Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Ballad of Little Man Tate

Tate doesn't seem to have much to
dance about these days.
I think it's safe to say that in his short football career at the University of Michigan, Tate Forcier has just about seen all the highs and lows that college football has to offer.  The quarterback-from-birth went from savior to scapegoat over the course of the 2009 season.  After the shredding of UConn's defense yesterday by the new and improved Denard Robinson, followed by the shots of a dejected and embarrassed Forcier on the bench,  the young quarterback has now moved firmly into the category of "afterthought."  All the while Tate hasn't changed.  He is still the same quarterback full of grit and moxie with crazy accuracy and a coaching pedigree that most pro's can't claim.  The same quarterback who brought the team back from the dead in two games, and forced overtime in a third 4th quarter comeback.  No, Tate is the same quarterback we have always known he was.  We have just changed the way we see him, for better or worse.

When Tate first came to campus he was stepping into a very tenuous quarterback situation.  The options from the previous year, Nick Sheridan and Steven Threet, had proven largely ineffective in the spread offense that Rich Rodriguez had installed.  Adding to the woes of the offense was the failure of Rodriguez to bring in a quarterback who fit his system.  The previous year he had lost out to Ohio State for the gem of the 2008 recruiting class, quarterback and top prospect Terrelle Pryor.  The 2009 recruiting cycle saw the decommitment of Shavodrick Beaver, a highly rated QB prospect who decided to play football for Tulsa instead, a serious blow to the confidence of a Michigan program that was unaccustomed to losing out on recruits to schools from Conference USA.  Steven Threet's transfer added fuel to the fire already brewing below a dangerously thin quarterback situation.  The last minute committment of touted athlete Denard Robinson helped fill out the depth chart, but his lack of any real quarterback coaching in high school was sure to relegate him to a small role in the offense.  The fate of the offense in 2009 would almost assuredly rest on the shoulders of Forcier.

Tate quickly established himself as the clear front runner during the spring game by putting together an impressive highlight reel on 11 of 13 passing for 141 yards and four touchdowns through the air and another rushing touchdown, inspiring the following youtube video:

That Forcier was the "weapon of choice" was clear to the Michigan blogosphere.  Fall practice confirmed these feelings.  Forcier spent the most time with the first team, Sheridan struggled as he had the year before, and Robinson came in just as raw as had been anticipated.  There was really no choice, Tate Forcier would lead the Wolverines on the field against Western Michigan in the home opener.


Coming out of fall camp this year, despite the wealth of options with two quarterbacks returning and highly touted recruit Devin Gardner being thrown into the mix, there was still little doubt who would take the first snap against UConn.  The job was Denard Robinson's to lose, and he had done nothing since an impressive performance in the spring to warrant any controversy.  Forcier on the other hand, had as tumultuous an off-season as was possible.  First, it was discovered that he had played most of the previous season with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, meaning there was no cartilage to hold his shoulder in its socket.  In April, as Robinson wowed the spring game crowd with the first team offense, Forcier played with the second team offense and struggled to get much of anything going against the first team defense.  As reports of Robinson's improvement began to multiply over the summer, others came out about Forcier's apparent lack of effort in optional workouts with the team.  Senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk on Forcier's participation during the offseason:
"And Tate, he tries to come out, but he's not as consistent as Denard is. And that's allowed Denard to jump a little bit ahead of Tate and I think that Tate's going to have to do a lot of work to catch back up to Denard in camp this year."
Woolfolk quickly backpedaled from the quote, but Rodriguez seemed to indicate that there was some truth to the rumor in his comments to the media.  Things looked bad for Forcier, a far cry from where they had been just a year before.


Top of the world.
The first month of the 2009 season played out like something pulled straight from the movies.  A once great program falls on hard times and undergoes a drastic change in leadership is brought back from the dead by an undersized true freshman who defies the odds and wills his team to victory.

Western Michigan was no match for the Michigan offense in the first game.  Forcier tossed three touchdowns on 179 yards passing with a 65% completion rate and looked poised even when his pass protection broke down.  After dropping two straight home openers, the Wolverines finally looked like they were back on track.  The next week would be a true test of the team's ability.  A ranked Notre Dame team rolled into town with a high powered offense led by Jimmy Clausen and a trio of dangerous receiving options.  The shootout that ensued was one of the better games of 2009 and started the legend of Little Man Tate when Forcier engineered a drive in the closing minutes of the game to put the Wolverines ahead with seconds to play.

Any question's surrounding the quarterback situation before the showdown with Notre Dame were thoroughly dismissed.  Some envisioned Tate as the next four year starter, and some even began talk   albeit prematurely   of a possible Heisman run.  For a fan base that had been devoid of optimism for over a year, it was understandable that some would jump to such hasty conclusions.  We wanted to believe that Tate was really as good as advertised, even if Notre Dame wasn't.

