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WR Screens on 3rd and 7: A look at fan perception

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Brief introduction: I’m the guy formerly known as Champ Summers over at TOGTM, and I was fortunate enough to ride Beauford’s coat-tails over here.  Why SCM now?  Well “Champ Summers” was taken on SBN, wish I had a flashier explanation for you, but there it is.  I could go into a litany of details regarding my love for the Maize and Blue, but I suppose we all have those sort of stories don’t we?  Suffice to say that at a site where we were supposed to be writing about the entire Big 10,  a full 99.8% of my posts were strictly focused on Michigan… at least I tried.  What can you expect from me?  I am an optimist, but not a blind one.  I’m not right all the time and I’m not above admitting when I’m wrong: I missed badly on what I thought this season would hold and am not ashamed to admit it.  So without any further intro… what to discuss? 
Well, how about perception?  That’s broad isn’t it?  How about fan perception of their team’s tendencies?  Better.  By the way this post's title is in honor of Mike DeBord, no further explanation needed.  It’s always interesting what sort of trends you’ll see fans pick up over the course of a season in terms of seat-of-the-pants analysis of their football team.  Case in point: this season I have covered my eyes and wept softly every time I see us take the field on defense with only three down linemen.  I have no statistical backing for my concern, but I was present for the massacre known as the Purdue game and have born witness to more 3rd and 15+ conversions this season than any fan should have to endure in a decade.  Frankly, if you were to ask me, I’d say more often than not we suck when we have 3 down linemen, or play in the Okie as some erudite coach-speak users might say.  Other popular “fan truisms” include the classic “throw it over the middle more”, “stop the soft @#%@#% zone coverage” (a personal favorite), and “mix it up/throw it more on first down”.  I can’t lie; I’ve been guilty of all of these “analytical clichés” at one point or another.  In fact, any Michigan fan who had to endure the Hermann decline, or the Malone decline, or the DeBord part II decline went to the well with these babies early and often on many an Autumn Saturday.

So what’s the point?  Well, I had this odd little theory that Beauford and I had been discussing, and by “odd little theory” I really mean “analytical cliché” that I found myself using week after week this season.  When looking at the quarterback play over the year, I repeatedly said that the willingness of the QB to be a credible threat on the read option greatly impacts our offense’s effectiveness.  When our QBs actually keep the football, I feel that defenses play us entirely differently and the other facets of our offense open up.  Like many a cliché, I never bothered to actually look into this theory that I often recited as law… until now.  Unfortunately they do not keep a “willingness” statistic in the box-score, so for the purposes of our discussion, I arbitrarily defined “willingness” as our QB picking up more than 30 rushing yards for the contest sans the sack yardage.  Fair enough?  Not tons of yardage, but let’s count the number of games that Brady, Navarre, and Henne had over the 30 yard mark… ok let’s not, you get my point. 

That inclusion criteria nets us the following games this season:
1. Miami (Threet 5 rushes 36 yards)
2. Wisconsin (Threet 9 rushes for 91 yards…* 58 came on one carry)
3. Penn State (Threet 14 carries for 62 yards… **Nearly every carry was in the first half)
4. Michigan State (Threet 14 rushes for 55 yards)
5. Minnesota (Sheridan 8 rushes for 33 yards… Feagin, who was QB in the sense that the center snapped him the football, 7 rushes for 49 yards)

So in games in which Michigan’s QB has gained more than a modest 30 yards on the ground, the team is 3-2 and managed to post the following numbers:
Rushing: 173.6 yards/game
Passing: 131.8 yards/game
Total Offense: 305.4 yards/game
Time of Possession: Just over 27 minutes per contest
Scoring: 22 points/game

Whew boy, greatest show on turf no?

Games in which we’ve failed to have our QB pick up 30 on the ground? A stunning 0-5 record… but is there a tremendous statistical difference?
Rushing: 122.2 yards/game
Passing: 177.8 yards/game
Total: 300 yds/game
Time of Possession: 26 minutes and 26 seconds per contest
Points: 22.4 points/game

So outside of actual rushing yardage, it’s astounding to me how similar the offensive performances are in these two groups.  From my fan perspective in the stands, the offense just seems to operate much more successfully when the QB is occasionally keeping the football on the read-option…  Yet, statistically speaking, there appears to be absolutely zero difference in the offensive performance one way or another…  that is until you get to the records… 3-2 vs 0-5 !?!

Reasoning?  Well, clearly there are more than just a few holes in my analysis.  Ignoring defense, turnovers, etc certainly doesn’t help, and all in all there are just far too many other variables to account for.  For example, there have been several games where for portions of the game, our QBs were moving the ball on the ground only to either stop all-together or get hurt (Penn State, Illinois, etc).  Also, my cutoff point of 30 yards is simply a dart thrown blindly as to what an effective measure of QB participation in the rushing game would be, your opinion might vary.  Grossly, the Purdue game messes nearly everything up, take away that game from the "under 30 yards" category and the offense is suddenly averaging a paltry 17.5 points per contest instead of 22.4. If Threet picks up all of three more yards on the ground to cross my extremely arbitrary 30 yard benchmark, then suddenly our offense is averaging 25.3 points per game when the QB goes for 30 plus on the ground and the difference becomes a bit larger between the two groups. 

You might be tempted to say: “Boy, that sure was a lot of statistical garbage for absolutely no conclusion whatsoever.”  BUT, that’s not the point I was shooting for here in this column.  Oh sure, originally I was hoping to find that my point was correct and I would be able to lay down all of this evidence for a real key to getting our offense in gear… but that’s not exactly how it worked out.

It’s all too often that a thought or theory is snatched up by the fan base (particularly the vocal message board crowd) and quoted like GOSPEL every time something goes wrong (or right) with the team.  Trying to boil success down into a simple “if we do X” or “if we would just do Y more” type of thing is dangerous.  People take these clichés and apply them in ways to simply railroad coaches week after week when the team fails to succeed… and yet here’s a nice example of how a little “truism” isn’t a truism at all.  Why?  Well for one, there’s obviously more to winning a football game than just offense, and particularly more than just your QB picking up 30 yards on the ground.  There are a ton of holes in my above analysis.  Just like there’s more to stopping the opposing team than the formation you line up in.  There’s a hell of a lot more going into the success or failure of each play than most fans out there, including me, really comprehend.  Yet at the end of the day, there has to be blame placed, there has to be someone to take responsibility, and so far this season, far too often, it’s been on our new coaching staff. 

In a year where patience has been in incredibly short supply, I think it’s unbelievably important that people sit back, take the whole picture in, and don’t get caught up in the all-too-easy trap of “if we just this or just that” game.  I just gave a small example of how you can be somewhat misguided by such an approach.  A whole 10 months into this new staff’s tenure and Michigan fans are faced with a lack of success we’re simply not accustomed to.  Unfortunately, far too often I’m seeing people swear that this was a 9-3 football team from the outset, swear that only this new staff’s actions have reduced what would’ve been a solid bowl team into one that is… well what it is.  They scream that this team would be entirely different if they were using some different offensive set or if the coaching staff somehow coached differently.  This is the dangerous type of reasoning that ignores so many different factors that have contributed to our struggles (and few successes) this year that go beyond “stop using 3 down linemen” and “throw the ball over the middle more” and “put player X in more” etc.  I implore you to not be “that guy”, I beg you to be patient with Coach Rodriguez and this staff, not because I’m some sort of Rich Rodriguez apologist, but because he deserves more than 10 months before he is judged, and even in a season that has been as frustrating as this one, there are things to be excited about.