DISCLAIMER: I am still supportive of Rich Rodriguez. I love his passion, I love his recruiting. I believe that nobody hurt more during this 3-9 season than he did. He has a fire in his gut that drives him to win, and when that doesn't happen, he's miserable. That's the kind of guy I want coaching my football team. I want someone who gets pissed when things are bad. I firmly believe that Rodriguez will take this offense, and ultimately this team, to great places. I believe that while growing pains will continue next year, there will be significant progress shown as the infusion of spread offense compatible talent continues. I believe that while Steven Threet may start the season next year, Tate Forcier or Shavodrick Beaver will gradually take over because Rich Rodriguez wants to get as many of his guys into the fire as possible, which is certainly not an unreasonable thing to do. If you're a chef, you have to use the ingredients you hand select to cook whatever it is you're cooking. RR is doing that, and I believe he will succeed. I hope this paragraph has made my point so the WLA doesn't feel the need to leave a dead rat on my porch as a warning.
Now...with that said, this defensive coordinator fiasco is strike #1 on Rich Rodriguez as Michigan football coach.
This was a complete farce. I don't care about the West Virginia lawsuit nonsense. I don't care about the #1 jersey and captain traditions that were changed or almost changed. I don't care about Ryan Mallett, Justin Boren, Alex Mitchell or any of the other players that RR "chased off", because contrary to what the geniuses at the Detroit Free Press would have you believe, he didn't chase them off. I don't care if RR swears during practice; this is football. I don't care about the perception that Rodriguez is disrespecting the high school talent in the state of Michigan, because that perception is wrong and is being perpetuated by Spartan propogandists and a high school kid committed to Ohio State, where he believes he will play a position that he actually won't. I don't give a crap about any of this.
What I care about is what takes place on the field on Saturdays. And it's clear now that 50% of the product Michigan put out there in 2008 was half-assed. The "resignation" of defensive coordinator Scott Shafer has exposed a rift that existed on the defensive coaching staff this year. In hindsight, it's pretty sad that we didn't see it from the outset: RR brought his defensive line coach, Bruce Tall, and his secondary coach, Tony Gibson, with him to Michigan from West Virginia. He hired Jay Hopson to coach linebackers, and then he hired Shafer to be defensive coordinator. This process in itself is ass backward. Hopson isn't applicable, because he had some experience (some) using the 3-3-5 defense at Southern Mississippi and he had contact with the defensive coaches of West Virginia while Rodriguez was still the coach there. But how exactly do you bring in two of your assistants from your old 3-3-5 defense (Tall and Gibson), bring in a guy to coach linebackers who has middling experience with the 3-3-5 (Hopson), but then hire a strict 4-3 press coverage guy in Shafer to coordinate the whole thing? This was doomed to fail. None of us will ever know what went down behind the scenes, but what was the M.O. of Shafer that we all celebrated when he was hired? He was blitz-obssessed maniac, turning Stanford and Western Michigan into sack machines from day one. And yet Michigan had less sacks in 2008 (29) than it did in 2007 (32). Instead of seeing our defensive backs in the faces of wide receivers and our linebackers right up at the line, we often saw a Herrmann-esque soft zone, with the DBs dropping 10-12 yards off in zone coverage, surrendering the underneath stuff that slot receivers have fed off of against Michigan for years.
Another preface: One of the catchier cliches being through about in the Michigan blogosphere lately in regards to the debate about the defensive breakdowns this year goes something like, "The Jimmies and Joes matter more than the X's and O's". Simply put, the scheme doesn't matter. What matters are the players you put in it. And I agree with this. Morgan Trent regressed horribly in 2008. Why? Because he didn't have Jamar Adams and Brandent Englemon backing him up at the safety spots. There's a reason Brandon Harrison was a nickelback for his first three years at Michigan. And I hate to say it like this, because he is an amateur athlete, and I know he's trying his damndest, but I have to say it: Stevie Brown is terrible. I have never seen a safety with worse instincts than him. It honestly felt like Michigan was playing with 10 players on the field at times. We all thought Brown had turned the corner midway through 2007 in the spot duty he saw. And two separate coaching staffs at Michigan have deemed Brown good enough to start the season at free safety. That experiment lasted all of 30 minutes in 2007. In 2008 we weren't lucky enough to have a senior as competent as Englemon to stick in there; Charles Stewart was just as much of a liability as Brown. It would seem obvious that Brown gets it done in practice, since Ron English and Lloyd Carr deemed him fit to start just as Tony Gibson and Rich Rodriguez did.
