Re-Evaluating John Navarre

Submitted by stephenrjking on August 25th, 2015 at 7:04 AM

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?

The Seasons

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.

The Losses

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.

The Triumphs:

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.

Evaluation:

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.

The Verdict: 

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.

 

Comments

goblueram

August 25th, 2015 at 7:26 AM ^

A Classic:

 

It's really funny to think how fondly we remember someone like Navarre now, even though at the time I'm sure we were all extremely critical as you mentioned. 

turd ferguson

August 25th, 2015 at 9:11 AM ^

This is excellent.  Navarre is one of my all-time favorites, since I'm not sure we'll ever see another Michigan player conduct himself with such composure and class in the face of such harsh (and often unfair) fan treatment.  

maizenbluenc

August 25th, 2015 at 10:24 AM ^

handled himself very well considering the unbridled criticism he took the past two seasons. Sure, maybe it was more deserved, but it was also magnified in this internet free for all day and age.

I agree though, players like Navarre, Gardner, or Smith who show grace under the pressure of abject fan criticism, are really to be admired.

jmblue

August 25th, 2015 at 8:46 PM ^

I don't know.  Gardner certainly took a lot of flack from some, but there at the same time, there were plenty who took to his defense, arguing that he was being put in a position to fail by the coaching staff.  

With Navarre, playing for a staff that had produced Griese, Brady and Henson, fans rarely shifted the blame for his play on the staff; he had to bear almost all the criticism. 

 

stephenrjking

August 25th, 2015 at 10:22 PM ^

The media environment continues to change. One of the reasons Navarre received so much criticism was that the interwebs, talk radio, and national television made his play more accessible and made commenting easier than it had ever been. Steve Smith surely got criticism in his day, but it was in a time when you couldn't even watch all of his games, a time before ESPN highlights and 24-hour sports talk and message boards.

Navarre endured all of that, and did so for a national championship winning coach that received very limited criticism (though it certainly did exist at the time). He was the focus. Certainly Gardner played at a time where the media landscape provided even more potential for criticism, particularly the personalized format of social media, but his coaches were much more embattled. The coaches and the AD were the true focus of fan wrath, and that kept Gardner from even worse treatment.

Over40

August 25th, 2015 at 9:40 AM ^

I will also say that Navarre is one of my favorites.  Those of us who are a little older remember Steve Smith.  He owned many passing records upon graduation from school, but was not really good enough for some people.  He was compared to Rick Leach a lot, which was a lot to overcome.  I found this old article in the Michigan Daily, I hope the link posts ok.

 

https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2706&dat=19840315&id=tAhKAAAAIBAJ&sjid=sx4NAAAAIBAJ&pg=1370,2683348&hl=en

willywill9

August 25th, 2015 at 10:08 AM ^

I'm so glad you wrote this.  I admittedly grew up a notre dame fan...you can blame my step-dad.  I wound up at Michigan though, and that 2002 game against UW is cemented in my mind as the beginning of a new fanaticism that would eventually surpass the obsession I had for my beloved Mets.

At any rate, whenever someone criticizes him.... I just think about how strong he must have been to handle it.  I admired it.  I've posted this a couple times before but I just feel it's important for people to see.  Just look at the below video and fast forward to about 2hrs 42 min. Watch his post game interview.

Above and Beyond

August 25th, 2015 at 10:12 AM ^

Navarre is one of my favorite Michigan QBs of all time. He set records for a reason, that being because he was really good. Sure, he had some ridiculous interceptions at times, but so did Denard and Devin (and others, of course). John was a really good, consistent quarterback and I am thankful for his hard work. It also did not help any that Henson left a year early, throwing Navarre into the fire a year before he was truly ready.

