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Jim Harbaugh: Quarterback Whisperer: Part 3

The once labeled “quarterback whisperer” is rarely discussed in that same light when it comes to quarterback development, but the track record suggests Jim Harbaugh is among the best quarterback minds on the planet.

Vrbo Fiesta Bowl - Michigan v TCU Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In parts one and two of this series, I looked at the early years of Jim Harbaugh as a coach, including his time at Stanford, the San Francisco 49ers and up until the middle years at Michigan. In this article, I will finish with the most recent runs of quarterbacks under Harbaugh’s tutelage.

Dylan McCaffrey

The most perplexing miss of the Harbaugh era, Dylan “Run DMC” McCaffrey had all the traits Harbaugh and any coach with command of their faculties look for in their quarterback. Big, fast, athletic, with elite bloodlines and the jaw structure of a cartoon prince, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound son of Ed McCaffrey and brother of Christian was the centerpiece of the monster 2017 recruiting class that finished top-five in the country.

I can be counted among the many who were wrong in their proclamations about the inevitable success of McCaffrey. His high school tape from Valor Christian in Colorado showed a silky smooth athlete that glided like a gazelle, with an arm that could be used to fight crime. Judging high school tape is tough even for college scouts, but he had accumulated enough high-level offers to be a borderline five-star recruit and rose as high as the second ranked quarterback in the class at one point, settling in as a high four-star and top-five quarterback by the time he committed.

The scout team offensive player of the year as a freshman in 2017, McCaffrey was thrust into a rather intense four-person quarterback battle the following year between true freshman Joe Milton, former prodigal son Brandon Peters, and former five-star Shea Patterson: a truly insane collection of talent to have in one position group at the same time.

Patterson inevitably won the job, but Harbaugh and company made it a point to work McCaffrey into early contests against Notre Dame and Western Michigan to see what they were working with, and he performed admirably in both contests. He took a 44-yard run to the house against Nebraska late in a blowout, and it seemed he would just be waiting his turn behind Patterson if he had the patience.

His appearances were sporadic and less intentional in 2019, and his status as “quarterback in waiting” for 2020 became uncertain, with Michigan fans already batting their eyelashes at the physical specimen that was Joe Milton. Rather than battle it out for the starting job once more, McCaffrey seemingly gave up on playing high-level football when he transferred back home to play for his dad at the University of Northern Colorado.

Michigan Career

Games: 10 total

51.4% completion - 242 yards- 3 TD - 0 INT - 166 rush yards - 2 TD

2022 (Northern Colorado)

59.8% completion - 1,924 yards - 12 TD - 12 INT - 115.9 rating

Analysis: From what you can ascertain from his limited tape at Michigan and his very disappointing year at Northern Colorado last year, McCaffery’s real issues are with decision making and overall feel for the game.

With his size, supposed 4.85 40-time and great natural mechanics, athleticism, and arm talent, there is not a school in the country that would not have taken a chance on McCaffrey. The tape and interview snippets we have suggest inconsistency and a lack of progression in understanding of how to read a defense and the nuances of running an offense.

This is a miss, but it’s a shot you shoot every single time and live with the outcome.

Athleticism: 8 Decision Making/Football IQ: 3 Arm Talent: 7 Leadership: 4 Improvisation: 4 Hit Quality: Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. $51 million box office. -It had nostalgia going for it and we all wanted it to work, but it is ultimately a mess and is tough to watch.

Shea Patterson

There was a real sense of relief when it was announced Patterson would have immediate eligibility due to the circus tent fire that was happening at Ole Miss. Many adhered to the belief the drought was finally over and Michigan was getting an elite game changing quarterback, but what it got was an adequate, game-participating quarterback.

A five-star recruit out of high school, Patterson transferred after two seasons at Ole Miss, putting up 17 touchdowns to nine interceptions as a sophomore. He brought an athleticism and running ability to Michigan not represented at quarterback up to that point, which along with the hiring of Pep Hamilton to lead the offense and quarterbacks the year prior, suggested a stylistic change was occurring.

