Thursday, September 2, 2010

Half Full or Half Empty? Quarterback

The final entry in my series of best and worst case scenarios for the upcoming season.  I would do one on special teams, but its pretty simple.  Kicking and punting come down to freshman stepping up, and the return game, to paraphrase MGoBlog comes down do "HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL.  Let's now look at the biggest x factor for the coming season, the quarterback position.

The two-headed monster.  I still
have nightmares about 2008.
The story of the Michigan offense these last two years is largely a story of quarterback play   or lack thereof (amirite?).  2008 was the worst offensive year any of us have ever seen because the options at quarterback were a walk-on and a pro style passer unfit to run the spread and shred.  This is a reductive view that doesn't take in to account the worst offensive line of the last ten years, and two freshman running backs, but bare with me.  2009 was a year of promise and ultimately failure, on the backs of one quarterback who was tasked with too much pressure to carry an offense (losing your best option at RB and the heart of your offensive line at different points will do that), and another quarterback who had all of three weeks of formal training at the position before the season.  The quarterbacks did the best they could with the injuries and inexperience that surrounded the team last year.  Their best wasn't good enough.

This year is different.  The offense returns almost wholly intact and deeper than before.  The defense returns a lot of its contributors from last year and is finally nearing the point where there is a legitimate two deep at every position.  Questions abound for this team as we enter the season, but none of them seem to matter as much as who takes the first snap this Saturday.  This isn't a real question, since it is clear all three options at quarterback will play.  That doesn't really matter, because if there is one thing the media loves more than Brent Favre's annual retirement fiasco, it is a full fledged quarterback controversy.

So we return to the question that launched the discussion of running backs:  If you have two quarterbacks, do you indeed have none?

Before I go too far into my projections, I want to remind everyone that not every QB controversy is created equal.  Florida won a national championship using Tim Tebow as a change of pace from Chris Leak.  It can be done.

So, what if our glass is half full?

Expect more of these this year.
Points.  Lots of them.  Big plays too.  Defensive linemen clueless that the ball is already seven yards down field, linebackers juked out of their jocks, safeties caught flat-footed on play action fakes.  If this quarterback trio lives up to its potential, this offense could be something very special indeed.

Tate Forcier returns as the true passing threat.  Minus games against Iowa, Penn State, and OSU last year (where a number of factors played into his struggles) Forcier was a good quarterback.  He made time with his feet, threw crisp, accurate passes on the run, and kept his eyes down field.  There were freshman mistakes, but no one claimed there wouldn't be.  When Forcier was behind a healthy line and fully healthy himself he was a quarterback you could win games with.

A lot of ink has been spilled about Forcier's lack of preparation over the off-season.  This is irrelevant.  Even if he returns this year and plays healthy behind a healthy offensive line he should see his production go up.  Add to that another year of experience in the system and familiarity with the playbook and we should see a quarterback much more comfortable and capable.

That is of course when he sees the field.  Last year's afterthought, one Denard "Shoelaces" Robinson, who many wished would move to wide receiver or runningback this off-season, has made the leap.  He spent the off-season learning the playbook, building his passing technique (largely from scratch), and gaining the confidence of the coaching staff.  If you want to see what Robinson could become as a quarterback, look no farther than Pat White.

Physically Robinson is as close to White as you can get.  It is now up to him to put the mental aspect of the game together.  His passing does not need to be as refined as Forcier's, and if this humble blogger had to guess, it never will be (There are benefits to having Marv Marinovich as your personal quarterback coach in high school).  Receivers will be open by virtue of defenses lining up eight players in the box to contain the threat of a properly executed zone read play.  When Robinson is on the field he gives the offense a big play threat every time the ball is snapped.  Watch that video of Pat White again and tell me it doesn't give you goosebumps.

Lost in most of the hype is Devin Gardner.  The top dual threat quarterback recruit of 2010 arrived on campus early and has drawn very rave reviews amid the occasional disclaimers that he is still a freshman and does make mistakes.  No quarterback on the roster has more sheer physical talent and potential than Gardner.  He will be a force sooner or later, and he has done enough to almost assure us that he will see the field in 2010, for better or worse.

It wouldn't be the half full/half empty series if we didn't examine the other side of the coin.  While there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about this group, and I think they are all much more justified than any pessimistic views I have heard, there is one important trait that could hurt all three of these quarterbacks in different ways:  decision-making.

Don't get excited.  He made the wrong read on this play.
For all that Forcier brought to the passing game last year, his performance on the ground was poor.  One of the most important plays for a quarterback to master in this offense is the zone read.  This is an option play where the runningback crosses in front of the quarterback, who then either fakes or gives the handoff depending on the position of the defensive end.  If the end crashes down the line the quarterback pulls the ball and runs upfield into the lane the DE left, if the DE comes up field or plays contain, the quarterback hands the ball off.  This play also has an option for a swing pass out to the flat, but thats neither here nor there.  Last year, Forcier struggled executing the zone read, often keeping the ball for short gains when a hand-off would have went for seven to ten yards.  If Forcier can't improve his decision-making on the base play of the offense, the run game will never reach it's full potential.

Luckily, Forcier has been drilled in quarterbacking since he was old enough to hold a football.  Denard Robinson came to Michigan from a team that ran a simple run offense that basically depended on him to beat opposing defenses with his feet, which to be honest seems a little cruel to those other high school teams.  Needless to say, the finer points of the quarterback position are still new to Robinson.

I have said it before, while Robinson approximates Pat White in size and speed, the attribute that made White such a terror to opposing defenses was his execution of the playbook and the decisions he made on the football field.  We can't judge Robinson on this because his time at quarterback last year saw him run around three or four plays, a tiny fraction of the playbook.  He wasn't given any of the more complex reads in the running game, having very little time in fall practice to learn the plays.  What pass plays he did run were a mixed bag of minor successes and colossal failures.  When you throw the ball 31 times and over twenty percent of the passes caught are caught by the other team, you can be sure you failed as a quarterback.

For Robinson to succeed this year, he needs to make huge strides in learning the offensive playbook, prove he can execute the man running option and read plays that make the ground game so difficult to defend in this offense, and show that he has progressed enough as a passer to make the right reads and throws   and more importantly the right decisions on when to pull the ball down and run.  If he can become a viable threat in the running game it should open up the down field passing game   especially if he can properly execute play action passes.  It doesn't matter how positive reports from the spring and fall have been.  Until Robinson proves that he has made great strides in his understanding and execution of the offense he will still be the one trick pony who mostly ran "direct snap right/left" last year.

Let's hope they are looking ahead to a successful season.
Gardner, for all his physical ability is still a true freshman, and true freshmen still make boneheaded mistakes.  While enrolling early should help Gardner compete for playing time, his lack of game experience should make him the least attractive of the three quarterback options this year.  Reserve your wild expectations for Gardner's sophomore or junior year.  This should be his year to get comfortable in the offense.

All we know now is that each one of these quarterbacks will see the field at some point this Saturday, and most likely throughout the rest of the season.  This position group is still very young and more than likely a year away from maximum efficiency within the system.  However, time waits for no man and this team needs to win now.  Luckily, this year we might just have the quarterback to do it.  We just don't know which one yet.

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