TAMPA, Fla. — No one expected this.
Point to injuries, point to youth, point to whatever you’d like. But when Jim Harbaugh walked into the Junge Champions Center on Dec. 30, 2014, no one expected the type of season his offense just stumbled through over the past four months.
Nine passing touchdowns in 13 games. Five turnovers against an average South Carolina team after a month of preparation in the Outback Bowl. Quarterback miscues. Offensive line nightmares. Fumbles. Flags.
Another loss, this time 26-19 on Monday.
And now perhaps the most critical offseason of Harbaugh’s coaching career arrives. The rising number of questions is only matched by the increasing level of pressure as the fourth year of his tenure approaches with plenty on the line and a lot of work to do.
“We’ll look at every aspect of (the program this offseason),” Harbaugh said after the game. “And make improvements.”
Some members of the fan base want changes among the assistant coaches. Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton both made $1 million this season and helped put together one of the worst offenses Michigan’s had in recent memory.
Change for the sake of change is never an answer. But taking a critical look at how you organize, teach and call offense within this system is absolutely necessary.
Michigan’s offensive line, co-coached by Drevno and Greg Frey this season, was never good enough. The 36 sacks allowed match the number posted by the 2013 group, one of the worst offensive lines this program has had in the modern era. It was young, but no combination worked. Two starting quarterbacks left games for the hospital this season because the pass rush got to them. U-M struggled to run the ball against any defense that had a pulse.
The passing game, meanwhile, was abominable. The nine touchdowns as a team was the lowest Michigan’s had since Bo Schembechler and Rick Leach were running the option back in 1975. Nothing worked, regardless of quarterback. There is no full-time wide receivers coach on this staff, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the entire position group combined for just three touchdown catches this year. Three. Wisconsin freshman wideout Danny Davis caught three in one game the other day in the Orange Bowl.
U-M’s in-game organization this season was questionable at best. The Wolverines and their three coordinators (Harbaugh’s included) sent the wrong personnel onto the field for a third-and-short in the second half that resulted in a fumbled carry by a tight end at a critical juncture in the game. Harbaugh took ownership for not calling timeout, but no one’s ever sure who called the play in the first place as Michigan’s secretive in-game play-calling operation continues to be a head-scratcher.
Is there a cavalcade of voices shouting play suggestions throughout a game or is this one person’s job? Harbaugh’s been asked many times, but like plenty of topics within his program, he’s provided little insight – only saying he makes the final decision on each call as it comes. Whatever the situation, this looks like something in need of repair.
Running offense in college football shouldn’t be this difficult.
The offense isn’t working and something needs to change. But the entire system is Harbaugh’s and everything falls at his feet. Discussions of hot seats and honeymoons are pointless right now. Harbaugh either fixes this offense and turns this into a team that can challenge for something in 2018, or his program fades toward the back of the pack, both in the wins during the season and in recruiting homes throughout the offseason.
Michigan’s 2018 campaign includes road games at Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State and home games against Wisconsin and Penn State. There’s no singular fix here. Shea Patterson isn’t going to throw touchdowns and block for himself. He’s not going to keep people from jumping offside or fumbling the football.
U-M is not, contrary to what some may tell you, one piece away from the College Football Playoff. It is not one piece away from the Big Ten title game, frankly. The Wolverines bring back a ton of talent, but it’s talent that still has to learn how to win big games. There’s a lot of ground to cover and not much time to do it.
This is the most important offseason of Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan, perhaps his career. The initial spark his name provided to the program when he was hired was never going to be enough to win a title.
“I think of myself as more of a construction guy,” Harbaugh said the day he took this job. “You build a home, and hopefully, it’s a great cathedral. Then afterward, they go tell you to build another one. There’s some dirt down there, go build another home. I feel like that again.
“I’m at that point where even though you’ve done well and built some pretty nice homes, you have to do it again, and you have to prove it again.”
It’s time to take a long, hard look at those tools and start proving it.