan’s major rivals. He had won the Big Ten title and gone to a Rose Bowl.
And he had been, and remains, the most criticized player in the history of Michigan Football.
In the last 12 years, our perspective as fans has changed. We have seen previously unimaginable futility on the football field. We have watched great quarterbacks and decent quarterbacks and awful quarterbacks.
From 2000-2003, Michigan fans watched John Navarre. We lived and we died with the results he produced. Many groaned, complained, and yelled; many ached for him and with him; all of us felt the heartbreak and the triumph.
How should we remember him now?
2000: 40 / 77, 51.9%, 583 yards, 7.6 Y/A, 8 TD, 1 INT, 2 wins, 1 loss
A facilities staffer that worked part-time with me at Meijer said, “You’re going to be pleasantly surprised with Navarre.” Drew Henson would miss 3 1/2 games due to injury, and John Navarre stepped in to take his place in the season opener against Bowling Green.
It could not have begun better. Navarre completed 15 of 19 passes for 265 yards and 4 touchdowns. Another three touchdowns the next week against Rice did nothing to tarnish his image, and there was even isolated talk of yet another quarterback controversy in Ann Arbor.
It all crumbled in game three, a 23-20 loss to UCLA in Pasadena. Navarre looked like a redshirt freshman, compiling a miserable 8-28 line for 111 yards and an interception. The next week, he had completed only 4 of 11 before Drew Henson came to the rescue and (with the help of some friendly officiating) led Michigan to a key Big Ten opening victory at Illinois.
Navarre had started well, but he was clearly inexperienced and unready for the biggest stage. It was not supposed to matter, because he was just biding time until Henson graduated anyway. So we thought.
2001: 186 / 346, 53.8%, 2195 yards, 6.3 Y/A, 17 TD, 12 INT, 8 wins, 4 losses
The 2001 season is still one of the great “What-ifs” of Michigan football. Drew Henson stunned the football world by signing a full-time contract with the New York Yankees, and suddenly he was gone and John Navarre assumed the permanent starting role in his place.
There was an ultra-flukey loss at Washington that wasn’t really his fault (field goal blocked and returned by Omare Lowe for a TD? Next series a catchable pass bounces off of Chris Perry’s fingertips and into the hands of Omare Lowe for a pick six?) and he would have recorded a win against Michigan State if the game had not lasted a second longer than 60 minutes. Still, as the season progressed, it was clear that the offense was struggling.
A large portion of this was due to the supporting cast: Michigan’s running game was mediocre in 2001 (BJ Askew led all rushers with 831 yards at 4.4 ypc) and Navarre had only one reliable receiver to target, the connecting 86 times with the brilliant Marquise Walker. Navarre’s inexperienced reliance on Walker was not unmerited; the team’s second leading receiver was Askew with 24 catches. The next best? Congratulations if you guessed Bill Seymour, netting a pedestrian 23 catches. The second-best wideout in catches, with 14, was Ronald Bellamy. There simply weren’t many weapons on the Michigan roster.
By the Wisconsin game (11/24, 58 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) the calls for Lloyd Carr to insert option-style backup Jermaine Gonzalez were noisy and frequent. The Wisconsin game is recorded as a win for Navarre, but it was as flukey a win as the Washington loss, turning on a terrible muffed punt late in the game.
The Ohio State game (21/47, 206 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT) was the low point of Navarre’s career. The critics, growing in volume, suddenly saw every worst fear realized. This was a mediocre Ohio State team, but they jumped on Michigan early, and the mistakes (not only interceptions, but an inept attempt at inserting Jermaine Gonzalez and running option resulted in a fumble, and Walker famously dropped a touchdown pass at a crucial moment) doomed Michigan.
The season concluded in embarrassing fashion, a 45-17 blowout by a loaded Tennessee team in the Citrus Bowl. Michigan was overmatched in all phases of the game; as it happened, that Tennessee team was probably exceeded in talent only by the national champion Miami team in 2001, and that Miami team is one of the all-time greats.
Still, the finish was depressing. Michigan had lost against both major rivals and had been humiliated in its bowl game. At the time, I could not remember a more depressing season of Michigan football.
