Michigan fans have been clamoring for a quarterback change since, well, heck, we have seen those tweets at times from small pockets of people since the Notre Dame game last season. Shea Patterson last year had one of the most efficient passing seasons in the history of the program, but was playing in an offensive philosophy that did not always totally capitalize on his skill-set.
Enter Josh Gattis, who has been transitioning Michigan to more of a spread-based attack out of the shotgun. This was expected to benefit Patterson and the Wolverines by allowing them to be more aggressive in their approach and resemble more of where the college — and to a certain extent, the NFL — is going. We heard during the spring and fall camp about the “Shea Things” that were happening in practice. It seemed like it was all ready to click.
However, his offense has been inconsistent and still lacks an identity that we have seen on the field, but one of the constants has been quarterback play that has not quite been good enough.
From the jump this season, all phases of the offense at times looked completely out of sync as they still work to get their timing down. In recent weeks, we have seen some of the other phases of the game start to improve, even if just incrementally. Jon Runyan Jr.’s return has stabilized the offensive line and they have played better. Donovan Peoples-Jones returned to round out potentially the most talented top-to-bottom wide receiver room that the Wolverines have ever had.
Patterson has been, at times, unnecessarily and inappropriately criticized for his play, but his statistics and efficiency are down in almost every metric this year. Part of that has to do with the defenses they have played and the natural growing pains of breaking in a new offensive system, but we have not seen the star power or level of play that people thought they would see when he was on all of those watch lists heading into the season.
Despite people saying there was a bit left to be desired in 2018, Patterson was good-to-great throughout the year. Using ESPN’s adjusted QBR, which measures a quarterback’s contributions to winning a football game based on his performance on a play-by-play basis. For example, against Rutgers last year, Patterson finished with a QBR of 98.7, which means 98.7 percent of the time, the performance he gave them (18-for-27, 260 yards, 3 TD) results in a victory for a team in that specific game they played.
It’s admittedly not a perfect metric, but it works for the purposes of our discussion here.
Here were Patterson’s five lowest adjusted QBR games last season:
41-15 L vs. Florida (46.7 QBR): 22-for-36, 236 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions
56-10 W vs. Nebraska (49.7 QBR): 15-for-22, 120 yards, 1 touchdown
24-17 L at Notre Dame (64.8 QBR): 20-for-30, 227 yards, 1 interception
31-20 W vs. Indiana (72.6 QBR): 16-for-28, 250 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception
49-3 W vs. Western Michigan (73.7 QBR): 12-for-17, 125 yards, 3 touchdowns
The stat lines do not tell the whole story, as this is graded out per play, but outside of the bowl game, this is not terrible at all. The Nebraska game was a blowout from the jump on a day where they ran the ball and were up 20-0 before some people even got to their seats. In games against Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State, Patterson posted adjusted QBR totals of 78.2, 83.7, 94 and 87.7, respectively.
Basically, Patterson’s play gave them a chance and won them a lot of games last year. Games that they were not winning in 2017 because they did not have a quarterback.
In five games this season against Middle Tennessee (40.1), Army (50.7), Wisconsin (65.8), Rutgers (92.6) and Iowa (41.9), Michigan is still 4-1, but Patterson’s two worst performances of his Michigan career and one that is not too far off have them in the situation they are at the position right now.
QBR is far from my favorite metric to use, as are these types of grades anyway because we do not know what the goal of a given play is. That said, your eyeballs are not deceiving you. This is not great football being played and it’s something that has been going on since the Florida game last year. Right now, Patterson is a guy that holds onto the ball too long, does not process things quickly enough and someone who quite frankly, it does not seem like is being asked to do much more than manage the game right now.
Fans want Michigan to start hurling the ball down the field more, but does the guy they currently have in there see it all the time? It does not seem like it, and even in the intermediate and short passing game there are plays being left on the field.
That leads us to the point of this whole article, which is why despite some of these shortcomings, Michigan’s quarterback conundrum is not as simple as just pulling a guy off the field for the next man up.
