Monday, September 6, 2010

Waiting on a Friend

Michigan 30, UConn 10; 1-0
The Rolling Stones - Waiting on a Friend

Found at

60 minutes into the 2010 season, and I'm wondering if Rich Rodriguez is intent on driving me batshit crazy by running the ball 50-60 times a game and making my Run Charting obscenely extensive.

This was actually a tangible thought that popped into my head, I think it was sometime during the third quarter, as Denard Robinson wiggled and darted for another first down. As the kid called Shoelace burst through the line with his EA Sports NCAA 11 99-rated acceleration, I actually thought that he was making my hobby as an amateur blogger more difficult. The fact that this thought occurred to me means that I wasn't being crushed by the sense of impending doom that has lingered over this program for the better part of two years. It means that through the tempest, there was what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity. Clarity in the form of Rich Rodriguez's offense showing signs of what kept Big East defensive coordinators awake at night years ago.

It's why when I see tweets like this...
I hate the spread offense. Hate it. It isn't practical to getting kids ready for the next level. And it can get your QB killed.

...I get a little ticked off. Not once during Denard's slicing and dicing of Connecticut did Rich Eisen tweet anything like, "Wow, look at this kid" or "Holy cow, he's fast." He didn't say anything. Completely silent until Denard got dinged in the 3rd quarter and Devin Gardner had to go in (more on that in a bit). If you've followed Rich Eisen on Twitter for a while (since say, last season) like I have, you'll know his issue is not with an offense failing to prepare quarterbacks for the NFL or exposing them to injury. His issue is with a coach he doesn't like coaching at his alma mater running an offense he doesn't like.

Putting aside the fact that Chad Henne was in pieces by the time the 2007 regular season ended and the fact that there was some neat little research done by an astute reader over at MGoBlog debunking the myth that spread QBs are injured more than pro-style QBs - link escapes me, help would be appreciated - this is a bigger issue. (UPDATE: MGoBlog user MGoShoe has provided me with links to fellow MGoBlog user MCalibur's QB Fragility series: One, two, and three.) An issue that there remain people who will be selectively critical, conveniently shutting up when things are peachy but have no problem running their mouths when the sky is anything but sunny. There is a poster at a Michigan message board that I shall leave anonymous for now who actually has the gall to argue that Denard didn't do anything on Saturday that any of our running backs or wide receivers couldn't do if they were taking direct snaps, that his sparkling passing performance is overblown because it was a bunch of dink and dunk passes, and that there's no way he can hold up carrying the ball 29 times a game. Of those three points, I agree with the last, but have an overwhelming urge to drop an anvil on this person's head from about three stories up for the first two. And it's not like the point I agree with is incredibly insightful or anything. Gee, he won't stay healthy if we run him 348 times this season? Ya think? FYI: that would be the most carries in a single season in the history of Michigan football. Get a clue.

That asinine argument was/is made in the course of defending the need to keep Tate Forcier on the roster - something I also agree with. Which brings me to the great debate about who should be the #2 quarterback and the other great debate about somebody sulking on the bench like a sourpuss.

A year ago, I was in the camp that Devin Gardner should definitely redshirt when he arrives at Michigan since Tate and Denard were only a year ahead of him. I held this opinion even when I was told by people who would know that Michigan's coaches recruited him with the specific intent of having him ready to contribute in 2010. My opinion on the matter changed when I saw him in person around Halloween night 2009. Aside from going absolutely insane during the actual game, just utterly imposing his will on the other team, I spoke with a coach shortly after the game, and he told me essentially, "The kid has 'it' more than any other QB I've seen. Everything comes naturally to him." I returned home that night convinced that Devin would play in 2010. The only hitch in that plan was when it appeared for a brief time that he wasn't going to be able to graduate from Inkster early and enroll at UofM in the winter and be able to participate in the spring. Once that hurdle was cleared, there wasn't even a debate - neither in my mind nor in the minds of those in Schembechler Hall - Devin wasn't going to redshirt, and that mindset was 100% justified when he lived up to his billing in the spring and fall. He's a sponge, absorbing everything the coaches teach him. Beyond that, he has the fire in his heart and gut that you lust for in a QB, that undying passion to get better in order to win. There's a reason Devin was the most important recruit in last year's class, and a reason the Michigan coaches targeted him over Robert Bolden (who they would've had if they had shown him the attention they showed Devin). He is well ahead of the curve, both mentally and physically. To the point where there are some (not all, but some) close to the program who believe that by the end of the 2010 season, Devin Gardner will be the best quarterback on the roster and could unseat Denard in 2011.