Or, there's another possibility: The coaching has been an abysmal failure at the safety position for years now. Ron English built up a reputation as a savior for 11 games in 2006 with a front seven composed of mostly NFL players. And that all came undone when that defense, thanks in part to an injury and some really, really bad safety play, turned Chris Wells and Antonio Pittman loose for 50 yard touchdowns, and then turned Dwayne Jarrett loose in the Rose Bowl. Ron English deserves credit for putting the attitude back in the Michigan defense that was absent in 2005. And he deserves criticism for being a pretty terrible developer of safeties. We need to dispel the myth that English was a savior, and we need to dispel any notion that he is a candidate to come back. One: you don't hire someone who wants your job (English interviewed for the head coaching job for god's sake). Two: I'd prefer to not go back to the days of sticking a stocky linebacker out on a slot receiver. Anthony Gonzalez is still laughing at Chris Graham.
So does it really come as a surprise that when you put Tony Gibson, a 3-3-5 secondary coach, Scott Shafer, a 4-3 defensive coordinator, and a batch of players poorly coached in the past together, you get the abomination that was the 2008 Michigan defense?
Like I said, I believe in the Jimmies and Joes theory. Would things have been better with Nic Harris and Ronald Johnson at safety? Maybe. But in the case of this year, scheme matters too. You can't put a 4-3 coordinator in charge of a bunch of 3-3-5 assistants. What happens? You get 267 yards on 5 plays by Illinois. You get 20 receptions by a single MAC receiver. You get this:
(No, I don't expect you to watch the whole thing. The music is really annoying and the video itself is grotesque. But my point is made.)
It's obvious Rodriguez has an affinity for the 3-3-5. That's fine. I'm not particularly sure why, but whatever. If he wants to bring the 3-3-5 to Michigan, then he needs to do it like he's bringing the spread offense: allout. None of this half-cocked nonsense. Don't hire a 4-3 press coverage guy to coordinate a defense composed of your 3-3-5 buddies. Jeff Casteel didn't come with RR to Michigan, and all indications are he's not going to leave West Virginia now, either. If Hopson is the DC, so be it. Recruits are being told that the 3-3-5 is on the way. Other sources say no decision has been made. Lets not get into the habit of lying to recruits, please.
It's time for Rodriguez to make a commitment one way or another. Either find a guy with deep, extensive knowledge of the 3-3-5 defense and hire him to be defensive coordinator, or remove Tall and Gibson from the staff and go out and find a kickass guy to run a base 4-3 (*coughvanderlindencough*). Don't just hire some 4-3 guy while keeping your friends on as position coaches. We're pretty tired of cronyism at Michigan. We put up with Andy Moeller and Mike Debord for too long. If the 3-3-5 assistants are staying, get a 3-3-5 guy to lead them. If not, get them out.
These are fixable issues. Rodriguez and Shafer (and the other defensive assistants) obviously weren't on the same page. RR deserves credit for owning up to his mistake and "agreeing to part ways" with Shafer. But he also deserves criticism for basically making the last year of misery on defense completely obsolete. Now these players will have to start all over, learning another brand new defense with new terminology, new coverages, new assignments, etc. Three defensive coordinators in three years, two in RR's first two years. Continuity is key, and we're certainly lacking in it now.
We're patient, Coach. We'll give you time to build this up. We understand that eggs have to be broken to make omlettes. But our good will is not infinite. You were hired to revolutionize Michigan's offense. If you're going to put your fingerprints on the defense too, you need to do better than this mess.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go to sleep hoping I don't wake up covered in unicorn blood with "WLA" carved into my bedroom walls.