Patterson won the starting job in 2018 beating a triumvirate of Harbaugh recruits in Peters, McCaffrey and Milton for the starting job. After a season-opening loss to Notre Dame where Patterson was solid, if unspectacular, he led the Wolverines on the heralded Revenge Tour and 10 straight victories, including wins over MSU and Penn State in which he threw four touchdowns to zero interceptions. He struggled with decision making and turnovers in losses to Ohio State and Florida to end the season, but was asked to throw the ball a lot to fight back from large deficits.

Both the team and Patterson regressed in 2019 when Josh Gattis took over for Hamilton and the “speed in space” mantra was being regurgitated skeptically in bars everywhere from Toledo to Muskegon. He was ineffective and nowhere near a “game changer” in early season losses to Wisconsin and then Penn State, with the team lacking a true offensive identity. But against rival Michigan State in a must win game, he was outstanding-, completing 73 percent of his passes on the way to 384 yards and four touchdowns.

Perhaps sealing his fate as a forgettable Michigan quarterback, was a second straight tepid ending to the season where Patterson failed to complete more than 50 percent of his passes against Ohio State or Alabama in games that were about as enjoyable to watch as a documentary on how candles are made.

He ended his career in the top-10 of many Michigan passing statistics, including seventh all time in passing yards (5,661) and sixth all time in touchdowns (45). Patterson was drafted with the first pick by the Michigan Panthers of the USFL in 2022.

2018 | Record: 10-3

64.6% Completion - 2,600 yards - 22 TD - 7 INT - 149.8 rating- 273 rush yards- 2 rush TD

2019 | Record: 9-4

56.2% Completion - 3,061 yards - 23 TD - 8 INT - 139.4 rating - 5 rush TD

Analysis: This 2017-20 run is without a doubt the low point for the “Harbaugh develops elite quarterbacks” agenda. With three of his own highly recruited guys in the room, nobody could beat Patterson, so that is what Michigan rolled with for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Patterson was a decent quarterback and certainly had traits that you want from your starter such as athleticism, running ability, acceptable accuracy, and confidence; and when the read-option look with Patterson and Higdon/Haskins/Charbonnet was clicking, it was a real conundrum for defenses.

He also lacked elite arm strength, struggled to read a defense, and had the leadership qualities of Lindsay Lohan. There is not really any evidence Patterson improved dramatically under Harbaugh and while he threw for more than 3,000 yards his senior season, his efficiency tanked and the team struggled to find that elusive “speed in space.”

Athleticism: 7 Decision Making/Football IQ: 6 Arm Talent: 6 Leadership: 5 Improvisation: 7 Hit Quality: Batman & Robin. $238.2 million box office. -Certainly made a lot of money and a lot of people saw it, but go back and watch it, you will not be impressed and may find yourself laughing more than cheering.

Joe Milton

The most physically imposing of the Harbaugh quarterback prospects, at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Milton looked more like a tight end than a quarterback and was considered a four-star by some recruiting sites. Not only did he have the frame of a front-end loader, but his arm had enough power to put a football through the siding of your house, if he were able to hit the side of a house reliably.

Milton’s real shot came in the COVID-shortened and generally awful year in 2020, where he was given the reins to a team that had quality players on it, as well as some expectations. He came out and led Michigan to a win over Minnesota, going 15-of-22 for 225 yards and a touchdown. In a loss the following week to Michigan State, Milton threw the ball an absurd 51 times, completing 31 of them for 300 yards — he was also the leading rusher with 59 yards. Things fell off a cliff over the next two weeks with losses to Indiana and a drubbing by Wisconsin. Milton was replaced by McNamara against Rutgers and the rest is history.

Milton is slated to start for the resurgent Tennessee Volunteers this season after showing some promise for them in 2022.


