Jim Harbaugh is no longer getting in his own way. At least he’s trying not to.
For months, we’ve known that with Pep Hamilton off to the XFL, Harbaugh took a new approach to play-calling. Instead of having Hamilton call “the majority” of the plays with his own input thrown in, Harbaugh ceded control of the offense to new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis.
“Coach Harbaugh’s been awesome in making it a system to where I’m going to have full control,” Gattis told MLive.com back in January. “I’m looking forward to it. We have a great offensive staff, and I couldn’t be more excited about the players and staff that we have. I’m looking forward to what we can do to change the direction of the offense.”
Surely that power was what helped Harbaugh steal Gattis from Maryland, where he was set to take over Mike Locksley’s offense after both coaches had successful years leading Alabama to its most prolific scoring unit in program history.
Gattis, as many know, is a first time play-caller. He did, however, played a key role in top-25 offenses each of the last 3 years, including a pair of top-7 units (Michigan hasn’t had consecutive top-40 offenses since Harbaugh arrived in 2015). At Gattis’ most recent stops — Penn State and Alabama — he was on staffs that called modern, prolific offenses.
It seems like all Michigan wants these days is just that — a modern, prolific offense. That, fans hope, will be the key ingredient to push the Wolverines to that long-overdue B1G Championship.
I don’t know if Michigan’s path leads to Indianapolis in 2019. But history suggests that just by giving Gattis complete control, that road looks clearer than it has in recent memory.
Take a look at the last 3 B1G champions. That was Penn State in 2016 (Gattis was the Lions’ receivers coach) and Ohio State in 2017 and 2018.
Sorry, Michigan fans. You don’t need any reminders of that.
What else do those 3 teams have in common, though? They all had an offensive-minded coach who removed himself from play-calling duties.
James Franklin was involved in the process more in 2015 when John Donovan was the offensive coordinator. Even though Donovan was calling plays, Franklin still provided in-game input and made suggestions to the booth. The Lions had the No. 101 offense in a wildly inconsistent season.
As a result, Franklin brought in Joe Moorhead the following season, and gave him total control of the offense and play-calling duties. Penn State’s offense rose all the way to No. 21 in the country (it was No. 7 in 2017) with Moorhead running the show.
Brace yourselves, Michigan fans. The following has a whole lot of Ohio State talk, but I promise it’ll help me make my point.
Before the 2016 season began, Urban Meyer admitted that he had “a triangle” of play-calling duties that led to the 2015 squad underachieving after starting off as the first ever unanimous preseason No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25. Between Meyer and co-offensive coordinators Tim Beck and Ed Warinner, it didn’t work with having so many chefs in the kitchen.
Meyer thought it was just an issue of having play-calling done from the booth instead of on the field, and that simply having his coordinators in the right spots would fix the issue in 2016. A 31-0 loss to Clemson in the Playoff confirmed that it wasn’t an issue of “where” but “who” and “how many.”
Also, Beck shouldn’t have ever gotten that job after he was a casualty of the end of the Bo Pelini era at Nebraska. But that’s a different discussion for a different time.
Meyer basically gutted his entire staff and gave primary play-calling duties to Kevin Wilson for the 2017 season. Ryan Day was also hired that year, but was in a lesser play-calling role with Wilson. The Buckeyes finished sixth in scoring and won their first B1G Championship since their national title season in 2014.
When Meyer got Day to stay in Columbus instead of leaving to take the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator job, he was given full play-calling responsibilities with Wilson also involved. During Meyer’s 3-game suspension to start the year, Ohio State averaged 56.3 points in a 3-0 start with Day serving as the interim coach and primary play-caller (all were against Power 5 teams).
So what did Meyer do when he returned? Or rather, what didn’t Meyer do? Interfere. Day kept control, and with his rapport with Wilson in the booth, Ohio State won a B1G title and had its fourth-best offensive season in school history. Perhaps even more impressive, Dwayne Haskins delivered the best statistical season we’ve ever seen from a B1G quarterback. We’ll see how the play-calling works this year with Day as the head coach.
Consider that a long-winded way of saying, clearly Harbaugh looked at what’s been working in the B1G. And credit to him for recognizing that his model wasn’t it.
When Michigan plays its spring game on Saturday, well, it won’t really be much of a spring game. It’ll be a practice with a scrimmage at the end. There will be a live stream, a radio broadcast and probably a Twitter play-by-play from reporters on the scene.
That’s not by accident. Harbaugh wants to show as little of Gattis’ offense as possible. All we know is that according to Harbaugh, the offensive tempo will be much different. There will be more no-huddle, spread concepts. Harbaugh admitted last month that they were still “learning” Gattis’ style of offense.
I’m sure this whole thing hasn’t been easy for Harbaugh. He essentially put his ego aside in the most public fashion since taking over at Michigan, and with good reason. The way 2018 ended had to feel somewhat baffling. It was one thing to lose to a pair of top-10 teams like Ohio State and Florida. It was another to get completely humiliated by them.
Harbaugh is not Mike Leach, who can juggle full-time play-calling duties and head coaching duties no matter what team he’s got or what era he’s in. Harbaugh’s approach to offense was dated. Sure, he had some of the spread concepts we saw at times with Shea Patterson and even with Colin Kaepernick on the San Francisco 49ers.
But the ability to truly trust an open, up-tempo offense is going to be completely new for Harbaugh. All Michigan can hope for is that the end-of-season results will be completely new for Harbaugh, too.
And if that doesn’t happen, well, at least it won’t be the result of a stale, stubborn approach.