Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Requiem: Chad Henne.

Chad Henne
Quarterback, 6'3, 210
West Lawn, Pennsylvania; Wilson High School
Rivals: 5 stars, #4 QB, #13 overall
Scout: 5 stars, #4 QB, #24 overall
Committed to Michigan - August 7, 2003

How will you remember Chad Henne?

Will you remember him as the blue chip prospect who snubbed Penn State and picked Michigan two days after Dan Connor snubbed Michigan and picked Penn State?

Will you remember him as the quarterback who never beat Ohio State?

Will you remember him for showing no fear despite being thrown right into the fire, starting from the word "go" in his freshman year?

Will you remember him as the holder of the vast majority of the passing records in Michigan history?

Will you remember him as the warrior that fought off injury to save games at Illinois and at Michigan State in a desperate attempt to salvage what was left of the abortion that was his senior season?

Will you remember him as the QB who showed so much skill, so much poise and so much talent one game, but would barely complete 50% of his passes, constantly overthrow his receivers and throw a pick or two the next, and never truly seemed to have that "it" intangible that all great quarterbacks have at some point?

Everyone knew that Matt Gutierrez was only holding the seat for Henne when the latter arrived on campus in 2004. Everyone figured Gutierrez would start for a year, MAYBE two, and then it would be Chad's show. No one expected Gutierrez to go down with a phantom injury before the season opener. Suddenly, with a true freshman at the helm, nobody knew what to expect. Surely expectations had to be lowered.

Well, not so much. It just so happens that Chad had this guy named Braylon playing wideout for him. With a simple heave, the wide-eyed freshman could have the look of a heroic senior. After his first touchdown, he sprinted into the endzone to celebrate with the senior Braylon, who hoisted his new quarterback into the air like it was his first born son.The future was limitless now. It was just like Henne - bright, endless, full of grandeur and championships. And just like Henne, it taunted us like the mirage in the desert, always being out of arm's reach, yet staying within our sights, goading us into a frenzy of frustration and resentment.

Henne lost his first test at Notre Dame, but bounced back beautifully, leading Michigan to a 7-0 record in the Big Ten, including the classic triple overtime win over MSU that saw Henne team up with Braylon to turn a 27-10 fourth quarter deficit into a 45-37 win.

Unfortunately, after the 7-0 start in conference, we were given a glimpse into what our reality is. A clearly inferior Ohio State team welcomed BCS-bound Michigan to Columbus. Buckeye fans themselves didn't really expect their team to win. They were 6-4, 3-4 in the conference. And yet powered by a Ted Ginn touchdown and about 1000 yards from Troy Smith, they crushed Michigan 37-21, leaving us fans shaking our heads. That put Tressel's record vs. Michigan at 3-1, but it was this game that firmly planted Tressel inside the heads of everyone associated with Michigan. Ohio State was not supposed to win that game. They were Alamo Bowl-bound, and Michigan was Rose Bowl-bound. Michigan was supposed to go in there, finish a perfect conference season, and go to Pasadena smiling. And in a 3+ hour span in that abysmal place, Tressel seized complete control of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, a hold he has not yet relinquished.

Henne played perhaps his best game in the Rose Bowl that year against Texas. 227 yards passing, four touchdowns, no turnovers. And yet, in what I suppose was perfectly symbolic of his career as a whole, Henne's best wasn't good enough, as Vince Young upstaged him and won the Rose Bowl.

There were still high hopes in 2005. Henne (and a certain running back) were only sophomores. Braylon was gone, but Avant was back. So was Breaston. The loss of Braylon certainly hurt, but there was no reason for Michigan fans to not expect a return trip to the BCS in 2005.

Except for, well, the roof caving in. That aforementioned running back was hobbled in the second game of the season and never truly right, Henne regressed, obviously missing Braylon, and the defense wilted like Charlie Weis in 90 degree weather, blowing fourth quarter leads and giving up game-losing drives to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Nebraska. Henne, one of the heros of 2004, was one of the scapegoats for the Year of Infinite Pain. Said Year finally cost Jim Herrmann his job as defensive coordinator. It also cost Terry Malone his job as offensive coordinator, and of course Michigan hired Mike DeBord to replace him. It wasn't unreasonable, I guess. It's not like DeBord completely buried a MAC team with surreal levels of suck and only got the gig at Michigan because he was Lloyd Carr's boy or anything.

Oh, wait. Which way does time go?

It's BS like that that actually pisses me off when I rewatch the Capital One Bowl. What spurred that sudden spread look? Was it the simple fact that DeBord (and perhaps Carr?) knew that there was no point in holding anything back since they were both done after the game anyway? Would we have seen that offense during the regular season if Henne had been healthy?

I guess we'll never know. Sigh.

Anyway, back on point. As we all know (and as Sean McDonough reminded us about ten times a game everytime he called a Michigan game in 2006), the entire team used Seven and Five as a rallying point, and unleashed their fury on their opponents. Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Minnesota, three guilty parties in the Year of Infinite Pain, paid for their trespasses, thanks in large part to Henne establishing a connection with Mario Manningham much like the one he had with Braylon in 2004. Seeing Henne lob the ball 30-40 yards through the air and having Mario glide under it in stride perfectly for six was a thing of beauty.
Ironically, it is a near miss on that connection that still sticks with me. During Football Armageddon (the 2006 Ohio State game), I believe it was tied 7-7 in the first quarter when Henne unleashed one of his deep bombs for Mario, who had eluded the Ohio State secondary and was all alone for something like a 70 yard touchdown...except the pass was a hair overthrown. If that pass connects, Michigan retakes the lead, seizes momentum, and who knows what. Instead, OSU goes up 21-7, leads 28-14 at halftime, and Michigan plays catchup until time runs out and they lose. Shit.