56.7% completion - 1,077 yards - 4 TD - 4 INT - 124.6 rating

2022 (Tennessee)

64.6% completion - 971 yards - 10 TD - 0 INT - 204.3 rating

Analysis: Looks like this is going to be a hit, but for the wrong team. Milton looked extremely raw in 2020 when forced to start in a season that did not resemble an actual season with very little continuity around him on offense.

He looked FAR better in 2022 for Tennessee under Josh Heupel filling in for Hendon Hooker after a knee injury. His delivery and arm strength are among the best in the country, same as they were at Michigan, it was everything between the ears that needed to improve and appears to be happening now going into year five for Milton.

He was never going to start over J.J McCarthy and Michigan could not wait around for him to mature into the player he is now, so this happened the way it had to happen and should work out for everyone involved. A little bit of a negative tick for Harbaugh since the player is clearly better at Tennessee than he ever was at Michigan, but there are quite a few mitigating factors there.

Athleticism: 8 Decision Making/Football IQ: 6 Arm Talent: 9 Leadership: 5 Improvisation: 6 Hit Quality: Napoleon (2023). Box Office: N/A -We have tried this before to limited success (Désirée, Waterloo), but something tells me this iteration is going to work in the fall.

Cade McNamara

A four-star recruit, McNamara won a ton of games for his high school team and was the first player in Nevada high school history to win back-to-back Player of the Year honors. He is also the state’s all-time leader in career passing yards (12,804) and career touchdown passes (146). With mega recruits like McCaffrey and physical freaks like Milton on the team, McNamara was the forgotten son at Michigan until stepped in to prevent an absolute calamity against Rutgers in 2020.

Like they had many times before, Michigan fans talked themselves into McNamara being the guy who would finally take this team to the next level. And while that ended up being true, McNamara was more a background character than the lead.

Workmanlike and trustworthy in his lone season as the Michigan starter, McNamara was generally asked to keep the offense on schedule and the ball out of the opponents hands. He never put up eye-popping stats, and his best game was probably a three-touchdown performance against Penn State in a blowout, but he was the guy who led the team to the most important Michigan win since 1997, so there will be no slander here.


64.2% Completion - 2,576 yards - 15 TD - 6 INT - 141.9 rating

Analysis: McNamara beat Ohio State and was critical in Michigan’s first outright Big Ten title in nearly two decades, and for that he should never have to buy a beer in Ann Arbor again. With a real return to stylistic form led by a stout offensive line, elite running game and a top flight defense, Michigan literally just needed a game manager to have success in 2021 and McNamara was and is one of the better game managers you will find. That being said, there is a reason he lost the starting job in 2022 and had to transfer to Iowa.

McNamara lacked even Big Ten starter arm talent, let alone having an NFL caliber ceiling. With the mobility of a shopping cart being pushed through mulch, McNamara was never a threat to get outside of the pocket and do much of anything. He couldn’t improvise, but not because he did not see the game or could not read the defense, he simply lacked the tools. Fitting the ball into tight windows was very doable for McNamara, provided those windows were within 15-20 yards. The only time he was asked to let it rip was against MSU in the Kenneth Walker game and he did perform admirably, but could not push the ball downfield in a way that would actually threaten the defense.

The fact he was able to win the job and have the on-field success that he did is a testament to his leadership and intelligence. Expect very pedestrian numbers from McNamara at Iowa this year.

Athleticism: 5 Decision Making/Football IQ: 8 Arm Talent: 6 Leadership: 8 Improvisation: 5 Hit Quality: Taken (2009), $226 million box office. -Nobody expected the 56-year-old former star of Schindler’s List to lead an action blockbuster in January of ‘09, and nobody expected Cade McNamara to beat out Joe Milton and J.J. McCarthy to lead the ‘21 Wolverines to their first Big Ten title in almost 20 years.