Blukon Cornelius

August 25th, 2015 at 10:59 AM ^

First of all, great diary!  I remember hating, with the heat of a thousand suns, John Navarre and - what I believed at the time to be - his countless, maddeningly inept performances.  If these last seven years have tought me anything, however, it is that longevity in following your favorite team is needed before truly appreciating the greatness or atrocities of any player, coach, or era.  As an alum/fan in my early 20's during the Navarre era, my proximate memories at the time would have been of the then-most recent and duly referenced quarterbacks: Grbac, Collins, Dreisbach, Griese, Brady, Henson.  Man, oh man, truly my salad days of youthful indescretion, green in my judgment.  John Navarre is a Poster Child for the perspective I have gained by following Michigan for now going on 35+ years.  In those days, seasons of ONLY 3 or 4 losses destroyed my autumns.  At the time, I would never have been able to even imagine the horrors, too numerous to recount here, that we would experience in the years to follow.  Navarre was asked by fans to be Montana, and he was merely a Dilfer.  Of course, perspective has also given me the confidence that college football is cyclical, and I take heart knowing that our time is near.   

DealerCamel

August 25th, 2015 at 11:05 AM ^

He's also the only player whose jersey I have.  The numbers are so badly scratched and faded you can barely even read them anymore.

I about cried when, exiting childhood, I heard about all the shit that had been thrown his way.

imafreak1

August 25th, 2015 at 11:16 AM ^

They lost but 2002 OSU should also be a triumph for Navarre. He played an amazing game. Good enough to win and maybe they would have had Braylon not been called for OPI in the endzone. The INT he did throw came on the last play of the game.

HonoluluBlue

August 25th, 2015 at 11:40 AM ^

about John Navarre but I will say this, no QB has ever lived who could sling a fastball into the rear end of an unexpexting RB on a screen pass that didn't have time to develop the way John Navarre could.

ShadowStorm33

August 25th, 2015 at 1:15 PM ^

I agree, the play that sticks out most vividly in my memory from the 2003 OSU Game was the long Braylon td that was called back. If I remember correctly, that would have put us up 35-7 and likely resulted in a blowout, and instead OSU scored on their next drive to close to 28-14 and make it a closer game. Was the 100th Game, too; thank God we won...

funkywolve

August 27th, 2015 at 12:19 AM ^

that sticks out to me is a pass in the 4th quarter.  I think it was fairly late in the game and UM had a third down.  They call a pass and it was to either the TE or fullback.  OSU actually had it defended pretty well but Navarre lofted it perfectly right over the defender into the receiver's arms.  It gave UM a first down and I think they ended up running out the clock after that.

snowcrash

August 25th, 2015 at 1:30 PM ^

Navarre is my all time favorite M player. He took all the unwarranted abuse, never complained, just kept his head down and kept working, and eventually got results.

Cali Wolverine

August 25th, 2015 at 1:36 PM ^

at Navarre today...that fucking pass over the middle at the end of the game against UCLA in 110 degree heat...still fuming. He remains my least favorite Michigan QB between 1992 - 2007...that said I don't like him because I had such high standards back then and couldn't stand lead foot....he also probably had the least impressive NFL career of any of those QBs during that time too.

That said...I would have taken a reliable arm like that over any QB we have had since 2007 through today (although I have high hopes for Gentry/Peters). Don't get me wrong...Denard was a pleasure to watch and such an incredible person...but if I could wipe the Rich Rod/Hoke years away...I would do it in a heartbeat.

bronxblue

August 25th, 2015 at 2:10 PM ^

Great write-up.  I always thought Navarre got way too much blame for UM's struggles.  He wasn't a star by any means, but he was a competent QB who could take advantage of the weapons around him.

Blue 8198

August 25th, 2015 at 4:57 PM ^

I too am in the crowd who took Navarre to task for the team's performance.  After being a student during Leach's career and the success of the following years I innocently thought that during the Navarre years I was seeing the low point of Michigan football.  One thing I recall as standing out about Navarre was how many of his passes were batted down at the line.  Maybe I was just not very observant , but I didn't recall seeing this much, if ever, before and Navarre had what seemed like a couple/few every game.  

stephenrjking

August 25th, 2015 at 5:54 PM ^

One thing I lament about this article is that I lacked the time (my schedule is tight for this kind of writing) and the space to go into the specifics of his playing style. And I wish I had, because I think the visual descriptions would have made it a better read. Navarre had a very distinctive physical presence: that wide shuffle in his footwork, that awkward low point release, the slow delivery (it was the length of delivery that resulted in so many deflections, I think--plenty of time for a defender to see the motion and anticipate the ball trajectory). He didn't have a lot of touch on the ball, and his 20-yard throws over the middle were rising darts that originated the entire concept of Tacopants.

