SportsMonday Column: Shea Patterson isn't Michigan's problem. Everything else is.
Let’s get it out of the way: Shea Patterson wasn’t perfect on Saturday and he never will be.
Michigan’s quarterback fumbled twice against Army and lost both of them. He missed a wide open Ronnie Bell streaking down the field early in the game on what probably would have been a touchdown. His internal clock seemed off in the pocket and that Bell miss wasn’t his only one. On zone reads — or at least on plays that seemed like zone reads — Patterson refused to keep the ball even when his rushing lanes were wide open. Though a lingering injury from last week may have been a hindrance, he bears a fair amount of blame for Michigan’s near-implosion on Saturday, as it took two overtimes and a missed field goal at the end of regulation to put away Army, 24-21.
Predictably, Saturday brought with it cries for a change at quarterback. Jim Harbaugh said during the preseason he wanted to play Patterson and redshirt sophomore Dylan McCaffrey in each game, and he’s lived up to his word thus far. On rare occasions that Patterson left games last year, McCaffrey acquitted himself well. He’s done enough to be a clear successor when Patterson leaves after this season, and in the minds of some, enough to start right now.
It makes sense to be alarmed right now — to see the need for change. The Wolverines are lucky to have won their first two games despite both coming against clearly inferior teams. They’ll go to Wisconsin after the bye week, seemingly unready to win a game of that magnitude, and with Michigan’s goals, a loss in the third game of the season means perfection is required the rest of the way. But it doesn’t make sense to bench Patterson as a result of that alarm. He isn’t the problem. Everything else is.
It’s a problem that an offense meant to be predicated on run-pass options has barely run any run-pass options through two games. It’s a problem that Josh Gattis has struggled to find a playcalling rhythm in his first two games with the job. It’s a problem that Michigan fell into old, predictable habits — three yards and a cloud of dust — late in a close game against Army. It’s an even bigger problem that its offensive line couldn’t push around a team with no defensive linemen over 300 pounds or keep Patterson safe in the pocket.
“I thought our pass protection was really good,” Harbaugh said after the game. “At times, we had a long time back there in the pocket and some of the big third-down conversions were by pass.”
That there are even questions about an offensive line that returned four starters from last year, including a preseason All-American in Ben Bredeson, undermines his point. Jon Runyan Jr. is expected to return against Wisconsin, which will likely help things. But it doesn’t change that the line wasn’t good enough against the Black Knights.
“Mostly I would say just some of the blitz pickups,” running back Zach Charbonnet said when asked what needs improving. “They had a lot of corners blitzing and we just gotta adjust to that.”
Fix all of this and the quarterback issue becomes trivial, because the fact remains that Patterson is a good quarterback. Not just that, but he’s the best quarterback Michigan has had in a decade, at least, when it comes to throwing the ball (that thing quarterbacks are supposed to do).
Patterson threw for 2,600 yards in 2018, averaging 8.0 per attempt and turning the passing game into a legitimate weapon. He wasn’t the savior people advertised him as, and that label was always unfair — a way to tear him down for not reaching an unreachable expectation.
None of this is to say Patterson doesn’t have issues to fix. Fumbling four times in two games is a very real problem. Harbaugh said last week that Patterson suffered an injury against Middle Tennessee State, and video from the locker room made it seem that it was a rib issue. If you’re looking for a reason he didn’t pull the ball and run more against Army when there were oodles of space in his path, that might be it.
“He was better,” Harbaugh said, which is what he had to say. “He was able to work through what he had and felt 100 percent for the game.”
When a reporter followed up and asked whether that meant those plays didn’t have reads attached to them, Harbaugh replied, “Yeah, or the read was not there for the quarterback to pull it.”
Regardless, it undermines the very foundation of Michigan’s offense if the entire defense knows the ball is going to the running back every time the quarterback starts to hand it off. If Patterson isn’t healthy enough to make a legitimate read, asking whether he should start is valid. If he is healthy enough to do that and Michigan simply wasn’t attaching reads to anything, the fault lies with Gattis.
This is his offense. He should run it as he advertised it.
On rare occasions when the Wolverines have put their foot on the gas — running RPOs, moving fast and keeping the defense off-balance — things have looked as good as promised, Patterson very much included.
This won’t work if Michigan either can’t do that because of Patterson’s health, or it simply won’t. “Where is the speed in space?” a reporter asked Ben Bredeson after Saturday’s game.
If that question is valid after any other game this season, Michigan has done something wrong, and it will never be fixed by going to the backup quarterback.
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethan_sears