Editor’s note: Chris Howard is a former running back for the University of Michigan. He was the starting running back for the Wolverines’ 1997 co-national championship team.
When Michigan introduced Jim Harbaugh as its football coach in the closing days of 2014, Wolverines fans felt like the heavens had opened and shined a bright light on the campus in Ann Arbor.
The prodigal son had returned. Michigan fans took to social media to claim victory and to let rivals know their time was up. Securing a historic apparel deal with Jordan Brand and challenging the NCAA and the SEC over satellite camps was heralded as bold and brash.
If anything good happened, it was called the “Harbaugh Effect.” Message boards were littered with “Who’s got it better than us?” discussion threads. My podcast host inundated me with every article written about Harbaugh, and admitted that while listening to Harbaugh give his speech at his first news conference, he shed a tear.
Everything Harbaugh did was considered groundbreaking, unprecedented and progressive by the maize and blue faithful. Not anymore. Everything Harbaugh does is met with “I don’t want to hear about what shoes we’re wearing or what trips we’re going on, I just care about winning.”
Fast forward to this season. Shortly after Michigan’s loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day ruined the Big Ten’s chance of an undefeated bowl season, the podcast host who shed a tear three years earlier sent me a text message:
“This is really the first time I am questioning everything, my faith has been shaken.”
The bloom has fallen off the rose. Doubt has crept into the minds of some Michigan fans — and Harbaugh’s critics smell blood in the water.
Harbaugh and his team will face staunch criticism and ridicule from analysts, rivals and the fan base leading into the 2018 season. As a former Michigan player who played on three consecutive 4-loss teams, I know all too well what that feels like.
Harbaugh will need to change the narrative that others are painting. This off season will give him every opportunity to do so with some changes to his offense and, perhaps, his staff.
I believe Harbaugh wants to run an offense similar to what he ran in San Francisco: Power from the pistol formation with a mobile quarterback who can make all the throws and make plays with his legs, mixed with some heavy play action. That’s great, but there needs to be some creativity, too.
The power run game/play-action plan was too predictable, especially when the power part went missing against good opponents. It’s not that Harbaugh’s offensive style can’t work, but he needs to be able to out-scheme opponents when it doesn’t.
Michigan ranked 105th in offense in 2017 and, what’s even more disappointing, the passing game produced only 9 touchdowns. Losing quarterback Wilton Speight and wide receiver Tarik Black to injuries were major blows. Unfortunately, quarterback Brandon Peters did nothing in my opinion to solidify that he’s the guy. I’m ruling him out.
If you’re Shea Patterson, you must be praying that you’re eligible to play in 2018 because the quarterback job is there for the taking.
Michigan’s most impressive play-calling game last season came against Ohio State. Everything was there for the taking but the Wolverines couldn’t make the plays. The Outback Bowl was by far the staff’s worst play-calling game, and perhaps the worst of Harbaugh’s career.
There were too many head-scratching moments. Injuries, youthful mistakes and turnovers obviously played a large part in play calling throughout the season, but the Pep Hamilton and Tim Drevno coaching combination has left little to be desired. Maybe there are too many chefs in the kitchen. Something isn’t clicking.
Michigan recently announced the hiring of former Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos, but his role has yet to be defined. While at Arkansas, Enos’ pro-style offense threw for more than 3,000 yards and rushed for more than 1,300 yards in two of three seasons. Even though Enos’ title has yet to be announced, you have to believe a major change is on the horizon.
As a friend said the other day, “Harbaugh needs his own Tom Herman or Lane Kiffin.” I agree. Maybe Enos is that guy.
Bigger, stronger, faster
Every time someone asks what I think of Michigan’s chances of being a national contender, I always say, “Michigan will go as far as the offensive line takes it.” That was true when I played and it’s true now.
Michigan’s rush offense ranked 49th in the country (177.7 yards per game), but in each of the Wolverines’ losses, they averaged just 2.1 yards per carry. That won’t beat good teams. The offensive line just didn’t get enough push up front.
After Michigan’s loss to Ohio State, Harbaugh was emphatic about his team’s lack of strength. He wasted little time in firing longtime assistant Kevin Tolbert and hiring former Arkansas strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert. During his career as a strength coach, Herbert has worked with 71 NFL draft picks, including eight first-round selections. Herbert must transform Michigan’s offensive line into a front of hulking behemoths that redefine the meaning of trench warfare.
The one component that has kept Michigan from ascending for years, even before Harbaugh’s arrival, has been its offense. Harbaugh is an offensive guy, he’s the quarterback guru. The head coach showing improvement in his area of expertise should be the least of our worries, and yet here we are, worrying.
These offseason changes will do little to silence critics, but they will give the Wolverines’ faithful hope that the team is moving in the right direction.
The 2018 season isn’t an “or else” season for Harbaugh, but he needs to change the narrative and get things back on course. If he doesn’t, he may not be far from that “or else” season.