Navarre was a major factor in this. Yet he was not supposed to be the starter at all—George Steinbrenner spirited away the anointed starter before the season began, and Navarre was put in a difficult position with a team that was rebuilding in many important areas. While it is true that Drew Henson could potentially have put Michigan over the top in each of their three regular season losses, it is also true that the Washington and Michigan State games turned on moments that were not in his control.
Lloyd Carr’s ideal strategy has always been to run the football well, play strong defense, use efficient passing when necessary, and win with better talent and execution. He will pass, particularly with star quarterbacks, but his style is comfortable with a less talented “game manager” type quarterback. In 2001 such “game manager” type performances would be the best one could hope for from Navarre. Yet, though Michigan rarely trailed in its games, Michigan averaged 5 more pass attempts per game than they had with Henson at the helm. The defense was young, and the running game was often ineffective. That is not a formula for success with an inexperienced quarterback, and it showed.
The 2001 season was disappointing at the time, but considering these challenges, Michigan actually performed about as well as could be expected overall.
2002: 248 / 448, 55.4%, 2905 yards, 6.5 Y/A, 21 TD, 7 INT, 10 wins, 3 losses
The complaints about John Navarre were loud and they were constant in 2002. I listened to WTKA regularly, and he was the central topic of virtually every show. Lloyd Carr’s judgment and coaching ability were not under full attacked, but they were questioned, and always only because of Navarre.
The wins (big ones against Washington and Penn State, for example) were not enough. The growth was not enough. Navarre appeared to be unequal to the largest moments.
On the road against Notre Dame (19/42, 230 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), his passing was erratic and he was totally unable to hit receivers on what could have been a key final drive. Against Iowa (14-33, 112 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT), the whole team disintegrated—the running game was invisible, with Perry and Askew combining to net a miserable 12 yards on 12 carries. The offense’s only touchdown was the result of sure-score field position following a blocked punt. After resisting Iowa’s strong Brad Banks-led offense for much of the game, the defense collapsed, and the 34-9 loss was the worst seen since 1967.
But Navarre was the familiar antagonist for fans, and so he was the subject of the conversation afterwards. It was much the same after a narrow surrender to eventual national champion Ohio State (23/46, 247 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT). Michigan gained more yards than the Buckeyes, but when the burden to lead a late comeback drive fell to Navarre, Navarre was unable to produce a victory. And so he got the blame.
The Outback Bowl against Florida (21/36, 319 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) painted a contrast to the dominant narrative. Chris Perry was the star, but Navarre’s efficient passing and the effective gameplan to throw to Perry in space allowed the offense to move well, and Navarre outplayed future NFL draft pick Rex Grossman.
Here was John Navarre as an efficient component of an effective offense. As in the Washington and Penn State games, Navarre was not required to carry the offense by himself, but he was able to play well and win games against quality opponents. There was more talent around him now; Braylon Edwards had developed into a dynamic receiving threat, and after two years of questions at the tailback position, Perry had emerged as weapon that could make the entire offense move well.
The year had its disappointments, but in both Navarre and the team around him, growth was evident. Would it continue?
2003: 270 / 456, 59.2%, 3331 yards, 7.3 Y/A, 24 TD, 10 INT, 10 wins, 3 losses
When it happened, I considered 2003 to be a “very good year.” We beat Michigan State and Ohio State. We won a Big Ten title. We went to a Rose Bowl. Chris Perry won the Doak Walker award. This sounds like a year that should be filed several slots above a year like 2001.
Yet Michigan only improved over 2001 by one loss. A team with Top 5 national-type talent couldn’t get out of its own way. The regular season losses themselves were horrendous, and it took a miracle comeback to avoid the entire season collapsing on a Friday night in Minneapolis. As I’ve reflected on the Lloyd Carr era, I’ve found there are few seasons where more potential has been wasted.
And it was not the fault of John Navarre.
It all started so well. Beating Notre Dame 38-0 (14/21, 199 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) suggested that this team had almost no ceiling. But then #3 Michigan traveled to pre-Chip Kelly Oregon (28-55, 360 yards, 3 TD, 2INT), and again an early road test devolved into a catastrophe.