Yet he also learned to throw a gorgeous deep ball and when he was on, especially late in his career, he could thread some tight windows. He learned to manage his body. It just took him a couple of years to sand off the rough edges, and thanks to some unfortunate roster issues, it happened on national television.

Blue Durham

August 29th, 2015 at 3:46 PM ^

Your comment is the lasting memory I have of John Navarre.

For a 6 foot, 6 inch QB, he had a ton of batted passes, and often they were drive killers. I think this was due to him often not finding a good passing lane in combination with a relatively low release.

Navarre had great tools and was on some very, very good to excellent teams. But ultimately, he under-performed to be a only a good QB at Michigan.

Navarre held all of Michigan's passing records, but didn't have the wins like other QBs had at Michigan, nor did he have the NFL career like Brady, Harbaugh, Griese, Grbac, or even Todd Collins (!) had as validation.

I think Navarre was a better QB than Michigan had in the 1970's (yes, including Leach), and better than most of the 1980's (Taylor, Brown, Zurbrugg, and maybe even Smith; Harbaugh and probably Wangler were better), and better than Michigan has had since Henne.

But from Grbac through Henne, Navarre was probably the least successful Michigan QB, despite his career record stats. That surprisingly puts the stats leader around average for the past 50 years. There's no shame in that, its just what it is.

RobinRedmond

August 25th, 2015 at 7:29 PM ^

You probably don't remember Steve Smith, but he caught more flak from Michigan fans than anyone I can think of.  He was a better runner than Navarre, and he had Anthony Carter to throw to.  I felt sorry for both of them - they deserved better from the fan base.

Blue Durham

August 29th, 2015 at 3:57 PM ^

I sure as hell remember Steve Smith, one of my all-time favorite Michigan players. And you're right, he was much maligned.

He was a better runner than Navarre

Jumbo Elliott was a better runner than John Navarre. The only player that was faster on those teams than Steve Smith was Anthony Carter. And that is what killed Smith.

Bo loved to run Smith, and until Denard Robinson, Smith probably had the most running yardage for a Michigan QB. Bo ran him and ran him and ran him. And that was the problem, because when Smith needed to throw in the 4th quarter, he was so beaten up he couldn't.

There were a couple of games where Michigan was an underdog and Bo felt that the team couldn't win by just trying to run the ball down the other team's throat (I think Notre Dame was one of them). Those were Smith's best games as he was relative fresh the whole game.

Hannibal.

August 26th, 2015 at 10:05 AM ^

The one game that I disagree with on is the 2001 Michigan State game.  There is plenty of blame to go around for that one but he was God awful in that game.  With decent QB play we win that one easily.  (and without dogshit run defense we win it easily and without Spartan Bob we win it at the end -- like I said, enough blame to go around).
 

My lasting memories of Navarre will be;

1. Pretty bad sophomore campaign

2.  Pretty good senior year

3.  Batted balls.  God dammit those were infuriating.

saveferris

August 26th, 2015 at 10:59 AM ^

Oh man, the throws knocked down at the line of scrimmage!  You sat there in stands in bewilderment over how a guy who's 6'6" could get so many of his passes swatted down by the D-line.

Still, I agree with the general sentiment that John Navarre got an unfair amount of criticism in his day.  If there was one thing that you could say about Navarre, it's probably that in the end he wasn't as good as the QBs who came before or after him, but he could still get the job done.

....and he was the last Michigan QB who beat all 3 of our major rivals in a single season (ND, MSU, OSU).

Hannibal.