J.J. McCarthy

McCarthy was recruited out of football powerhouse IMG with the sole purpose of being the one who finally elevated the quarterback position beyond mere game managers and offseason superstars. A five-star recruit, McCarthy was more of a “can’t miss” prospect than McCaffrey or Milton ever was, as he came out of the box with a silky smooth motion, elite athleticism and calm demeanor of a Costa Rican yoga instructor. The early buzz was he was a kid you couldn’t keep off the field, which proved to be true his freshman season where he was far more than a gimmick when he came into the game.

There was a lot of national attention, local discussion and perhaps even some uncomfortable feelings among fans around the quarterback battle between the recent Big Ten Championship-winning quarterback and the talented up-and-comer coming into the 2022 season. With the benefit of a cakewalk non-conference slate and one of the best returning teams in the country, Harbaugh was content to let the competition spill into the season and let their play dictate a winner. McNamara got the first shot against Colorado State and was the definition of average (9-of-18, 136 yards, one touchdown).

The following week, McCarthy got his shot against Hawaii and essentially ended any discussion about controversy right then and there. He hit Roman Wilson for a beautiful 42-yard bomb on his first pass attempt and never looked back, finishing a near perfect 11-of-12 for 229 yards with three touchdowns and no picks.

McCarthy got his first real test a few weeks later against Maryland and showed not only could he move the ball downfield, he could also use his legs to buy additional opportunities and as a weapon, but he was also extremely adept at avoiding undue risk. McCarthy didn’t throw his first interception until Week 6 against Indiana, and only threw five picks in 14 contests, an extremely underrated achievement.

His best game was the most important game of the season. Michigan could not get its signature run game going in the first half against Ohio State, and there was a chance the game could have gotten out of hand early if Michigan couldn’t get something going on offense. McCarthy was able to stand in the pocket against Ohio State’s aggressive press man attack and a stacked box and complete two critical throws to Cornelius Johnson and kept Michigan in the game long enough for the run game to catch up.

Coming into November, McCarthy had a 74.6 completion percentage, which led the nation and put him in the top-15 for passer rating. When he threw the first interception against TCU, his interception percentage was at 1.4 percent, the lowest in Michigan history.

McCarthy is gearing up for his first full season as the starter and could be poised for one of the best quarterback seasons at Michigan.

2021 Games: 11

57.6% completion - 516 yards - 5 TD - 2 INT - 152.3 rating - 124 rushing yards - 2 rush TD

2022 Record: 13-1

64.6% completion - 2,719 yards - 22 TD - 5 INT - 155 rating - 306 rushing yards - 5 rush TD

Analysis: The perfect amalgam of a timberwolf and an Apache helicopter, McCarthy trails only Andrew Luck for most talented college quarterback to play for Harbaugh up to this point. The athleticism and arm strength are already NFL ready, and his ability to make something happen off-schedule is more reminiscent of a college Harbaugh than any other recent quarterback, so much so that Harbaugh has proudly admitted this himself.

There were some odd mechanics and footwork last year that did not really seem to hinder his accuracy or throw power, but it appears those nitpicks have been corrected and he looks more fluid and athletic than ever in fall camp.

The leadership and intangibles of McCarthy are what make him such a well-rounded quarterback. His teammates and coaches love him, he is the face of one of the countries largest and most storied programs, and has handled it all with the grace of a five-star hotel concierge. His ability to maintain a sense of calm and poise in difficult situations makes me wonder if he is actually a traveling mystic who possesses the secrets of the universe rather than a 20-year-old college quarterback.

Harbaugh desperately needed to hit on one of his quarterback recruits, and McCarthy is that dude. Expect a monster season and a first round grade on the first actual game-changing quarterback to play for Michigan since Denard Robinson.

Athleticism: 8 Decision Making: 8 Arm Talent: 8 Leadership: 9 Improvisation: 9 Hit Quality: T2: Judgement Day. $204 million box office. -The original was awesome and was no slouch at the box office in its own right ($78 million), but T2: Judgement Day was a global phenomenon. Much like its titular character, J.J. McCarthy is also back and ready to administer his own brand of justice.

Is Harbaugh still an elite developer of quarterbacks? Sound off in the comments and let us know where you stand!