Lloyd Carr’s running game / defense / execution strategy was always conservative, and while it occasionally grated on fans our own rival Jim Tressel proved that such a strategy could produce winning at the highest levels. Why, then, did Michigan have so much trouble producing seasons with fewer than 3 or 4 losses? After the Oregon game, much of the blame was placed on the shoulders of John Navarre. His accuracy was inconsistent, it was said (true). Not good in the biggest games, it was said. People talked about his vision and about the high crown of the field.
However, Carr’s preferred strategy has always hinged on an effective running game. At Oregon, Chris Perry ran for 26 yards on 11 carries. Carr’s strategy requires good defense, and Oregon passed for a scintillating 8.2 YPA. Carr’s strategy requires good execution, and Michigan gave up a crucial punt return for a TD in the second quarter and a backbreaking punt block for a TD after pulling to within three points in the fourth.
So run-first Michigan asked John Navarre to pass 55 times. Risks were required. Plays had to be made without the benefit of a run threat. And, impressively, he led 3 touchdown drives in the last 19 minutes. But it wasn’t enough.
Michigan’s next road trip, to Iowa (26/49, 389 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) would tell a similar story. Both Iowa first-half TDs were set up by special teams returns, particularly a huge 43-yard punt return at the end of the half. Two punts were blocked in the second half (Bob Griese: “If you want to get a punt blocked, do what Michigan’s doing” in a final ringing condemnation of Michigan’s horrible attempt to use a spread punt formation), the second one setting up a Nate Kaeding go-ahead field goal. Iowa tacked on its only long TD drive of the game later, and a late touchdown for Michigan was again not enough. A final drive finished with three incompletions and a turnover on downs, and Michigan lost, 30-27.
There was, in both of these games, weaknesses visible in Navarre. His accuracy remained inconsistent, and too often Michigan would fail to produce quality drives in key moments. Yet special teams had clearly betrayed Michigan in both games (it should be noted that Michigan did score on a block against Oregon, but that was more than wiped out by its own failures), and the running game was inadequate in both. If Michigan merely played special teams in those two games to a draw, it wins both.
It’s easy to gloss over wins, since the losses are what we remember, but the near-loss to Minnesota was of course the turning point of the season. And in that game, Navarre (33/47, 353 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 1 TD reception in the greatest trick play in Michigan history) was brilliant. Minnesota rushed for 424 yards—Michigan simply could not stop them—and Navarre had to produce. And he brought Michigan back from a 28-7 deficit in the fourth quarter to win 38-35. Navarre had won his big game.
He beat #10 Purdue, #9 Michigan State, and #4 Ohio State, too (21/32, 278 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT). Michigan was humming. The polls ranked them #4 at the end of the regular season; were the current playoff system in place then, there’s little reason to think that they would not have earned the fourth playoff position behind one-loss contestants LSU, Oklahoma, and USC.
And, from that perspective, the 28-14 loss in the Rose Bowl (27-46, 271 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) is forgivable. Michigan was beaten by a better team. Kenechi Udeze spent the entire game in Michigan’s backfield, and Navarre was pulverized. Braylon Edwards dropped an early deep pass, and Chris Perry squeezed out only 85 yards on 23 carries, but Michigan simply lost both lines of scrimmage, and the results spoke for themselves.
The final loss is understandable. Navarre performed well and won all three rivalry games. He played well when it mattered against Minnesota. It could be (and was, occasionally) said that his losing record against Ohio State and the early losses in 2003 were marks against him; yet the early losses were largely the fault of special teams coaching, and a Michigan quarterback has not beaten MSU and OSU in the same year since. In 2003, Navarre answered the critics.
2000 UCLA: A road opener loss. Navarre was awful, but he was young. A better quarterback could have produced a win, but he was not ready.
2001 Washington: A road opener loss. A blocked field goal returned for a TD, and a pick-six that was on Chris Perry’s hands. This loss was not his fault.
2001 Michigan State: The offense was rather dreadful in this game, but we neither remember that nor care: This was the clock game, one of the great crimes in Michigan history. This loss was not his fault.