This spectacular diving touchdown would lead to a torn
labrum which would impact Forcier the rest of the season.
The next week against Eastern Michigan Forcier put up pedestrian stats in limited time.  This gave Robinson his first run at substantial playing time, and showed everyone that while electric on the ground, Shoelaces still didn't have what it took to be an every down quarterback.  With Indiana coming into the Big House the next week, another chapter was added to the legend that Forcier was building:  another late comeback for a win, despite getting outgained on offense by a surprisingly plucky Indiana team.  While questions were beginning to swirl around the defense, we were further entranced by the late game heroics of the young quarterback.  Little did we know, this quick ascent to the top was soon to be followed by a precipitous fall from grace.  Little Man Tate would never be this popular again.


Always feed the hot hand, and nobody was hotter than
Denard Robinson against UConn.
It was around Denard Robinson's third scoring drive, which happened midway through the second quarter, that I began to wonder what the fate of Forcier would be in this game.  Rodriguez had assured the media that all three quarterbacks would see time, but that was before Robinson had dismantled the UConn defense for a quarter and a half to the tune of twenty-one points on four drives (the 4th drive being a missed FG due to wind).  If Rodriguez was serious about giving all of his quarterbacks a chance during the game, such ridiculous production by one of them was sure to test his mettle.  Not only was Robinson leading scoring drives, he was doing so almost single-handedly.  The running backs were proving to be largely ineffective, and the offensive line struggled to open up holes in the middle of the field.  Many of the zone read plays ended with Robinson keeping the ball and squirting through a tiny hole in the line of scrimmage for positive yards.  On top of this, the team was electric on 3rd down because Robinson would find a way to make a play.  His passes were all on target, and the UConn defense looked winded and confused, no doubt adding to Randy Edsall's recurring nightmares of facing Rodriguez when he still coached at West Virginia.

By halftime the writing seemed to be on the wall.  I threw out a comment on an MGoBlog live chat to the tune of "bring Tate in for a drive after the half to throw off UConn's halftime adjustments", and it drew ire from the rest of the board almost as soon as it was put up.  Denard was the man.  Everyone else was convinced, and it began to look like Rodriguez felt the same way.


This summarizes how his day went.
Of all the things about Michigan football over which I have argued with opponents of the Rodriguez Era during past two years, from the transition to the spread and shred to the accusation that Rodriguez was somehow losing the recruiting battle in the state, Tate Forcier might take the cake for the most popular victim of insults and questions of ability.  The failure of the football team in the 2009 Big Ten season is no more the fault of Tate than it is anyone else who suited up on game days.  Sure, there were turnovers, and bad games, but there were also a series of crucial injuries   one to Forcier himself   that significantly hampered the offense's ability to produce during the heart of the Big Ten schedule, which put an even heavier burden on an over-matched defense.  If you want to win with a young defense, you have to play much like the Wolverines did yesterday, control the clock and don't turn the ball over.  This happened during the 4-0 start, when the team was +1 in turnover margin.  Over the next eight games, that number would fall to -13.

Forcier had his struggles during the later stages of the season as well has his share of costly freshman mistakes, but these were matched by the equally costly mistakes by the rest of the team.  In his first road game Forcier played very well against MSU, but received little help from the rest of the offense until late in the game.  Quoth Brian from his UFR of the game:
Goddamn. You wouldn't know it because of all the pressure and the drops killing his stats, but Forcier had a spectacular day. His downfield success rate* was 71%, which is up there with Chad Henne's best game. Chad Henne's best games didn't come with game-killing overtime interceptions, sure. He made three and a half terrible decisions throwing the ball (with the half being the bomb to Koger) and some additional ones in the ground game.
But does anyone remember the "Sheridan Might Start!" meme? Will anyone own up to actually advancing that point of view? No? No.

The fact is, crippling drops by the receivers, the inability of the offensive line and running backs to establish any sort of offensive production on the ground, and David Moosman's idea that the level of difficulty wasn't quite high enough in this game, so he should sling a snap five feet over Forcier's head were all driving factors in the first fifty-five minutes of offensive suck that we witnessed.  That Forcier led the team back from down two touchdowns, in the rain, with an injured shoulder should be a testament to his grit, moxie, (insert generic white guy compliment), and determination.

Iowa?  Not so much.  Forcier looked off all day, and eventually got pulled for what looks like it could be the first of many Denard Robinson backbreaking late game drives (and hopefully the last of the crippling interceptions sailed 10 yards past everyone to a safety who probably had to pinch himself as the ball was in the air   yeah, that bad).  It was the worst game of Forcier's career to that point, and the fact that Robinson came in with the game on the line when Forcier had already shown his penchant for late game heroics proves just how bad he performed in the eyes of the coaches.  Such is life for true Frehsman quarterbacks against highly ranked defenses.  Penn State was another poor performance from Forcier, who posted just a 50% down-field success rate   which rightfully should make you shudder   but also a poor performance from the rest of the offense against another strong defense.

