Harbaugh, Michigan have two options to revive offense this offseason

Football

Jim Harbaugh was hired, and billed, as the savior of Michigan football in 2015.

Four seasons later, U-M finished with the same record it did in his first at 10-3. The promised rejuvenation of the traditional powerhouse Michigan football used to be still seems far away. Following a 41-15 drubbing in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at the hands of first-year coach Dan Mullen, Harbaugh’s product remains an improvement from what it was before him — but nothing more than that.

Dan Mullen celebrates a Peach Bowl victory over Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines. (Photo courtesy of Peach Bowl)

There are zero National Championships, zero Big Ten Championships, zero College Football Playoff appearances, and zero wins over Ohio State.

Michigan’s only bowl victory came four seasons ago, Harbaugh’s first at the helm. New Year’s Day 2016, Harbaugh, a first-year head coach, dismantled Jim McElwain and Florida, 41-7, in the Citrus Bowl. 

Sound familiar?

Since that day, Michigan’s ended each season with consecutive losses, one from Ohio State and the others in three-straight bowl game defeats.

Call them meaningless all you want — that’s not a good statistic. The ?big games? narrative doesn’t include bowl games (it should.), and losing one here or there isn’t frowned upon, but three in a row, including back-to-back to first-year head coaches, is a far cry from the ‘monster’ Harbaugh claimed he was building.

“Jim Harbaugh is Jim Harbaugh – everyone knows about him and what’s going on up there,” Former five-star recruit and current UCLA defensive back, Darnay Holmes told me in the summer of 2016. “Words from him, ‘I’m creating a monster up here, would love for you to be a part of it.'”

Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh reacts during the first half of the NCAA Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on December 29, 2018, in Atlanta. (David Tulis via Abell Images for Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl)

There’s no doubt Harbaugh’s improved the program he inherited. The four years before him, U-M went 26-20 overall and 18-14 in the Big Ten. The four years since his arrival, the program is 38-14 overall and 26-9 in the Big Ten.

Is Michigan good? Absolutely. Is it a monster? No.

The lack of wins in “big games” stand out most, and Harbaugh himself said it best following the Peach Bowl.

“It was a very good season. It would have been a great season had we won this game. Didn’t get that done,” Harbaugh said in his post-game press conference following the Peach Bowl. “My feeling about the team is we’re right there to the top, but we have to put it over the top. Especially in the big games at the end of the year.”

We can listen to all the coach speak in the world. The traditionalists can clamor to “Those Who Stay,” and the overreactors can somehow believe Michigan’s best option is to find a new head coach.

The reality is, good teams aren’t afraid of Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan product because it rarely changes. 

To “put it over the top,” Harbaugh must do one of two things.

Adapt

Michigan’s offense wasn’t bad this season. Heck, we saw that firsthand against Wisconsin (38 points) and Penn State (42 points). However, Michigan ran for over 250 yards in both of those games.

When U-M can’t run the ball, it refuses to change the game plan. And when it runs into a wall of defenders in the middle, over and over again, the team doesn’t succeed.

Michigan’s Donovan Peoples-Jones is one of three star wide receivers that could enter the draft as a junior next season with realistic first-round aspirations. (Photo via Peach Bowl)

It’s time to adapt.

Get rid of the ?collaborative? play-calling system. I can’t tell you why it hasn’t worked, because I don’t know, definitively, how it works. Like you, I’m not in the huddles or at the practices. Former Stanford players have explained it and liked it, too. Regardless, Harbaugh was at Stanford from 2007-2010 — that was a long time ago.

It’s had its days against weaker opponents, but it continues to fail on the big stage.

While its defense did them no favors against the Buckeyes or Gators, both games were within a score at half, and an embarrassment by the end.

An offense that can get things going before the game is over (at OSU) or at all (vs. Florida), keeps them in these games, and possibly wins them. 

If Harbaugh wants to keep control of the offense, while also wanting the program to go over the top, he’s going to have to adapt his offensive philosophies to today’s game or continue losing the final two games on the schedule. It’s time to embrace adaptation.

Hand over the offense

Michigan’s best option is to do exactly what it did in 2016 with the defense — overhaul it.

The hiring of Don Brown had no affect on the responsibilities of Harbaugh as head coach. He runs the offense. The hiring of an offensive coordinator would be a far different process for Harbaugh than hiring a defensive coordinator.

However, there’s a similar trend with the offense now compared to the defense following the 2015 season. While former defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin’s defense put up three consecutive shutouts in 2015, it still failed miserably against Ohio State (42 points). Before the bowl game, Durkin would leave to be head coach at Maryland, a blessing in disguise for Michigan. Brown was hired, and U-M had the No. 1 defense in America a year later, and finished top-three nationally every year since.

Shea Patterson during practice Thursday. Patterson finished three short of the Michigan touchdown record (25). (Jason Parkhurst via Abell Images)

Could an offensive overhaul with a new coordinator produce similar results?

Brown inherited a talented group and turned it into a juggernaut in a single season.

With weapons like Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins, Tarik Black, and more, a new offensive coordinator would be in the same situation — coordinating a group where the talent is there, but the system isn’t.

Handing the keys to a new offensive coordinator won’t be anything easy for the fifth-year head coach. Knowing Harbaugh, it probably won’t happen. And that’s fair, he’s had great offenses and quarterbacks at every stop.

Except Michigan.

An offensive coordinator considering a job where he would inherit a top-notch quarterback room, along with at least three future NFL wide receivers, and a defense that’s finished top-five nationally three times in as many years?

Unless that OC is coming from a consistent Playoff program, it’s a no-brainer to at least consider the job.

If Harbaugh wants to use the same criteria he used to hire Brown (a consistently dominant unit, despite team success), names like Major Applewhite (fired at Houston), Mike Hallett (Toledo OC) and Matt Canada (interim at Maryland) all stand out. If he sticks with his NFL connections, John Defilippo (fired by Vikings) and Greg Roman (asst. HC, Ravens) stand out.

Final word

Michigan’s offensive talent is there. Now it’s time to use it. If it doesn’t, it will continue to fail. 

Michigan finished 72nd in the country in long scrimmage plays (10+). The top three is Oklahoma, Alabama and Ohio State. Clemson is eighth. Notre Dame is 24th. Four of those fives teams made the College Football Playoff. Three went undefeated. They all won their respective conference championships (sans independent Notre Dame).

The numbers are telling. If any head coach wants to win conference championships and make it to the College Football Playoff, their offense must be explosive.

Harbaugh’s hasn’t been that.

Next season, Michigan won’t be able to rely on its defense as much, as Devin Bush, Rashan Gary, David Long and Chase Winovich are all gone.

It’s time to take the keys and adapt, or hand ’em over to someone else. Otherwise, this is Michigan football’s ceiling under Jim Harbaugh.

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