2001 Ohio State: Navarre’s darkest moment. Four interceptions. Booing from the fans. A mediocre Ohio State game winning in Michigan Stadium for the first time since 1987. Even an average performance at QB might win this game.
2001-2 Tennessee: Navarre wasn’t good. Neither was the rest of the team. I firmly believe that even Drew Henson at his best would have lost this game; Michigan’s defense was just too overmatched.
2002 Notre Dame: A road opener loss. Notre Dame was playing a quarterback named Carlyle Holiday. The offense was bad, and Navarre was the major reason. If he had played better, Michigan would have won. It rests on him.
2002 Iowa: This Iowa team was very, very good. Their offense was fantastic. The final score suggests that Michigan’s defense could have done better… and they could have. But Michigan’s offense was invisible, and while the running game was a problem, Navarre should have done better here. A couple of good drives earlier in the game may have protected the defense from its late collapse and made this game winnable. Navarre is responsible.
2002 Ohio State: If Braylon is not called for a borderline offensive pass interference in the end zone, this might be a win. I felt then and still feel that Michigan played a great road game against a terrific team; Navarre could only have done better by producing a final winning drive when given the chance. Instead, he was strip-sacked and lost the ball. However, OSU’s defense did that a lot in 2002, even to would-be champions Miami. I don’t hold Navarre responsible here.
2003 Oregon: A road opener loss. Navarre struggled at times, but Michigan’s crucial running game was nonexistant, and the special teams breakdowns were backbreaking. With average special teams Michigan wins this game. This is not Navarre’s fault.
2003 Iowa: Iowa only put together one substantial touchdown drive; two more touchdowns and a field goal were set up by two long returns and a blocked punt, respectively. Navarre started the game strong, and if the special teams do not melt down Michigan may have never needed him to put together late drives at all. He could have done better turning some field goals into touchdowns, but that shouldn’t have mattered. This is not his fault.
2003-4 USC: Since the days of Bo, the Michigan family has always known that you win football games at the line of scrimmage. Michigan lost this game at both lines of scrimmage. Even Tom Brady plays poorly when the defensive line is in his face; Navarre never had a chance. This is not his fault.
2000 Bowling Green: Four touchdown passes. A dream debut; alas, not a great indicator of future performance.
2001 Illinois: Michigan’s best game that season, destroying a Sugar Bowl-bound Illinois team 45-20. Navarre (13-26, 187 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) wasn’t remarkable but he wasn’t bad, either. This was a game-management win, assisted as it should be by a good running attack, good defense, and good execution in all phases. This is the model for how Navarre was best used early in his career.
2002 Washington: A shootout game, among the craziest in Michigan Stadium history, best known for the Phil Brabbs miracle field goal. Navarre (22/38, 268 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) was good, not great, and in Braylon Edwards found his new star target. The game turned on a very marginal complete pass call that Edwards himself thought he dropped, and on an Illegal participation penalty against Washington that set up the winning field goal. Navarre did not win the game on his own, but he was good and that was enough.
2002 Penn State: A crackling shootout against a good Penn State team, the first overtime game at Michigan Stadium. Navarre (27-41, 244, 2 TD, 0 INT) again played very well. Michigan only gained 97 yards on the ground (that number factors in -7 in sack yardage charged to Navarre), a good but not great total, and Michigan was still able to score 21 points in regulation and win the game 27-24 in OT. Navarre excels here, not by carrying the offense, but by running it and making the plays that need to be made.
2002-3 Florida: Navarre outplayed Rex Grossman, and he got good help. Running backs have long been some component of the Michigan offense, but in this game the coaches made Chris Perry a key receiver and he produced 108 yards on 6 catches. Perry’s emergence as a weapon was the big story of the game, but Navarre (21-36, 319 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) was clicking and Michigan doesn’t score 38 points without him.
2003 Notre Dame: 38-0 speaks for itself. Navarre was unspectacular, but he was good and in the Lloyd-ball scheme that’s what is needed.
2003 Minnesota: Navarre was known as slow, but he charged down that sideline with determination for a touchdown. He had often come up short in the big moments when Michigan trailed, but here he led the team to 28 points in the fourth quarter. He was best-suited for a game manager role, but here he was the offense and he won the game. A jewel in the crown.