Those cries are the siren song of the Michigan fanbase.
People have been foaming at the mouth for Dylan McCaffrey or Joe Milton to get a shot to play, but this is not Madden or NCAA 14 where you just press the X button on the depth chart and plug in and see what the other guy can do.
McCaffrey, for all intents and purposes heading into this year, was seen as ready to play. So much so that Gattis and Harbaugh were making efforts to get him and Patterson on the field at the same time. They think that No. 10 is that good, and while he does not have a ton of passing experience, it is easy to see why they felt that way. He is a superb athlete with a lot of upside. Some of the QB frippery early this season was silly, but Michigan feels like when he is healthy, he might be one of their best 11 on offense.
When the offense helmed by Patterson struggled in Madison, it looked like Harbaugh and Gattis had turned the page and were ready to give McCaffrey an extended look back there.
Then, the same thing that happened at Camp Randall two years ago happened again.
Brandon Peters, the last young quarterback that the Wolverines went to in a season , was knocked out of the Wisconsin game n 2017 with a concussion late that year and never quite was the same. McCaffrey took a nasty hit that led to a concussion in this year’s game and three weeks later, we still do not know when he will be back on the field.
That has led to the fanbase rallying around Joe Milton as the guy that should supplant Patterson. The redshirt freshman no doubt has a Jericho missile for an arm, but still is working on crafting the finer parts of his game, like putting touch and loft on his passes. Right now, they are darts. Sometimes, they need to be drops in a bucket. That comes with time and coaching, and maybe a bit of game experience.
It feels like if McCaffrey was healthy right now, we would be discussing how he is progressing running this offense. Instead, they are back to Patterson, who at least on film looks like a guy who has hit his ceiling. The problem is that if he continues to play as he has, this team will lose another three-to-four football games.
Fans also need to understand that as it pertains to Milton, they cannot just switch to a guy who was the No. 3 quarterback a few weeks ago just to make the switch. Might game reps be important for a guy who so desperately needs them to develop? Sure. But that’s a pretty big gamble to take right now while, on paper, the Wolverines are still in the hunt for a Big Ten title. One pretty touchdown pass against a hapless Rutgers defense in garbage time is not enough just yet. Milton is ascending, but he still needs time to come along.
So what’s the course of action moving forward?
For better or worse, Patterson is and will remain Michigan’s starting quarterback. Even if McCaffrey were back practicing this week, it would stand to reason that he needs a few weeks to shake the rust off and even then, we are probably back to where we were to start the year in terms of quarterback pecking order.
Patterson probably gives you the best chance in the right here and right now to win a game in Happy Valley in two weeks for as bleak as that might seem.
After that? Who knows.
At this point, it probably takes another loss and continued inconsistent play from Patterson for Michigan to consider a change. Maybe this offense truly does hit its stride and we are going to be eating our words on all of this.
If this Michigan team is going to be legitimately good this season, their best shot of that is Patterson and the offense catching fire because based on Harbaugh’s comments, they feel good about where this thing is heading with the guy they have in place. That said, if the football gods deem their fate is 8-4 or 7-5, it feels better to do that with stock in the future than to do it with a senior who will not be back next year.
McCaffrey returning might change things a bit, but for now, we have to assume that he is not in the picture for the time being. That was a scary concussion and you do not rush guys back from that.
Right now, the Wolverines have to roll with the guys they have, even if you and I may be ready to see a change. For as underwhelming as the quarterback play has been, they also have to put whoever is back there in position to succeed. Harbaugh and Gattis have not done a good enough job there yet. Maybe it starts there, but right now, this is the bed they have made for themselves.
Whether Patterson is the starter still or not, McCaffrey or/and Milton need to play at some point even just for a bit as a call to the bullpen when Patterson struggles. Their development in this offense has further reaching effects than what Patterson does this year, assuming they stick to this plan heading into 2020.