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Communication Breakdown

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I met Scott Shafer a couple of months before the 2007 season started. He was funny, fresh faced for a college football coach, and sort of a contradiction squeezed into a blazer that was a size too small. Schafer was obviously a pent up ball of kinetic energy waiting to explode at any second, but at the same time he was somewhat quiet, speaking in soft tones while trying to emphasize how hard he wanted his players to hit the opposing quarterback.  He was so excited about this opportunity that you almost expected him to have some kind of nervous tick or twitch in between sentences, but still, he talked in a polite conversational tone when you could see he'd be happier yelling.

Shafer was supposed to be everything Ron english wasn't. Aggressive. Blitz happy. Willing to play man. And most importantly, able to coach players up to their peak. His defenses at Western Michigan terrorized the MAC and in his season at Stanford his defense pulled one of the biggest upsets of the 2007 season by topping then No. 2 USC in a game where his team was a 41-point underdog. These are the things that make for promising futures and bring coaches with limited D1 coaching resumes to major power programs.

And so Shafer was hired. He made the rounds. Said all the right things. Talked about getting after the quarterback. Knocking him out of the game. Then knocking out the backup. Etc. Etc. Aggressive. Rah! Get fired up!

Unfortunately what we saw was anything but. The aggressiveness Shafer promised never really appeared. And when it did, it quicikly disappeared in a slew of safety mistakes, a void at linebacker, and an inability to to teach his system effectively to a relatively veteran group of players. The square peg round hole analogy may be overused, but it is apt. Shafer's schemes never seemed to fit the players he had. Adjustments were few and far between, and when they came, they made matters worse.

A quarter of the season in, Shafer began to roll out a 3-3-5 defense that was far more confusing for his players than opposing defenses. At one point Brandon Graham told reporters "we're through with the 3-3-5." There was good reason for that. Michigan simply didn't have the personnel or the experience in the system to play the defense effectively, especially mid-season. Worse, the defense took two of Michigan's best defensive players, Taylor and Johnson, off the field for extended periods of time. No one has offered a suitable explanation for why this was a good idea. But then again, no one could offer a good explanation for why Michigan couldn't tackle anyone all season either.

When all was said and done, the end result was the worst defense in the 129 year history of Michigan football. Irrespective of how new you are to a program, that's not a good sign.

This blog has been fairly critical of Shafer's performance since day one. Several of our more distinguished colleagues in the blogosphere expressed surprise over the firing or disappointment at it. I am not one of them. While I personally feel bad for Mr. Shafer and his family, losing a job is never a good thing, I also feel this is the right move for Michigan football.

Something that was widely speculated at, and more or less confirmed throughout the season, was that Rodriguez and Shafer wanted different things out of the defense.

The two coaches had differing philosophies from the start as Shafer believed in a base 4-3 defense and Michigan began the season with that before morphing into Rodriguez's traditional 3-3-5 format late in the season.

First, this is a bad sign coming into a situation, even if that situation is Michigan. If Shafer knew from the start that he'd eventually be coaching a system he wasn't comfortable with and/or didn't believe in, I'm at a loss as to why he left Stanford. Michigan or not, if he knew this from day one, he set himself up to fail. Second, if the head coach wants to move in one direction and one of his head coordinators is not on board, that's bad news.

While I am no fan of the 3-3-5, it appears to be the direction Rodriguez is leaning, and as I've bought my tickets to ride whatever roller coaster he's decided to pilot, I'd support his decision on this one even if I wanted Shafer to stay.

But, the fact is, I didn't. Nothing from the defense this season indicated to me that next year's defense would be any better. Nothing in his schemes indicated to me that they were anything other than predictable. Nothing from the players indicated to me that they really bought in to what he was teaching.

No matter what profession you're in, someone is always in charge. Unless you're that .0001% of the populace lucky or gifted enough to be in a position to make the rules, you've got a boss. And that boss takes the credit, and the blame, for your successes and failures. When you succeed, good bosses reward you. When you fail, they try to raise you up. But in a season where Rodriguez spent at least six of twelve games explaining why the gigantic hole in our secondary hadn't been plugged yet, a pattern becomes apparent. Rodriguez was happy to take the blame for things he felt he could control or affect. He would put it on his own shoulders if he could say after a game, "look, this got better" even a little bit. But in a season where a historic program flatly collapses on defense, shows little improvement, and takes two steps backwards for every forward step, something in the system is broken.

This time, at least according to the Free Press, the portion of the system that was broken was the communication between Rodriguez and Shafer, and perhaps between Shafer and his players. As a result, Michigan is looking for a new defensive coordinator.