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Debunking the "Coaching" Meme, or "Scott Shafer, I owe you an apology"

One of the cool yet often frustrating aspects of running a blog about Michigan sports is that, occassionally, people mistake you for an expert on Michigan related things. I, and all of us really, are not experts. We're just people with too much free time and a hobby that takes away from our loved ones. It's basically like a hard drug addiction, but without the physical costs to your circulatory and nervous systems. Same social costs and the same deminishing returns. Especially during seasons like 2008 and 2009. But I digress.

Over the last six weeks I've spoken with a lot of people about the state of the team. Everyone wants to no one thing, why can't this team stop anyone? We're Michigan, right? Shouldn't we be playing better? I mean, they're Michigan recruits. Top of the line! It's gotta be the coaching. Change the coaching. Shapren the pitchforks. Light the torches. It's time for a burnin'.

Young and old alike have watched this team consistently make the exact same mental mistakes that cost them games last year. And they've had it. People are getting pissed. But what's the answer? Is it the coaches? Is it the players? Is it the general bloody mindedness of the universe?

The easy answer is a little bit of all three. The convient answer is coaching. But neither are correct. Michigan's defensive problems go much, much deeper than that. In each of the last three years Michigan has seen the same bugaboos on defense. Poor tackling. Bad angles. One or two superstars and a bunch of guys that look lost. This year is no different, on the field at least.

At the end of the 2008 season Michigan cut loose Scot Shafer, a respected and up and coming caoch before he arrived in Ann Arbor, partly as a scape goat but also for fielding a defense week in week out that can best be equated to defending Rome from the Barbarian hordes with the cast of RENT. I was one of Shafers most vocal critics last season. I was one of the first to call for blood. And in hindsight, I was wrong.

Very wrong.

One of the things we'd chosen to ignore over the three years leading up to Carr's retirement was the state of the defense and defensive recruiting. The 2007 torchings at the hands of Appalachian State and Oregon, and well, everyone else, were signs of a problem finally coming home to roost. For the prior five years Carr's regime had been recruiting safeties to play linebacker, linebackers to play defensive end, and god knows who to play safety. There were spectacular flameouts of four star talent actually recruited to play their high school positions of Corner, LB and Defensive end. Finally, there weren't enough bodies being recruited to play defense to make up for the gaps.

The bottom line is Shafer had little to work with and expectations that vastly outweighed the limited talent he could put on the field. A quick look at the classes of 2005-2007 shows the players available to Shafer to play in the secondary should provide you with a chill down the center of your spine:

2004: Chambers, Trent (Adams, Stewart all gone).
2005: Harrison. (Sears, Richards all gone.)
2006: None. (Mouton, Brown moved to LB.)
2007: Warren, Woolfolk, Williams, Rogers.

Yeah. Our talent level in 2008 wasn't so great. You can argue the Trent was a decent cornerback. Maybe. I can also argue that the earth is flat. Both have the same amount of basis in reality. Linebacker was even worse. It was so bad that we were starting a former fullback at Middle linebacker, a sophomore converted safety, and John Thompson or Austin Panter. Yes. That John Thompson and Austin Panter. Not good.

Maybe there are coaches out there that can form a competent defense out of that morass. Maybe. But I strongly suspect the guys that can are making large salaries in the NFL and not really interested in a college gig unless they're forced to take it. What that leaves you with are up and comers like Shafer, long term assistants like Ron English, or decorated former coordinators that bombed out as head coaches like Robinson. Having watched Michigan bottom out against the Big Ten, the Pac 10, and Division 1AA schools, English was not retained by Rodriguez and Shafer was brought in. And Shafer was expected to fashion a dominant defense.

This is where the disconnect occurred. Rodriguez, like just about everyone, expected the defensive personnel at Michigan to be, well, Michigan style defenders. Smart. Fast. Agile. Strong as a moose. and Biiiiig. They weren't. And all of us vastly overestimated the abilities of these defenders simply because they wore Michigan uniforms.

Like it or not, a good chunk of players left over from the 2006 team and incoming, weren't at the same level we'd become acustomed to over the last 30 years. Misopogon's simply outstanding diary at MGoBlog lists all the recruits, players, and defections since 2005 on the defensive side of the ball. It's staggering how low the talent level is and just how few players Shafer (and now Robinson) have to work with.

With hind sight being what it is, I think I owe Shafer an apology. Shafer was tarred, feathed and run out of town on a rail for a number of sins that were not his. He did not recruit the kids he had to work with. He did not know the state of the program when he took the job. He did not know the land mine he was about to step on was there. He wandered blindly into the Defensive Coordinator position knowing only one thing, it's Michigan.

Only it wasn't. As the charts laid out by Misopogon demonstrate, this wasn't the Michigan that Shafer grew up with. On Defense, Michigan recruiting rankings resembled OSU's but their player performance mirrored Minnesota's. None of us, especially me, were able to accept that Michigan had fallen on such hard times in terms of recruiting, player development, and player retention. It was always, "we'll plug that hole with another highly rated player!" Only we haven't. And now we've got walk-on's starting at two positions and a third contributing important playing time.

It's easy to blame coaches for being unable to turn overwhelming talent into an overwhelming defense. I think of Florida State as one such example. Constantly refreshing the well with 4 star plus talent, constantly being mediocre to bad on defense. It doesn't add up from the outside. But when the coaches have little to work with we can't rush to judgment on their abilities.

Everyone remembers their high school football team had a couple of players that were talented, but just weren't good at football. They'd fly around the field, looked like grown ups, talked the talk, but in reality they never really got the game or had the predisposition for it. Eventually, they got benched or graduated because no amount of coaching made them any better than their natural, uncoached talent. They just had a ceiling. Unfortunately, a number of Michigan's players have that problem at the college level. And 2008 underlines that point.

Shafer's ability to fashion a remotely competent defense in Syracuse speaks to his coaching ability far more than the disaster he provided us in 2008. Greg Robinson's years of churning out killer Texas defenses and two Superbowl defenses in Denver speak to me far louder than his head coaching failure in Syracuse does. We are not asking him to be a head coach. We are asking him to coach a depleted and talent deficient defense.

We've already held two coaches responsible for Michigan's recruiting and coaching sins, one rightfully and the other improperly. Holding a third to the flames won't do anything to change the fact that it's going to take talent coming in the door for this program to return to its rightful place in the Big Ten and National scene.

Once there's talent in the door and on the field, then we can start judging whether Robinson is the right man for the job. But until then, people need to be patient with Robinson and Rodriguez. We've already gotten rid of one coach.

And how's that worked out so far?