August 26th, 2015 at 12:28 PM ^

The criticism that he took in the second half of 2001 was mostly appropriate.  In the final six games that year he threw 10 TDs and 11 INTs.  In the early loss against UW he averaged less than six yards per pass attempt.  Sometimes the QB gets too much blame for losses, but not in 2001.  We lacked elite skill players on offense but the defense and runnning game were at least good enough to keep every game but one in reach.  With better QB play we would have been undefeated in the regular season, playing for the national championship. 

stephenrjking

August 26th, 2015 at 3:23 PM ^

I disagree slightly; I think the criticism in 2001 was accurate, but not appropriate. Yes, he wasn't great. So analysis that diagnosed how was often correct. The problem is that the expectations on him were unfair. The running game was bad, the defense was average, and he only had one reliable receiver. He wasn't supposed to be "the guy."

Now, there are quarterbacks who can succeed with his level of experience and/or supporting cast, but plenty of fine football players that have succeeded in big spots were not so equipped. Just look down US 23--the reasons 2002 OSU had substantially more success than 2001 Michigan wasn't because Craig Krenzel was a demonstrably superior QB, was it?

To me, the coaching staff was unable to consistently produce excellence in all phases from year to year. Some seasons they'd have a great defense, some seasons a great offense, some years a great kicker. But there was no consistency, and those qualities were largely dependent upon whether they had a top-flight athletes with experience in the right place. They could not cope with adverse circumstances or roster situations.

funkywolve

August 27th, 2015 at 12:31 AM ^

I presume is the infamous 'what if' the OP mentions.  If Henson is the QB in 2001, I don't think ti's too far fetched to say UM goes 11-0 and is playing Miami for the National Title.  I doubt UM wins the game cause Miami just had way more talent then UM that year. However, instead of looking at Carr's career and saying he had a great run from '97 to '99 with some nice seasons sprinkled in afterwards, we might be saying hehad a great run from '97 to '01, if not possibly through '06 when you add in Big Ten titles in '03 and '04 and a #2 ranking heading into Columbus in '06.

stephenrjking

August 28th, 2015 at 6:47 PM ^

I've thought about this extensively and nearly included a section about it in the article; all three losses in the regular season were so close that it is easy to see better play at QB putting Michigan over the top in all three games.

The problem with "what-if" scenarios like that is that they don't account for other potential changes. And, significantly, they take a "sunnyside up only" view of such scenarios. Yeah, a little more offense against MSU might make the clock irrelevant. The OSU game looks way different without four interceptions. And so on.

But we aren't talking about a loaded team with a weakness at one position; 2001 was in virtually every other way was a rebuilding year for the roster. And Lloyd Carr, regardless of what talent was on the roster, had throughout his career an inclination to get hung with at least one head-scratching loss a year. It is hard for me to believe that it would be any different in 2001, on a team with a mediocre running game, shallow receiving talent, and only an average defense.

And, of course, even an undefeated season would have led to a complete evisceration in the Rose Bowl by a markedly superior Miami team. Don't get me wrong, that's still significantly better than the season that we had, but we're not talking about a possible national title here.

stephenrjking

August 26th, 2015 at 12:22 PM ^

This is a legit issue. I was at the game, in the MSU student section. The last TD was right in front of me. I left disappointed, but I did not know about the clock issue at the time--I just knew that Michigan simply squandered too many possessions with bad offense to win. Because of this, I was slow to anger about the clock gaming, because I believed Michigan hadn't played well enough to win. Of course, back when we won most of the time, I really cared about HOW we looked when we won, and that bled through.

So I considered that issue. The problem is, no matter how ugly Michigan played, they still had a higher score after 60 minutes.

No one cares that Anthony Thomas was rested early with a 20-point lead in 1999 against Illinois, just that. We lost. No MSU fans lament that their 1990 win is less meaningful because there was an uncalled penalty. 2002 OSU fans aren't shaking their hands in angst because we out gained them that year or because Miami really should've won due to that phantom PI. All that matters is the W or the L. Michigan didn't play well in 2001, but there is an L because of a timekeeping error, not because of that play.

Procumbo

August 26th, 2015 at 11:15 AM ^

Great summary. One thing I remember - and I wonder if the stats would bear this out - was Navarre rifling balls off the facemasks of defensive linemen astonishingly often for a guy who stood 6'6".