2003 Ohio State: The most important laurel in any Michigan quarterback’s resume: John Navarre beat Ohio State. He was excellent. Ironically, my clearest memory of this game is his perfectly thrown bomb to Braylon Edwards that was called back due to a specious holding penalty; in truth, he was even better than the statistics show. And, in light of Michigan’s history against Ohio State since, this win only grows in stature. And this was no downtrodden form of the team—they were the defending champions, they had one loss, and they had an outside chance at the national title game.
Some themes emerge from careful observation of Michigan in the John Navarre era. The most galling to me is the road opener loss. It was a new phenomenon when Navarre took the helm in 2000; the 1997 team was fresh in our memories, and the excellent 1999 team had finished its season mere months before. But post 1997 Lloyd Carr teams perpetually underperformed in their first road games; even in 1999 (close win against a bad Syracuse team) they were poor, and some of the losses were real head-scratchers. Navarre was the quarterback for four of those losses, but Chad Henne and Tom Brady also helmed teams that looked unexpectedly bad on the road. The 2006 Notre Dame game is all the more surprising in this light.
One is also struck by Lloyd Carr’s inability to execute his preferred style of play. He believed in running the football, playing defense, not turning the ball over, and letting superior talent win games. It worked 8 times a year, but there were always games where things broke down. Too often the team could not run effectively, and the offense inevitably sputtered when Navarre was forced to make difficult 3rd-and-long throws. Special teams, also, were disappointing—breakdowns were directly responsible for a whopping three losses during Navarre’s career.
As we have seen in our most bitter rival, a team built on recruiting and running the football and defense and execution and special teams can win. Lloyd Carr wanted to win this way, but Michigan too often failed, and too often was slow to adjust. The spread punt formation failure of 2003 demonstrated both that Lloyd Carr was willing to try new things, but also that he and his staff were limited in their capability to coach beyond their experience level. It’s not that they didn’t want to adapt new schemes, it’s that they were incapable it. I believe this insularity affected the success of the program in the Carr era, and it was very clear during Navarre’s time.
These failures had a negative impact on Michigan’s gameplan. In 2000, with Drew Henson at quarterback, Michigan averages fewer than 28 pass attempts per game. With the less experienced and less gifted Navarre under center in 2001, attempts ballooned to over 33. By his senior year, Navarre was attempting nearly 37 passes a game.
Now this in itself isn’t necessarily bad, but Michigan had a strong tendency to put severe limits on the passing offense early. Early runs followed by a third-down pass were a common sight. The passing volume was, rather, a consequence of Michigan falling behind and forcing Navarre to throw more often. Too often the adjustments would happen too late in the game to give the offense a chance to adapt. Tellingly, Navarre said of the 2003 Minnesota game, "The coaching staff scrapped the game plan much quicker than anticipated.”
Overall, Navarre was a good player with some limitations. The great players are known for consistency, which Navarre did not always have. They are known for clutch play and late-game comebacks, and while Navarre did produce in one key game, there are a number of situations in which he did not.
But the good players produce in difficult circumstances, and Navarre did that. The good players fight through adversity, and Navarre did that. The good players make great plays, and Navarre did that. The good players win the big games. Navarre did that.
I always felt bad for him. Just a kid, about my age, trying to play a game for the University we loved. Asked to come in and do too much, too soon. And there was such rage, such vitriol, such intensity. If only Henson had stayed, if only the punting team had it together, if only...
John Navarre was the right player in the wrong time. A game-manager asked to be a star; a winner asked to be a national champion; a quarterback whose record any Michigan fan would kill for now, unappreciated in his own time. A Michigan Man, trying to win for Michigan.
He made some great plays. He produced some wonderful statistics. He authored the greatest comeback in program history. And he checked off those boxes on every Michigan Quarterback’s list: He beat Notre Dame. He beat Michigan State. He Beat Ohio State. He won the Big Ten. He went to the Rose Bowl.
He had his flaws. He had his limits. He was not a great player.
But he was very good.