The 2006 season ended so horribly. I'm over it, but still, not a day goes by where I don't think about what could've been. The loss to Ohio State was bad enough, but to spend the next 50(ish) days hearing about how Florida deserved the spot in the title game and then completely embarrassing yourselves in the Rose Bowl with your credibility on the line...ugh. I'm tired of the Rose Bowl. It's the holy grail of Big Ten football, and yet what is seemingly ALWAYS waiting for us when we get there? Thorns. USC receivers abusing our secondary. USC blitzers and defensive linemen blowing by our offensive line like they're turnstiles. Michigan coaches not adjusting to the blitzes at all, despite seeing the exact same thing four years earlier with John Navarre. Watching USC throw the ball at one point 26 out of 28 plays in the second half (with the other two being QB sneaks on 4th and 2 & 3rd and 1) because they knew they couldn't run and Michigan couldn't adjust.

My neck hurts from shaking my head too much after typing that last paragraph.

But don't worry, it was all supposed to be amended in 2007. Henne was going to light up the skies with Manningham, Arrington and Mathews, that little running back was going to destroy all defenders who tried to tackle him, and the best offensive lineman in the country was going to protect both of them flawlessly.

Except we forgot who was coaching. And who was calling the plays.

Michigan's season - and Henne's final season - was essentially nullified after the first day. The cancer-causing loss to Appalachian State, while not quite the end of Michigan football as many feared (or hoped), stained the season permanently, and I would wager a guess as to say it shifted the fanbase. I obviously have no data to support this, but I'd guess after that game, and ESPECIALLY after the next game, more than 50% of Michigan fans nationwide saw that Carr's time was done and it was definitely time for a change.

And then to add insult to injury (...or, well, injury to insult), Henne was knocked out of the Oregon debacle, and had to sit the next week; the final Michigan-Notre Dame game of his career, and he had to watch from above as the heir apparent led a 38-0 win.
There are some terrible things in this world...but I can think of few that are worse than seeing your kingdom, your throne, usurped by another.

Henne bided his time. From the box and the cast against Notre Dame, to the sidelines looking like a coach, to the field again. He took over when Mallett faltered at Northwestern; Michigan wins. He returned after being injured at Illinois; Michigan wins. He fought off a hellacious pass rush (thanks to DeBord's predictable offense) and multiple injuries to win the MSU game after being down 10 in the fourth quarter.

But the injuries caught up to him, with an added dose of terrible luck. Henne's shoulder had been separated against Illinois, and wouldn't be 100% until the bowl game. Less than 100% was good enough to beat Illinois and Michigan State, but it still needed treatment - and before the Wisconsin game (a week before Ohio State), the doctors gave him a shot, and ended any chance of Michigan winning either of their last two games. They hit a nerve with the needle, rendering Henne's throwing arm completely useless. He had no feeling, and no feel for where the ball was going when he released it. It showed: five passes, one awful interception, and that was that. Henne was pulled for Mallett, and perhaps rightfully so; the Wisconsin game had no meaning. Regardless of the outcome, Michigan vs. Ohio State would still decide the Big Ten title.

Of course, we all know what happened. Hart was still hurt, Henne was bad, the weather was terrible, and the offensive line was worse. Henne still had almost no feeling in his arm, and that defeated any chance of victory. What a cruel, despicable fate. Coming back for your senior year with the Ohio State monkey on your back, and even after Appalachian State, even after Oregon, the chance to beat the Buckeyes was still there, and was squashed by a botched shot and Vernon Gholston eating Steve Schilling for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Another senior day gone by, and another loss.

There was some redemption, some dignity left for Chad to save, and he saved it in the bowl game. Quarterbacks are always unfairly blamed for losses and unfairly praised for victories, so the 1-3 bowl record and 0-4 OSU record looks bad. But when the Capital One Bowl ended, and Chad was smiling and hoisting the MVP trophy, millions of Wolverines nationwide smiled with him. Much like Mario, Chad's legacy at Michigan is one of extreme ups and downs; flashes of brilliances and wild inconsistency; the thrill of a freshman leaping around after his first touchdown pass and the agony of a seasoned veteran scraping himself off of the Rose Bowl grass. When it was all said and done, it was refreshing, and heartwarming to see a smile at the end of the tunnel for once. It wasn't a full, shining smile. It wasn't the kind of smile you see after you beat Ohio State or win the Rose Bowl. For Chad, those kind of smiles are the ones we can only see when we daydream of better days. We can fantasize about such a smile from Kevin Newsome, or Shavodrick Beaver, or whoever else is next in line.

But a smile is a smile. It's about time we had something to smile about.

2 comments:

dubby said...

I really like these articles. It sucks a little bit to relive some terrible memories, but there are also a lot of great feelings that I have attached to these players.

Anonymous said...

Chad Henne has caused me to feel so up and so down that I don't know if my body will be able to handle Michigan ball without him at the helm. I am happy that he is in Miami with Jake Long and I think that he will do just fine in the NFL.