This is a two-part diary. Part I explore the problem. Part II explores solutions, because my college professor taught me that it's okay to complain if you offer ideas and effort to improve the situation. There is a TL;DR at the bottom.
We live in a world that seems to be dominated by absolutists. Many folks out there brand you a traitor if you criticize the person/group you supposedly support, and others believe that once something goes wrong, it's okay to abandon your alliances. Any mistake is worthy of permanent banishment and disassociation. Any constructive commentary is tantamount to an attempted coup. To all these people I say:
This next part is important, because I'm going to be attacked by both sides of the ridiculous spectrum. So please, read this even if you ignore the rest: I support Jim Harbaugh as our Head Coach. I support the University of Michigan and its football team. I am a fan, and I am not abandoning my team, my coaches, or my players. I am fully aware of the challenges and limitations our roster presents, and don't expect this year's version to be Michigan's most successful team.
I'm also a rational human being. There are deep, systemic problems with our offense that go way beyond youth and inexperience. For those of you saying, "just wait until we have experienced players in our offense, we'll be fine," you are ignoring the data, the eye test, and the reality that if we are not careful, medicore is going to start to look pretty damn good. Here's your picture:
When things are bad, perspective is important. Are we really the bowler-hat-dog sitting in hell, or are we just irrational fans? To this end, hard data helps us uncover bias. Data is never perfect, but it is a good place to start to see if we can trust our eyes.
Michigan's offense is currently ranked #85 in S&P+. For comparison's sake, Buffalo is one spot ahead of us. Nebraska is #73. Purdue #69. And here's my favorite: Flordia is #81. Our offense is worse than Florida's. Please let that sink in.
Don't like fancystats? I can sympathize. Those damn things never seem to predict accurately. So how about this statistic: our yards per play (5.17) is Michigan's worst performance since 2008. Yep, the 2014 sludgefart mustered 5.32. Borges cranked out 5.44 YPP in his final season. And we have yet to face the #6 (Wisconsin), #7 (Ohio State) S&P+ defenses. Granted, we've already done battle with #3 (Michigan Staee) and Penn State was #9, but we also had the pleasure of facing #93 (Cincinnati) and #109 (Air Force) defenses--the lowest ranked future opponent is Maryland at #77, and everyone else is #33 or higher. It's not going to get easier.
Our rushing game is bad. The current 4.08 YPC is our lowest since 2013--the 27 for 27 year (which wasn't even our worst rushing performance). We are ranked #41 in S&P+ in rushing.
Our passing game is much, much worse. We are #74 (which feels high) in S&P+ and convert only 32.4% of our third downs. Guess when we last had a lower conversion rate? Yep. 2008.
But what about the youth argument? Well, we are ranked 99th in returning offensive production. Let's give ourselves even more handicap since we lost our starting QB, and let's compare with our peers. West Virginia is ranked #123 in returning production. Their offense is #5 in S&P+. Ohio State was ranked #122 last year, their offense finished the season at #23. Clemson is #121 this year. Heck, even Nebraska is ranked #127 in returning production, and is out-performing our offense. Getting the picture?
It's impossible to argue that Michigan performing up to the level of their talent, and that is what is troubling. It's not that our offense is "not great," we are horrible. And no, saying that does not mean I'm not a Michigan fan.
If we want to build a strong, successful program, we need to make some radical changes on offense.
Hopefully, the previous section has at least convinced you that there is a problem that goes beyond the simple and lazy explanation of youth. But what about other quips from the lemmings that say our problems are all the result of inexperience?
- Harbaugh has a proven track record. This is 100% true, and it's why I still want him to be Michigan's coach. That said, he's never been this bad. His third year at Stanford--with considerably less talent--his offense was #6 in S&P+. Did he get lucky with some recruiting hits? Yes. But it's a long, long, long way from #6 to #85. In fact, he was even better in his first year at Stanford--#83. That was with a roster that only compares to this year's Michigan roster in that they had the same number of players. At the 49ers he led the #18 most efficient offense his first season, #5 his second season, and #8 his third. Even the year that got him fired, 2014 (LOL 49ers), his offense was #16. Middle-of-the-pack. And that's with the parity of the NFL--he has huge advantages over most competitors at Michigan. It's also worth pointing out that his offenses have looked very different as his OCs have changed--the argument that it's "his offense" is only very partially true. Stanford played the same brand of manball they're currently playing, and the 49ers ran a different version and adapted to their QB. Michigan's offense that past two years was very different from this season's version.
- We are a pro-style team. This is simply false. If you mean that we operate largely from under center and use TEs and FBs, I guess that's true. But there is not one team in the NFL running an offense that even remotely resembles Michigan's constipated turd. If you're making this claim, do you even watch the NFL? It's largely a spread league now, and even the more manbally teams use more misdirection, more spread/match-up concepts, and more quick passes than Michigan does. No, we are not a pro-style offense, unless your definition stopped keeping up with the league in 1997.
- There is nothing we can do with this roster. This is another absurd assertion. No one was expecting Michigan to win the CFP this year (well, almost no one) but everyone should expect a competitive offense, no matter how young we are. We are making basic strategic blunders. Our pass protection is bad. It is known. And yet, we persist with 7-step drop passing plays with deep and slow-developing routes as our only options. We leave RBs that can't block in the backfield to block, instead of turning them into hot reads and safety valves. We max protect with our TEs--our best match-ups in the passing game. We hardly ever run slants. We don't isolate our athletes in space. Our version of misdirection is 1980's play action--we don't use motion, deception, or gadgetry even as much as we did the past two seasons. Yes, the roster is limited. No, it's not nearly as bad as its #85 ranking. And let's remember that last year's loaded roster only produced the #40 offense. And it's scheme was miles ahead of this year's version. Which brings me to...
- Our scheme is fine. First question: what scheme? Try to tell me this team's identity. Try to identify the carryover plays from the previous two years. College football is a vastly different game than the NFL. The hash marks allow offenses to create mismatches in an entirely different manner, and misdirection and trickery are far more effective. Our offense seems to ignore those principles, opting for plays that require 11-man execution instead of match-up plays. Penn State did not run an innovative offense on Saturday--they ran their offense with minor tweaks. They ran the same plays over and over and over again, with repeated success. And their plays created mismatches, allowed the QB to get rid of the ball quickly (even the fade routes were thrown early), and maximized their talent. This year's Michigan team has no scheme. We run zone and power in the ground game, and neither looks polished. The passing game makes no sense. Our constraint plays are 20-year-old play action fakes. There is no imagination, and there is nothing to hang our hat on.
This offense is dramatically underachieving. Having better players would help, but being a year better will not take us from inept to elite, and that's the jump we need to make. Part II will explore ways out of this mess.