HoneyBrownB40

August 26th, 2015 at 11:37 AM ^

My recollection is that Navarre barely ever threw over the middle and always threw to the sidelines.  I think a drinking game was even invented based on throws to the sideline and you were always guaranteed to get drunk.  

Also, old roomate claims to have shared cab with drunk Navarre in college and he was crying because everyone hated him.  No idea of this strory is true but it must have been hard to face all that criticism.

 

stephenrjking

August 26th, 2015 at 12:25 PM ^

He did throw over the middle occasionally, but he was often inaccurate. I think it was the '02 Notre Dame game where I remember him basically not coming close to receivers over the middle in the final, failed 2-minute drill. One thing I do not blame coaching for is limiting which throws he made, especially early in his career--poorly thrown balls over the middle are much more likely to be intercepted.

WolverineHistorian

August 26th, 2015 at 4:10 PM ^

Adding a few notes to some of those losses.

There was a screw job in that 2000 UCLA game from the officials...though it's been so long I can't remember the specific moment where a Bruin picked off a pass with one foot out of bounds, allowing them to set up the winning score (I believe).

2002 Notre Dame was miserable all around but that was also the game where Carlyle Halliday left the football on the two yard line which then rolled under a Michigan defender while Halliday went into the end zone holding air and got rewarded the score. Had the correct call been made, we go into halftime down 9-7 instead of 16-7.

2003 Oregon hurt...bad. Every single thing that could go wrong on special teams did and the Ducks got rewarded almost all their points because of them.

Poor Navarre. I always liked him. He took so much criticism and still did his best to improve every week. There was never an interview with him I saw where he didn't come across as a really nice guy.

JFW

August 27th, 2015 at 11:06 AM ^

listening to the last bowl game with him and him making a great throw; Beckman said "I cannot believe the amount of criticism this young man takes."

I agreed with him then, and still do. Navarre wasn't Grbac or Brady but my God; he worked all the time and made alot of plays. He didn't lose us many of those games, and did a great job allowing us to win alot of games He's kind of what I hope Rudock would be this year. We could do alot worse. 

People loved Denard (justfiably so) as he was a nice guy with great big play potential; but he wasn't perfect either and had holes in his game. 

Navarre was a nice guy with less explosive game potential, but arguably better management skills, and people hated him. 

Was it just that people were enamored with the big play potential? The offense? The newness of the whole thing? Their dislike of the conservitism of the past? I don't know. 

We fans are a fickle lot. 

Hopefully we are coming out of our time in the wilderness, and that this time in the wilderness will give us some respect and appreciation for what we have. 

 

wolverinebutt

August 26th, 2015 at 8:08 PM ^

John won a lot of games for us and has more talent that us posters so I'm going easy on him.

The one neg point I have was already posted.  A tall, tall QB with a loooow delivery.  He got his balls blocked more than I did from the ladies in high school.  

The man looked taller than 6 foot 6 and threw at a 5 foot 8 inch QB's level.  I don't think he ever played in a game without a blocked pass or delflection.  It was crazy.   

Da Fino

August 27th, 2015 at 10:58 AM ^

Why Navarre was much maligned is beyond me.  I wrote "Navarre for Heisman" with a Sharpie on a white t-shirt and wore it to games.  People laughed at me, said I was an idiot.  I told them to f. off.

Looking at the list of top UM passing quarterbacks, he's right up there.  Yet for whatever reason, Johnny Boy never received the recognition he rightly deserves.  My current email address, created way back in 2003, has "16" in it as a sign of silent respect for a great QB.  Thanks for writing this long overdue post.

PeteM

August 27th, 2015 at 1:10 PM ^

I'm not a QB guru who can compare the mechanics of Navarre to Henne or Grbac, but felt that in his final year he was criminally underrated.  That was a very good Ohio State team coming off a national championship.  The Minnesota game was an incredible comeback. 

In his last year at least (or for some part of his junior year) Navarre struck me an upper tier B10 QB with a strong and an accurate arm who made generally good decisions.

charblue.

