Anyone who knows how to keep a secret realizes there’s a time to withhold it, and the only time to tell the secret is if it is to the benefit of the one telling it. The great illusionists, be it Harry Houdini, or David Copperfield, have known not to show their best magic tricks at the beginning of their performance, they save the best tricks until the end of the show, or maybe even wait to use the best tricks at a later date. Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan coaching staff realize the intricacies of keeping a secret just that, a secret.
Michigan’s offensive playbook has as many different formations as there is and will ever be in college football. From empty formations, to jumbo sets, the offense of Jim Harbaugh and Tim Drevno have everything in between. Through the first three weeks of the season however, they’ve gotten by without showing much of their playbook, winning anyway.
Their goal hasn’t been to struggle in the red-zone, when a play is called they want it to be one that is positive. But they aren’t going to give away the “good stuff” against the likes of Air Force and Cincinnati, when big games loom like Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. It’s never good for a future opposing team to have an abundance of their playbook on film.
A major example of Harbaugh keeping a good chunk of his playbook secret occurred when he was the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick took over as starter midway through the season, and while there was a sprinkle of the pistol formation and read option during the regular season, it wasn’t the major go-to formation for the 49ers offense.
That all changed against the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round, when Harbaugh unleashed Kaepernick’s athleticism. Pistol play after pistol play was called, with a major focus on running the read option. Kaepernick rushed for a quarterback record 181 yards and two touchdowns. The Packers didn’t know what hit them, they didn’t expect this type of offense out of the 49ers, and were drubbed 45-31.
A secretive playbook was the norm for Harbaugh in San Francisco. He’d start each season hoping smash-mouth football and great defense would win the team games, and it usually worked out. While some of the games weren’t always the prettiest or “electric”, the team found a way to win the game without giving away much of anything. The reward usually came later in the year where Harbaugh took his team to NFC Championships three out of four seasons, with one Super Bowl appearance.
Michigan sits at 3-0, and for those concerned about the trajectory of the offense, and the play of the players on that side of the football, Harbaugh’s track record would indicate things are going to be just fine. While every opponent should be taken seriously, the staff also realizes they can win games against lesser teams with having a fairly simple playbook offensively.
When will the playbook open up fully? Only Harbaugh and company know, it could come as soon as this week if they feel Purdue is a genuine force to be reckoned with. If they think so, expect some more gutsy calls, and less runs on 3rd and long in field goal range.
Numbers can be pointed to that are lackluster, accuracy issues can be critiqued, but there should be a major difference in the offensive performances in weeks to come that are a direct correlation to the expanded playbook that will be utilized.
The question is this; is it better to look in top form early in the season with exotic packages, motions, etc mixed in that lead to a huge margin in the final score? Or is it better to get by during the early stages of the season by having a basic game-plan and play-call flow? I say the latter, especially with a young group of freshman receivers and a new look offensive line. Harbaugh said he isn’t dumbing-down the playbook or his coaching style for the freshman, but he doesn’t have to have them go out there on Saturday’s and use the whole playbook thus far.
The 2017 incarnation of the Michigan Wolverines football team hasn’t been together all that long, it’s been less than two months since training camp. With so many new faces, a lot of the playbook is still being learned in practice. Many reps need to take place for a vast playbook to be executed properly, timing is everything, and timing takes time. While at this point much of the playbook could be used in a game, and the players could rise to the occasion knowing their assignments, there hasn’t been a need to use the good stuff I have spoke of just yet.
Discretion is the better part of valor, Jim Harbaugh realizes this. The philosophy can translate into big wins against top opponents. The Michigan offense will be evolving in the near future. Don’t say I didn’t tell you so.