top of page

Jim Harbaugh's QB Progression: How important is the QB run game to Harbaugh's success?

With the recent exception of Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner, the Michigan Football has identified as a power run, pro-style.

The stigma that portrays the Michigan Football brand as a pro-style, power run team is accurate. Aside From the Rich Rodriguez era, Michigan has been pro-style without any deviation from the norm since the 1908's. Becuase of this portrayal, many fan's believe this is what Michigan Football has to be to reach the pinnacle of its storied past. So is the assumption that Michigan must resort to its 1990's and early 2000's pro-style identity to win at the highest level?

Football is a game of change. Though most of the strategy remains the same, the great coaches make subtle changes to specific approaches in football such as the Air Coryell style of offense (west coast offense) that Bill Walsh used to great success.

Every football program at all levels adapts to the changes of the game. Michigan Football went from primarily running the option in the 70s by slowly modifying their approach towards a pro-style attack. For Michigan Football this was a positive sign that Bo Schembechler was not a dinosaur and that Bo was willing to adapt and innovate his style.

So what relevance does this type of adaptability mean for the 2018 Michigan Football identity? What it means is that Jim Harbaugh, a direct Bo disciple understands what it means to adapt. Jim Harbaugh played under Bo Schembechler in the 80s and was part of Bo's offensive evolution to the pro-style era. Harbaugh was dynamic himself as a mobile QB that could both run and pass, and like many of Harbaugh's most successful QBs as a coach, they too are able to both run and throw.

In 2017 following the 2016 season, Michigan Football sent a school record 12 players to the NFL draft. Michigan came into the season as the youngest team in college football. They still beat the teams they should have beaten and lost the games they were not favoured to win. Michigan began the year strong beating the Florida Gators in Dallas, but a few weeks later in their Big Ten opener against Purdue Wilton Speight suffered a neck injury that sidelined him for the rest of the year. For Michigan, this meant that former Houston transfer John O'korn would need to step in.

O'korn eventually would be replaced by Brandon Peters after going 16-35 for 198 yds and three interceptions in a loss at home to Michigan State and throwing for 58 total yards against Indiana the following week. Michigan fans (who were clamouring for Brandon Peters), got their wish. But due to the porous pass blocking by a young and seemingly overwhelmed offensive line, Peters was also knocked out with a concussion in the first half of the Wisconsin game, meaning that once again the fate of the Michigan Football season would rest on the arm and legs of John O'korn.

Against Ohio State, in the season finale, the Wolverines jumped out to a 14-0 lead. The offensive gameplan was on point as Michigan was able to execute through the air and on the ground early, but as the game wore on it would be John O'korn who missed vital throws that could have helped sustain drives. Michigan's lead would disappear, and the missed opportunities would add up leading to opportunities for Ohio State.

Michigan caught a break when QB JT Barrett left the game with a knee injury. The "break" would not matter as redshirt freshman QB Dwayne Haskins entered the game. Down by a touchdown and coming off the bench cold against a stingy Michigan defense that had kept Michigan in the game. Haskins was unflappable under pressure, completing a clutch third-and-13 throw to Austin Mack for a critical conversion. And then Showing off his mobility with a 22-yard scramble, setting up J.K. Dobbins for the go-ahead touchdown.

The Michigan defense played well enough to win the game. It would be the inefficiency of the Michigan offense that would eventually lead to the defenses eventual collapse. The Michigan defense was on the field for far too long throughout the game. Despite all of the mistakes made and missed opportunities by the offense, the gameplan still gave Michigan a shot at the end of the game with one final drive, and on play one, O'korn would succumb to his last error in the Maize and Blue.

The keywords used above to break down the two big plays made by Dwayne Haskins against Michigan are mobility and conversion. Ohio State's Haskins used his mobility to move the chains on the ground late and was also able to make a throw into a tight window late in the game converting a critical third down. For the Wolverines in 2017, injuries, lack of QB Mobility and their inability to sustain drives led to losses against Ohio State Michigan State at home, and South Carolina in their bowl game. These variables must change in 2018.

Michigan has recruited the QB position at a high level with Brandon Peters who was a 247 top 100 player and the number 6 pro style QB in the 2016 class. Michigan also has a McCaffrey on its its roster (Dylan McCaffrey), the younger brother of Christian Mccaffrey, who is also a four star recruit and was the number five ranked pro style QB according to 247 sports in 2017. Neither of the two QBs possess the mobility of previous successful QB's utilized in a Jim Harbaugh offense. Aside from the addtion of transfer Shea Patterson Michigan also added Joe Milton, who is another pro-style QB at 6-5 230 lbs, he to is a 4 star recruit. Milton is more of an Andrew Luck style player. He possesses good mobility to move around in the pocket but is not a burner.