August 29th, 2015 at 2:58 PM ^

the most harshly treated qb of the Lloyd Carr era. He personified everything that Michigan wasn't with Drew Henson, and he was the victim of this comparison throughout his time as a starter, first as the uncertain, unwanted understudy and then as the only qualified veteran replacement upon Henson's unexpected departure to pro baseball. 

Navarre and Chad Henne, who would both enter the Big House stage as a freshman starters (In Henne's case, only hours before opening kickoff following a major injury to heir apparent Matt Gutierrez) would become synmous examples of the Lloyd Carr prototype qb They were in fact, reminiscent of the coach himself who was a quarterback at Northern Michigan and Missouri. 

As noted, Lloyd was less attacked for Navarre's performance then the kid was. But that's because Michigan had already won the NC with a game manager qb who had been a walk-on and had to work his way back on the team after embarrasing himself at a favorite Ann Arbor wateringhole. 

Because Lloyd was forced to use Navarre rather than outrightly choose him as his lead signal caller, and because Lloyd made a deal with Henson not to recruit a competing qb after he committed and then left the team high and dry, Lloyd was spared major critifcism, except, of course, when certain opening day losses as illustrated, started to mount during the Navarre period. 

Still John perservered and became a profile in courage. The year after John led Michigan to the Rose Bowl and scored the most unlikely Trans Continental TD run (a favorite playcall during Carr's tenure especially when the team was trailing and needed a bigplay lift) in the most improbable comeback win in Michigan history at Minnesota, John spent the afternoon of the 1994 Ohio State game at a Michigan bar in downtown Charlotte. He was there as a backup pro qb in town to play the Carolina Panthers the next day.

He was open and friendly to the bar patrons who eagerly engaged him and thanked him for his play and time at Michigan. I always respected John and his accomplishments and used to defend him against other Michgan fan attacks (not at this blog, of course).

Ultimately, John Navarre is the reason why Michigan fans yearned for what they'd only seen glimpses of his predecessor, a dual threat qb who was more than a statue in the pocket. Of course, both Navarre and Henne became the most prolific passing qbs in Michigan history, out of necessity and not by actual design. But they were part of the days of the future passed. 

In his own way, Navarre helped activate the Three and Out years and the Denard Robinson connection that would completely transform Michigan's offense in a way no one could anticipate or remember since Jim Harbaugh was running option and throwing deep.  

As things stand, John was and is a great Michigan Man and he deserves special recognition. And this finely written and researched diary gives him the second look recognition he aptly deserves. 

 

hfhmilkman

August 30th, 2015 at 11:06 AM ^

I'm too late to the conversation.  But gotta get it off my chest.  Good for Navarre to rise to his level of competence.  Nothing against the individual.  But if you take on something you are not equal to, just like Hoke you gotta take the heat.  His biggest failing in my opinion is the greater the pressure the more spectacular the failure regardless of the level of difficulty. 

What cannot be translated since no one did a tribute to Navarre botch tapes is the epic nature of some of his failures.  What the author fails to note in those epic 4th quarter failures(example Iowa) was how obscenely open Michigan receivers were that Navarre just missed. 

And that was the most frustrating thing.  Because when the game was lost and the pressure off Navarre seemed to be the master of garbage time and the meaningless statistic. He had it in him to make the throws.   

I believe a more telling account of Navarre's true capabilities was his only start in the NFL against the Detroit Lions.  Here was another new biggest game of his career.  Yet all that was Navarre was in ugly display.  Missed reads, inaccurate throws, all out panic.  Even that weird spitting thing he did was in overdrive.  The four interceptions were spectacular.

Now kudo's to John Navarre the man for pushing himself to the limit and having the courage to step up to the job.  If there was a better man to be QB at Michigan he would not have won out.  But as a fan I reject this attempt to remake memory.  John Navarre was ultimately a choke artist who always failed when his team needed him the most.  I will always remember thoughs Michigan teams as one player away from completeness.  That is part of being a athlete in the public eye.  If you fail you are going to be pounded on even if we as fans understand you are the ultimate competetor.