So for the people holding the now-obsolete pro-redshirt point of view, and more importantly for the people confused, bewildered and agitated about Devin getting the call when Denard got dinged on Saturday - stop acting surprised.

Which brings me to Tate Forcier, and the quarterback situation as a whole. To preface, I, along with any self-respecting Michigan fan/blogger/whatever, try to avoid insulting or bashing a player on the team at any cost. There's a difference between criticizing a player for his on-the-field play (even when that criticism is poignant) and personally attacking a college kid. So I'm not going to say Tate Forcier is a terrible person or a piece of crap or any such nonsense like that. But sometimes, good, even great people lose their way. We live in a world where recruiting is king, and recruiting rankings are gospel and those with stars next to their name often get stars in their eyes as a result of dozens of people around them blowing sunshine up their asses 24/7. Tate has a very unique background. He's been groomed to be a big-time quarterback from the time he could walk, essentially. If you're familiar with the Forcier family (or their website), you'll know they are...intense, in a word. They are not unlike so many other football families around the country. At the same game I attended last October to see Gardner play, I stood next to the mother of one of the random players in the game, and she used language and had a demeanor that would make the reddest of redneck Ohio State fans blush. She summed up her entire act in one colorful sentence: "I ain't no sissy and I didn't raise no pussy."

So...yeah. There are people out there who literally eat, breathe and sleep football, and when you groom your child almost from birth to be a major quarterback and recruiting services sing his praises and elite college coaches fawn all over him to try and get him to come to their school...that kind of attention goes to your head. And when you enter college and you have the expectation of savior planted on your shoulders from day one, and when you suddenly defy the odds and look the part of savior after a couple might start to think that you are God's gift to the gridiron, that all the glory heaped in your lap from years of preparation is for real and you have reached the pinnacle, the apex of your position.

Given the circumstances, it would take a much more advanced lifeform to not lose their way. And Tate Forcier lost his way. The propaganda machine that is the Forcier family website would have you believe that all of Tate's struggles as last season slowly derailed were due to his numerous injuries. They're correct, but not complete. There is no doubt that Tate has a warrior's heart, that lesser souls would've been shelved well before the final seconds ticked away in last year's Ohio State game. Tate was beyond hurt, he was playing injured, and if there were better circumstances, he would've been out long before that, but there weren't, so he wasn't, and he toughed it out to the bitter end. But at the same time, he also strayed off the field. Conveniently (not), it started around the same time his big brother left Ann Arbor after being denied admission to grad school. He lost the stabilizing force that kept him grounded, and without it, things went a little haywire.

And as that happened, Denard Robinson kept putting in endless amounts of work in the weight room and the film room and the practice field, biding his time, honing his skills so he could one day maybe get a shot. As people on websites and message boards mused about when he would move to running back or receiver, Denard kept plugging away at this quarterback thing. And when Devin Gardner arrived in January, he too relentlessly took to the weights and the tapes and the practice field. And when the eye of the NCAA compelled Michigan to internally tighten up the coaches' access to off-season workouts and practices, which in turn compelled the seniors of the team to take charge and make sure work continued, some players chose to relax. The result? Denard Robinson taking the first snaps in the Spring Game. Some players starting fall camp with blue helmets, having to earn their wings back. When Troy Woolfolk aired the dirty laundry about Forcier last month, it came as surprising news to many. I wasn't surprised, and neither were many others. Many chastised Woolfolk for not keeping things internal. The truth is, things were kept internal from last winter until just before fall practice, and the message wasn't getting through. And as the practice reports from numerous sites indicate, the light finally did get through during camp, and Tate earned his wings back and was by all accounts impressive. But the fact is, the damage was done. Tate's not 3rd on the depth chart because of some punishment or message sending by Rodriguez. Not entirely, anyway. He's 3rd on the depth chart because he got passed by Gardner.

If it's anything, it's an ongoing lesson being taught that few will be able to grasp. It's a lesson that Brian Griese learned before 1997, and a lesson that Ryan Mallett never got. As one observer put it, Tate sulking on the bench as Saturday's game wound to a close is the equivalent of Mallett sitting as the team sung the Victors on a cold Saturday night in Champaign as the senior Henne returned to relieve Mallett and lead a comeback victory. It's a lesson in maturity, hard work, and at times, self-sacrifice. And while Mike Rothstein was incredibly premature with his column stating that Tate seems to be on his way out, it is an ominous cloud looming overhead. Because the fact remains, despite all the criticism I just laid out, this team still needs Tate Forcier. If the light that went on in fall camp stays on and he stays healthy, he is still immeasurably important to the success of this team. It only takes one stray shot, one awkward bend for Denard to be sidelined, and while the only advantage Tate has on Devin is experience, that is a very valuable advantage to have.

