McCarthy Vs. McNamara For Michigan QB Job Is Immaterial: Stats Show Harbaugh’s Offenses Just Don’t Throw Downfield
When J.J. McCarthy first entered Michigan's season opener versus Colorado State, the 100,000-plus assembled at the Big House erupted into a harmonious symphony of cheers that could only be described as euphoric.
Then, moments later, McCarthy exited after his scripted run-play option snap for the man who's just a few months removed from engineering the Wolverines' best season in a quarter-century.
Cade McNamara was not welcomed by Michigan fans the way you would have figured they'd welcome the first Wolverines quarterback to beat Ohio State since the Mayan-predicted doomsday of 2012. He wasn't adulated like you'd expect U-M fans to behave around the man who delivered their first Big Ten championship since the advent of the iPhone.
No, the crowd at Michigan Stadium erupted into a chorus of boos as their embattled pseudo-starter jogged back onto the field.
That was the moment it became crystal clear that McCarthy has won the starting quarterback job at U-M. The fan base, stoked by Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh's summer of indecision, has made plain its commitment to "the grass is greener" ideology.
Because McCarthy was a five-star recruit and ranked among the nation's 25 best high school football players in 2020? Because his obvious advantages in athleticism are simply too tantalizing to waste on the sideline? Because if he isn't made the starter he'll transfer?
In order: Of course, obviously, and duh.
On the one hand, it's hard to fault Michigan fans for wanting McCarthy over McNamara. Despite what the latter helped U-M to accomplish in 2021, McCarthy's ceiling seems much higher. But it must be acknowledged that McCarthy's floor is also lower (see: Michigan vs. Michigan State, 2021, specifically McCarthy's butter fingers late in that game).
However, greatness isn't complacent. It's why in 2018 Nick Saban benched a starting quarterback with a 27-1 career record at halftime of his second national championship game in favor of a freshman who had never started a game. Tua Tagovaiola led the Crimson Tide to a comeback win in that national title game with a 40-plus-yard, game-winning touchdown pass in overtime that was surpassed in boldness only by Saban's decision to change QBs two quarters prior.
Many believe Harbaugh would be similarly rewarded by naming McCarthy his starting quarterback, that the Wolverines would all of a sudden develop the explosive, over-the-top, vertical passing game Michigan fans have been pining for for years.
But there are two problems with that: First, McCarthy has thrown just 63 passes in his nascent college football career. He has yet to provide evidence that he possesses the kind of arm talent to make him a legitimate deep-ball thrower.
And secondly — perhaps most importantly — Harbaugh's offenses have never featured prolific passing attacks. Just take a look at the numbers.
|Year||Team||Passing Yardage Per Game Rank Within FBS/NFL||Pac-12/Big Ten Rank|
|2011||San Francisco 49ers||29th||N/a|
|2012||San Francisco 49ers||23rd||N/a|
|2013||San Francisco 49ers||30th||N/a|
|2014||San Francisco 49ers||30th||N/a|
*Harbaugh's best passing offense came in 2010, when Andrew Luck finished as runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Harbaugh was a pretty damn good NFL coach, accumulating a 44-19-1 record over his four seasons with the 49ers. But despite leading San Francisco to two NFC championship games and a Super Bowl, his passing offenses were among the worst in the league. Even in 2012, when Colin Kaepernick burst onto the scene, the 49ers' aerial game ranked just 23rd.
It's the same story for Harbaugh's offenses no matter where or when he coaches. Over his first seven years at Michigan, his passing games have ranked 70th on average, placing the Wolverines firmly in the bottom half of college football's FBS.
To put that into context, Ohio State's passing offenses have ranked 42nd, on average, over those same seven seasons. Even Michigan State, whose air games were led by the likes of Tyler O'Connor, Brian Lewerke, and Rocky Lombardi for six of those seven years, fared better than Michigan, averaging a rank of 63.
The numbers don't lie: Harbaugh's offense simply doesn't attack defenses vertically downfield. Plenty of quality quarterbacks have come before, and they've all failed to bring Harbaugh out of his conservative shell . Replacing McNamara with McCarthy won't change that, either.