The Internet and Instant Gratification: The Conclusions You Can, and Can't, Draw from the Spring Game

I really love the internet.  I think anyone who saw my Google Chrome history file would see that spelled out in painfully obvious detail.  On a daily basis I check a large number of Michigan sports blogs -- some with a frequency bordering on downright fanatical -- news websites,opnion websites, internet comics, general sports blogs, college football blogs, pop culture websites, music blogs, and celebrity gossip blogs (I know, I know, but they are a guilty pleasure of mine) on top of facebook and twitter.  Just getting through my daily routine of internet browsing can take upwards of an hour a day.

But I don't always stop there.  I will sometimes circle back around to some of these sites two or three times a day.  Even on weekends or late at night when I am sure that there is nothing new posted that I might have missed, I still wander back in search of more and more information.  I have been fundamentally changed by the internet.  If something happens it is no longer ok just to hear about it.  I must know immediately.

I imagine most of the readership here has a varying degree of this same illness.  If you hang around Maize n' Brew enough to be a regular, odds are you keep close tabs on one or all of mgoblog, touch the banner, the wolverine blog, mvictors, etc.  Those are just a few of the sites that focus on UM football.  Outside of that you may stop by anywhere from three or four to thirty plus websites a day, all places that speak to your interests and provide you with information that is not only relevant to the things you care about, but information that you have become conditioned to depend on simply by its constant availability and immediacy.  This could be even worse if you have been bitten by the twitter bug and now get links delivered to you as soon as the author posts them or a friend recommends them.

Now, I'm not complaining.  The internet hasn't ruined my life -- remember how much I said I love it?  Yet, too much of a good thing isn't always productive.  There have been days that I have sat down to write something for this or another blog and become so distracted with the day's links on Buzzfeed or a new album review on Pitchfork that I get lost down the rabbit hole of the internet (and it is always the same:  read something, look something up on wikipedia, get reminded of this other thing I meant to check out, and so on for hours at a time), never to return to my original intent of actually producing something rather than consuming it.  These are my demons, and I deal with them daily.  However, as I know from a childhood spent without cable TV or anything over spotty dial up internet access, I don't need technology to distract me from getting things done.  I'm plenty good at that myself.

So what happens when we are given this extremely effective and complete infrastructure designed to bring us information instantly, only to find the well of information dried up?  I give you exhibit A:  cable news.

Have you watched much CNN or MSNBC or, gasp, Fox News during the day?  Mostly you see it on in the waiting rooms at doctors offices and oil change places, but the volume is almost never up high enough to hear.  Why would it be?  There isn't much to listen to.  When faced with 24 hours of time to fill and maybe only an hour or two of actual, substaintial news to report, the cable news companies resort to opinion and filler.  It is this opinion programming that so often gets passed off as "real news" just because there is a stock ticker at the bottom of the page and a short headline segment at the top of the hour.  It isn't facts reported, but facts spun.  Is Glenn Beck really reporting on the impending Armageddon, or simply coming up with increasingly asinine theories for why it is approaching and we should all start work on our fortified compounds stocked with canned goods and guns?

This is largely the same situation that the college football fan finds himself in during the long offseason after national signing day and before the start of fall camp, but with one exception: spring practice.  Spring practice for coaches is a time to work on fundamentals, drill the basics of each scheme, and help each player start on a path of self improvement that will hopefully continue over the summer with long hours in the weight room, film room, and on the practice field for voluntary drills and seven on sevens.  Spring practice for the fan is an oasis in the desert of the off season where one can restock on actual information:  practice reports, videos, press conferences, before the long slog until fall camp starts.  Manna from internet heaven for a hungry college football fan.

Spring is perhaps the most important stretch of practice that a player will be involved in all year.  Free from focus on opponents, game prep, and walkthroughs a player in the spring gets three or four weeks on the field with his coaches to work on improving himself as a player.  Does a corner back move fluidly enough on pass coverage?  Spring is the time to work on those fundamentals.  Does a quarterback have the proper footwork on his drops and rollouts?  Fifteen practices with the OC to make that second nature.  Does the defensive front seven shed blockers effectively?  Drill it in the spring so that when fall comes the team can focus on the little things that help win games.  Those fifteen spring practices are the basis for how much better a player will be in the coming year.