So while Tate may not be on the way out the door as Rothstein's irresponsible column suggested, it's not difficult to connect some dots here. Nobody blames Tate for being disappointed that he was on the sideline all day Saturday. Just a year ago he was on the receiving end of all the praise Denard is getting. It's a humbling thing to see what you once had in your grasp in the hands of another. It's a bitter pill to swallow. But some wise man once said, "The Team, The Team, The Team." Eventually, possibly sooner than any of us expect, Tate will face a crossroads, at which point he will have the ultimate decision to make. Will he follow the path that he almost seems genetically programmed to follow and leave, opting for a fresh start? Or will he decide to double down and bust his ass off like those who have surpassed him did, waiting for the moment where his number is called again?

In the meantime though, this is Denard's limo. We learned a lot about him on Saturday. This upcoming Saturday, we'll learn more. As visions of Pat White dance through our maize and blue brains, one has to wonder if Denard even grasps what lies ahead. As long as he stays unbroken, the future is in his hands. At the risk of being hyperbolic, the fate of the program is on his shoulders, tangled up somewhere in his dreadlocks. He will carry that burden with that toothy grin on his face. He will sprint to daylight with the burden. He will drag this program, this team, and this coach with him on his legs of dilithium until he can run no more.


dingessclan3 said...

Brian. You should be paid for your work. Spot on and informative. Kudos young man. I also hope Tate decides to lace em up and compete.

Go Blue!

david said...

slow clap

James said...

Great post. Very, very well put.

UofMSnowboarder said...

The whole idea of hating something in college because it doesn't 'prepare someone for the NFL' shows he just doesn't understand college sports. They aren't a stepping stone, they have more meaning/value than the NFL could ever have.
I'm sorry for Eisen that he never caught on to that in his years at Michigan, but maybe he never listened to Bo, or connected with MICH as a football team. Either way, the comments of NFL fanboys who don't understand college sports, what they mean, and why it's important shouldn't be listened to.

Canzior said...

One hell of a column. A great read and GS is part of my daily read from now on.

Misopogon said...

Great column.

I agree: If you think the QB depth chart at Michigan is now Officially Official until Denard goes 14/16 for 180 yards and a TD passing plus 220 yards and 2 TDs in the 2014 Rose Bowl, you haven't been paying attention to the QB spot under Rich Rod.

Robinson is in a similar position that Tate was last year, annointed and blessed with an unpolished freshman behind him, and Mr. Forcier is in Denard's spot, watching a superstar bud in front of him on the depth chart and wondering if he would ever get his chance.

There's a third horse in this, but I still want Gardner to redshirt, because that means we get starting years from him as a RS Jr and 5th Senior after Robinson and Forcier have moved on.

If Denard gets hurt this year, which, like, is really probable given his style, size, and the Big Ten linebackers he will go up against, I really want Tate to overtake Gardner for the No. 2 spot, and give us a seasoned starter with a magic arm and stones in his gut come crunch time. If Denard is struggling sometime this year, I want Forcier ready to work his magic again.

The way to get there is for him to beat Gardner, and push Robinson.

Obviously, if Denard Robinson reprises his UConn performance every day until his eligibility expires, that would be delightful, and for Michigan it doesn't really matter what Forcier does. Raise your hand, even in your wildest dreams, if you think that's what's going to happen?

Rich Rodriguez is a believer in competition; we know this. No job on this team is ever locked up (unless you're a half-way competent defensive back and currently on the roster). Forcier is polished, knows and fits this offense, can will his team to big wins, and has a year of experience at Michigan quarterback.

I said the same thing of Brady when it looked like a good day for Drew Henson might launch the Next Coming -- that's not how it ended.

And between those two positions, I'd much rather be in Tate's, with sophomore eligibility and still more time in the cookpot than either of his competition, and a coach who rewards the guy who tries the hardest.

Thunder said...

While I obviously have to respect the statistics that show mobile QBs aren't significantly more at risk than pocket QBs...

It's worth noting that Rich Rodriguez quarterbacks have suffered injuries in at least the past three seasons:

2007 - Pat White, dislocated thumb against Pitt

2008 - Steve Threet, elbow issues

2009 - Tate Forcier, sprained shoulder

And though you noted Chad Henne's injury problems in 2007, he also played 2004-2006 without any notable injuries.