The importance of Shea Patterson

Harbaugh quickly hustled his way down to Oxford, MS the week after the loss to Ohio State in 2017 To court Shea Patterson who was in the middle of a legal process seeking instant eligibility in 2018 after Ole Miss received punishment from the NCAA for numerous recruiting violations. What compelled Harbaugh to pursue Patterson? Michigan was recruiting Patterson hard in 2015, and when Patterson chose Ole Miss, the Michigan staff moved on to Brandon Peters.

Patterson has the mobility that Michigans' offense has lacked since Jake Rudock transferred from Iowa in 2015. His ability to extend plays and escape pressure when the offensive line breaks down is what Michigan needed a season ago. Harbaugh knows where his bread is buttered and that his most recent success as a coach has been with a mobile QB, such as the former Josh Johnson, Andrew Luck, Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and Jake Rudock.

The analysis:

After analyzing every Harbaugh starting QB since Rich Gannon in 2002 there is a correlation that directly connects QB mobility to the success of a Jim Harbaugh offense.

In seasons that Jim Harbaugh teams have won 10 or more games in both NFL or college, the QB run yds per season are at 290 yds on average. Josh Johnson (San Diego) in 2006 rushing for more than 700 yds, Andrew Luck (Stanford) in 2010 rushing for 453 yds, and Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco) in 2013 rushing for 524 yds. While at Michigan Jake Rudock in 2015 rushed for 166 yds and became only the second player in Michigan football history to throw for more than 3000 yds. (John Navarre, 3310 yds).

Only two QBs (Rich Gannon, Wilton Speight) in ten seasons in which Harbaugh has won 10+ games were not running threats, but they did possess good mobility and pocket awareness when under pressure. (*Harbaugh was an assistant coach Oakland 2002).

The QB's on this list also averaged a combined 3000 yds passing and 26 total touchdowns. Arguably the two most notable and efficient QB's on the list are Andrew Luck and Alex Smith. Harbaugh benched Smith in 2012 for Colin Kaepernick who in that same season would lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl). The second most efficient QB on the list (aside from Josh Johnson), is Jake Rudock. Harbaugh was able to elevate Rudock into an NFL player who is now the backup to Mathew Staffrd in Detroit.

This is why Harbaugh quickly hustled his way down to Oxford, MS the week after the loss to Ohio State in 2017. This is not an indictment on the current players on the roster as much as it is about a philosophy that Jim Harbaugh has used to win games in the past.

Lets take a look at seasons where Harbaugh has won less than 10 games in either the NFL or college.

In the above chart we again compiled the averages for both NFL and college teams Harbaugh has coached, and in the seasons Harbaugh has produced less than ten wins as a head coach his QB's average just under 1700 yds passing, 91 yds rushing and a total of 10 touchdowns passing and rushing combined.

Let's take a look at Jim Harbaugh the player. As a player, Harbaugh was a good athlete who used his mobility to create on the run.

In 18 years of playing (college and NFL) Harbaugh averaged 171 yds per season rushing. Do not be fooled by the low average as he did play in a different era, but the reason I wanted to add his stats to the equation is to point out that his success as a coach using mobile QB's is a direct reflection of his playing career. Jim Harbaugh flew to Oxford, MS following the Ohio State loss to meet with Shea Patterson who just like Harbaugh as a player is a mobile gunslinger. The Michigan offense needs a mobile Qb who can move around under pressure and make tough throws on the run. Patterson's mobility can help take pressure off of the Michigan offensive line that struggled in 2017.

Harbaughs Pistol Offense and Kaepernick

Jim Harbaugh has built his entire philosophy around the west coast offense and Bill Walsh principles. The west coast offensive philosophy is a highly adaptable scheme and can be combined with spread principles at the college level. The West Coast offense is tailored to fit the personnel rather than the other way around. This is where Harbaughs philosophy will continue to thrive.

Colin Kaepernick under Jim Harbaugh was efficient, though he was not the best passer. The West Coast scheme allowed Kaepernick to make easier reads with underneath throws and horizontal passing. Harbaugh added the the Pistol formation to his attack and used the zone read to put pressure on defenses using Kaepernick's running ability. The applied pressure from Kapernicks running ability opened up the passing game and the run game for backs like Frank Gore. This is the same formula I expect to see from Michigan in 2018 with Shea Patterson running the offense.

2018 will be a telling year for Michigan football. And for Michigan to finally get over the hump and compete for a Big Ten Title, or a National Title, Harbaugh must go back to the what has worked for him in the past. The formula appears to be utilizing the athletic QB to exploit opposing defenses. This by itself should enhance the Michigans ability to sustain drives and keep an already great defense rested throughout games.

Michigan football under Jim Harbaugh has been a top QB away from success, and aside from Jake Rudock, it appears that Michigan may have its best running and passing threat since Jim Harbaugh donned the number 4 in the 80's. Patterson is already a projected first-round NFL draft prospect for 2019. Time will tell if he is the true answer to all of Michigans recent offensive woes.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page