Was this the last start of the Tate Forcier Era?
The rest of the year alternated defensive disasters (Mike William's must have had a lot of money tied up in Vegas on Juice William's Heisman candidacy, and Ezeh and Mouton's not covering TE crossing routes against Wisconsin was inexcusable), with awful unforced errors (the pitch against Purdue, the Illinois goal line debacle, and the interception fest against OSU).  However, Forcier was largely productive.  He was 15 for 24 against Purdue and 20 for 26 against Wisconsin, both average to good defenses. Even in the OSU game he posted a completion percentage greater than 60 percent.  This ultimately didn't matter, as the team limped home with a 5-7 record, and the boy hero had lost his luster.

Questions began to pop up regarding Forcier's ability to be truly effective in the spread and shred offense.  Did he have the speed to make the zone read the type of weapon that would hurt defenses?  How long would it take uber-recruit Devin Gardner to supplant Forcier in the starting lineup?  Would Tate transfer if he saw the bench?  Could Robinson ever become a legitimate option at quarterback?  Answers from the beginning of the season were long forgotten.

The questions have been swirling ever since.


When Denard Robinson went down in the third quarter of the UConn game, the air rushed out of the lungs of 113,000 people.  This had the potential to be a game changing moment.  Robinson was the whole offense up to that point, and nobody knew how the other quarterbacks would fare.  In fact, no one even knew who would take the next snap.  Forcier was listed as third option on the depth chart even though he came in with a huge advantage in game experience, on top of Gardner seeming like an obvious candidate for a redshirt.  However, once we saw Gardner warming up, the writing was on the wall.  Rodriguez was going to burn his redshirt for what would most likely be a couple snaps   Robinson had just walked off the field and looked to be fine, meaning he would most likely be back shortly.  If there were any questions of Tate Forcier's position on the depth chart, and ultimately his place in the program, this move seemed to make them clear.  Little Man Tate was out.


There aren't any photos of Tate Forcier's 4th quarter on the bench circulating online today.  As the clock wound down on the opening victory of the 2010 season, the cameras turned to the forgotten man of the afternoon.  There he sat, alone on the back of the aluminum bench, a towel wrapped tightly around his head, only leaving his eyes exposed.  When you are at the center of 113,000 people it isn't easy to find a place to hide.  Trying as hard as he could to be invisible, Tate couldn't avoid the cameras as they closed in looking for signs of breakdown.  The legend of 2009 was no more.  Forcier had been replaced, and in wild and dramatic fashion.  Records had been broken, a defense had been thoroughly beaten, and the performances of a year ago might as well have been ancient history.

As he left the field, Forcier was approached by Mike Rothstein of who got one cryptic quote as the quarterback wandered around the field alone and uncomfortable:
"All you need to know is I’m out"
How true those words feel upon reflection a day later.  I don't know what the future holds for Tate Forcier.  Rumors of his impending transfer were quickly squashed by comments from his father that laid out in no uncertain terms that he would not support a hasty exit by Tate from this football team after one game.  But the fact remains, Forcier is now solidly third on the depth chart, and the lure of another Pat White running this offense has shifted popular opinion firmly behind the man they call Shoelaces.  However, anyone who doubts Forcier's ability to lead this offense need only to refer back to the highlights from last year.  When Tate was healthy and surrounded by a healthy offense he was just as capable of hanging 30 or more points on a defense as Denard Robinson.  The way they do it might be different, Forcier will never have the home-run ability with his feet that Robinson has, but Forcier still remains the superior passer, no matter the stats Robinson put up against a young secondary that was routinely torched last year.

So everyone will go about their weeks, check MGoBlog for the UFR and the injury report and listen to the talking heads on the radio jump back on the UM bandwagon.  Maybe we hear news of the transfer that we all expect.  Maybe not.

Tate Forcier is still a productive D-I quarterback, whether he is wearing the maize and blue or not.  Don't think for a minute that his comfort with the passing offense and his playmaking ability won't come in handy later in the year, if he is still around.  For all Robinson's success, he did it against a weak defense with a simple playbook.  These things won't be so easy against the Iowas and Ohio States of the world.

What does the future hold?  I don't even think Tate Forcier knows the answer to that.  But if anyone can comeback from being knocked down like this, it would be Little Man Tate.  After all, he has a history of improbable comebacks.  Lets just hope there are still chapters to be written in his story, and that Little Man Tate can find the happy ending he deserves.

Passed over, wingless, and forgotten.
How will his story end?

1 comment:

  1. I'm tellin ya: Sith Lord Tressel will convince him to join the dark side. He'll sit out a year and Terrelle Pryor will graduate (only because OSU has no academic standards). After which, Tate will have two years of eligibility to fulfill his destiny as Anakin Skywalker and bring balance back to the force, just as prophesized.