Why I think Jim Harbaugh pulled the trigger on publicly naming Shea Patterson as Michigan's starter
I was surprised, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone.
Getting a starting quarterback decision out of Jim Harbaugh was supposed to be like squeezing water out of a rock. This was the same guy who was more prone to giving 2-word answers than actual answers. You know, with pieces of news attached to them.
I’d have probably put better odds on Harbaugh slurping down a glass of skim milk than on him revealing his starting quarterback before the Notre Dame game.
But as fate would have it, Harbaugh surprisingly did the latter on Monday afternoon:
Dave Ablauf UM football spokesman confirms Harbaugh announced Shea Patterson as starting QB at ND during M Club Ann Arbor lunch today
— angelique (@chengelis) August 20, 2018
The “who” was not the surprise. Shea Patterson winning the starting job was a done deal, barring health issues. With all due respect to Brandon Peters, who could still have a nice college career, Patterson is more talented and more experienced. He was the quarterback who Harbaugh was inevitably going to give the ball to in what could be a make-or-break year for his reputation as one of the sport’s top coaches.
It’s the “when” that caught me off guard.
This was the first time in his Michigan tenure that Harbaugh announced a starting quarterback before the start of the season. As many pointed out on social media, it’s something that he hasn’t done since he named Andrew Luck the starter at Stanford before the 2009 season. And, as many also pointed out on social media, that’s probably because Patterson is the most talented quarterback he’s had since Luck.
But why else would Harbaugh make such an atypical move ahead of the season opener? I have a few theories.
Remember that there’s a difference between publicly declaring a starter and privately declaring a starter. I’m of the belief that nearly every program knows who their starting quarterback is going to be during fall camp. At least internally. They get all the snaps with the No. 1s and they look like the superior player.
Declaring a starter publicly like Harbaugh did opens up a different set of circumstances. Now, the Patterson hype train can shift into a new gear. Players are no longer walking on egg shells talking about the quarterback situation. Fans go from debating who the starter will be to instead talking about how good the starter can be.
It’s pressure. It’s Harbaugh saying to the world, “this is my guy.”
The last time I heard Harbaugh publicly declare a quarterback to truly by his guy was when he stood by Jake Rudock after he got off to a shaky start in 2015. Rudock gets lumped into the group of mediocre quarterbacks because he couldn’t beat Ohio State or Michigan State, despite the fact that he became the second Michigan player to ever throw for 3,000 yards in a season.
Rudock didn’t win those big games, but I’d argue that he played with confidence and maximized his abilities after Harbaugh showed that faith in him.
I think Harbaugh is hoping to have the same effect on Patterson. He’s certainly not lacking any physical potential. The few times Michigan players have spoken somewhat candidly about the quarterback situation this offseason, they talked about how Patterson can make any throw (watch his Ole Miss tape and you’ll see that, too).
One of the things I found interesting was what Chase Winovich said at B1G Media Days. Winovich, who told Patterson he’d return for his senior season if he transferred to Michigan, talked about Harbaugh’s change in mentality.
“Coach Harbaugh has definitely become more open in a sense that he’s willing to make necessary adjustments to ensure that Shea is going to be in the best possible scenario,” Winovich said in Chicago last month. “If he has to run more of a spread offense…I don’t know this for a fact and this isn’t a conversation I had, I would be surprised if (Harbaugh) didn’t work the offense around whatever things fit Shea best or whoever’s the quarterback.
“That’s just what I’ve noticed more and more with Coach Harbaugh’s mentality is that he’s slowly coming around to trying different things and figuring out something that works.”
That shows me that Harbaugh is changing some of his thinking. While he was the one who saw the potential in a dual-threat guy like Colin Kaepernick while he was in San Francisco, Patterson’s skill set is new for Harbaugh on the college level.
Let me repeat what Winovich said. “(Harbaugh) is slowly coming around to trying different things and figuring out something that works.”
You know what didn’t work, especially the last two years? It wasn’t Michigan’s top-5 defenses. It was the passing game, which finished No. 85 and No. 110 each of the last two seasons.
Why not try a different preseason strategy with the quarterbacks? It’s not like this indecision at the position yielded big-time results. Obviously a lack of talent is part of that, but there’s something to be said for what happens when Harbaugh goes all in for his guy. It worked for the likes of Luck, Kaepernick and even Rudock. Maybe it’ll work for Patterson.
A fourth straight offensive dud against Ohio State would be an awful look for Harbaugh. Three different Michigan quarterbacks averaged a combined 6.3 yards per attempt in those three losses to the Buckeyes. Their inability to stretch the field certainly contributed to Michigan’s unproductive ground game in those matchups.
Patterson is the one who can change that. That’s why he was brought to Michigan.
If the Wolverines’ quarterback room loses someone because Harbaugh declared Patterson the starter, that doesn’t change anything, either. In Harbaugh’s perfect world, Patterson is the final piece to the puzzle. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that.
Harbaugh made a surprising, but strong declaration on Monday. It came a little earlier than expected, and for good reason.
Now it’s time for Patterson to make a strong declaration of his own.