The problem is, that the improvement is hard to quantify in terms of numbers that fans want to hear:  wins and losses, rushing yards, tackles, etc.  Thus the message boards are filled with an army of armchair quarterbacks who definitively state that player X is a disappointment or player Y is going to have a breakout year based on reading tea leaves from practice observers and watching two and a half minute youtube highlight videos.  If you have read any message board in the past month you already know what I'm talking about.

The absolute worst, however, is the flood of opinion that rushes out after the annual spring game.  The one day during the spring when we all get to be coaches and scouts for an afternoon.

I didn't plan on watching the spring game on Saturday.  Very few times do I voluntarily skip something related to Michigan football if it is on TV, but I knew exactly what I was in store for and didn't have much interest in it.  An hour and a half of sloppy football, bland playcalling, and missed FG's (some things never change, eh?).  Coming off a year in which one of the most statistically dominant* offensive units in school history is being revamped into a more traditional pro style/spread hybrid, and the most dismal defensive unit in school history is being revamped into something that has, A) a coherent identity, B) a grasp of proper fundamentals and technique, and C) a coordinator with a pulse, the afternoon wasn't going to provide much insight into the product on the field come September.  I figured, just as AceBrian, and Magnus had already written, that we would get some insight into the development of some of our young players and a faint glimpse at the new scheme, but would largely be left without much of anything as revelatory as last year's realization that, "holy shit, Denard is for real."

*(I said statistically dominant for everyone furiously typing the standard "paper tiger" retort in the comment section below.  Can we move on, please?)

But then twitter exploded at about 12:01pm, and I was sucked in.  As I watched the game I felt like I got exactly what I expected.

  • Big Will Campbell didn't look great, but he also didn't look lost and didn't get blown up by a bunch of third string walk on linemen.  He may never develop into the all-world DT that most of us hoped when he signed on in 2009, but he looked better on Saturday.  Marginal improvement this early under a new staff -- especially one with three very capable DL coaches -- is all I wanted to see, and all I did see.
  • Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner both struggled.  For everyone up in arms about how "awful" the offense looked on Saturday, wasn't this expected?  After just a scant few weeks of learning an entirely new offensive system you had to imagine that things still wouldn't be clicking for either Denard or Devin.  Remember how inept Robinson looked after fall camp his freshman year?  These things take time, and thankfully the team has plenty of that before the games in the Big House start to count.
  • The defense looked...better?  Yeah, I'll say it.  The defense looked to be playing with a little more fire, tackilng solidly, and for the most part in the right place at the right time.  There is talent on the defense (although it is important to remember that a decent amount of that talent -- Troy Woolfolk, Ryan Van Bergen, J.T. Floyd, and Kenny Demens -- didn't suit up on Saturday) but there is also a lot of youth and some oddly fitting pieces (LB/S tweeners).  It was promising to see young players like Jake Ryan, Carvin Johnson, and Marvin Robinson make some plays, as well as the wayward traveler Marell Evans hold down the MLB spot (depth at MLB?  Is that allowed?), and the defense as a whole developing an identity as a unit and grasping the roles which the new staff has laid out for them.  For the most part I saw that.  It wasn't always pretty, but unlike last year I didn't need half a bottle of booze to make it through.  Let's hear it for small miracles*.
  • The running back situation is still the running back "situation."  Nobody really stood up and took the job for themselves on Saturday, which isn't surprising because we had heard all spring that no one had done anything to separate from the pack.  Mike Cox gave us the annual "did he just do that?" spring game touchdown run.  I'm not holding my breath.

*(It is criminal that I can't find any videos online from Archer to link here.  Internet, you have failed me.)

What I didn't see:

  • The offense is not totally hopeless contrary to what some have been crying about on message boards.  Did the defense do a good job holding the offense in check most of the afternoon and get under Robinson/Gardner's skin?  Yes.  However, the offense is about 60% installed and not nearly that much of it was rolled out on Saturday.  The offensive line, which has been hampered with injuries all spring didn't do the offense too many favors, but after last year you have to have faith that the unit will pull itself together by the fall.  One scrimmage on one afternoon in April isn't enough to condemn a whole unit.
  • Denard and Devin aren't Threetidan 2.0.  Seriously.  Let me repeat that.  Denard and Devin aren't Threetidan 2.0.  If you insist otherwise then you obviously were living somewhere without a TV during the fall of 2008.  These are two good quarterbacks adjusting to a new system, not two hopelessly inept quarterbacks trying in vain to make anything work.   They might struggle at times, but there is much more talent and experience on the 2011 offense than there was in 2008 (Don't believe me?  Look at returning starts on the offensive line for one).  Don't panic.
  • The kicking game isn't necessarily in trouble going forward.  Sure, Gibbons and Broekhuizen couldn't hit a FG to save their life on Saturday, but we already knew that coming in today.  Some guys just aren't cut out to kick for a D-I college football team.  No amount of coaching -- even from a dedicated special teams coach -- was going to fix those two.  If Wile shows up in the fall and struggles then we can hit the panic button.  Until then, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.
  • The Hoke hire might turn out to be a mistake in the long run, but you sure as hell can't make that argument after one spring game.  Let the man earn his way to the unemployment line the old fashioned way if that is how things end up.  Of course he is putting in his offense (even when some of us really, really liked the old one).  Coaches coach their system and do the best with the pieces they have.  Hoke and Borges want to win bad enough to find a way to get production out of the offensive players they have.  Let them work it out for an entire offseason and maybe a couple games before you head to Ann Arbor Torch & Pitchfork for the 4th annual beginning of October sale.

In the end, this game wasn't even the game that it was billed to be.  It was a practice, a scrimmage, and more importantly a media event.  Like most manufactured media events, you will be able to draw whatever conclusions you want from what you saw on Saturday.  If you came in worrying that the transition to a MANBALL offense from the spread and shred would neuter a potential juggernaut, you can piece together an argument with bits and pieces of broken plays, overthrown receivers, and blown blocking assignments.  If you thought that the defense was a bunch of talentless hacks who woundn't be able to stop a properly drilled pop warner team, you could certainly make the case by pointing out some bad pursuit angles, missed tackles, and blown assignments.  Bend the facts anyway you want to build your case, you're still only arguing with a handful of plays and a few practice reports.

Some won't fall into the trap.  The real experts and cooler heads will make well reasoned observation of improvement in some areas, and reasons for concern in others.  This isn't the time for sweeping generalizations that proclaim the far distant season a success or failure, and the best voices out there know it.  But they also know just how little is set in stone and how much can change over the course of a few months for players dedicated to becoming the best they can be.  Just ask Denard Robinson, the kid who after the 2009 season was pegged by almost everyone to be the next great Michigan running back/wide receiver in 2010, not an electric and insanely productive quarterback.

Will any of this matter?  No.  Just like the cable news industry, a lack of credible or substantial information won't distract the message boards, local columnists, and some bloggers from their real goal: entertainment -- or to put it more bluntly, argument.  Isn't that what this is all about, the reason we watch football in the first place, to be entertained and connect with other people over one shared experience?  So it doesn't matter that nobody knows anything, that there are 20 players who will be suiting up in the fall who haven't even moved to Ann Arbor yet, that the new coaching staff is barely over halfway done with installing new schemes on both sides of the ball.  We all want answers now.  That is what the internet is for, right?  Instant information and billions of hours of pornography.  What will the 2011 record be?  Are we back to being "the real Michigan?"  Was Brady Hoke a good hire?  We delude ourselves into believing some subjective truth about how things are going to be based on what little we know and what we want to believe.  Kurt Vonnegut said it best in Breakfast of Champions, one of my all-time favorite quotes:

"You have no use for the truth?" said Beatrice.
"You know what the truth is?" said Karabekian. "Its some crazy thing my neighbor believes. If I want to make friends with him, I ask him what be believes. He tells me, and I say, 'yeah--aint that the truth?'"

So as you spend the next few months updating message boards with your "definitive" version of this fall's two-deep or arguing with your buddies, co-workers, and favorite opposing fans about the signs of success or failure that clearly indicate what we are in store for this fall, let yourself get caught up in rhetoric and hyperbole, overstate your case based on a small sample size, and jump to hasty conclusions.  Don't worry, everybody is doing it.  It is how fans pass the time between those precious few months a year when we actual have football to watch -- and answers on the field.

The real truth -- that objective stuff based on a lot more than what we read on a message board or see on a spring game broadcast -- is that we don't know anything about this team other than where it came from and where it wants to get to in the future.  Until then, there isn't a corner of the internet that is going to provide you with the answers you seek.  Trust me.  If there was, I would have found it by now.

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