BY GABE EDELSON: HONEST GABE
Published December 13, 2005
It's gotta be the uniforms.
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How else can you explain Michigan's unusual season?
The Wolverines' 7-4 record this year is the team's worst regular-season mark since 1994. Understandably, many people have been left scratching their heads in an attempt to figure out exactly what went wrong. Sure, it's easy to call attention - as I have - to Michigan's five late-game defensive collapses that allowed opponents to win or tie games in the final minute. But there must be a deeper, more profound cause - right?
Well, after a close examination, the Wolverines' new threads seem to be the culprit. In the vein of the ESPN Classic show, "The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame," I present to you "The Top 6 Reasons You Must Blame Michigan's New Uniforms for the Wolverines' Sub-Par Season." Each explanation will eliminate another potential target of finger-pointing from the equation until no possible excuses remain. Let's take a look:
1. You can't blame Mike Hart.
After Hart's jaw-dropping freshman year - 1,692 all-purpose yards and 10 total touchdowns - many expected Michigan's star tailback to challenge for the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the nation's best running back. Instead, Hart managed to shoulder the bulk of the Wolverines' rushing load in just four games this year. Because of nagging leg injuries throughout the season, he amassed a disappointing 17 carries for 36 yards against Notre Dame, Iowa and Ohio State combined. Hart didn't even see the field against Eastern Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern or Indiana. But it wouldn't be fair to blame Hart and his 588-yard, four-score campaign for Michigan's woes. After all, sore hamstrings and bum ankles are part of football, and it can happen to anybody at any time. In addition, backups Jerome Jackson and Kevin Grady proved capable in Hart's absence. Most people tend to believe that the running game is more important than the ball-carrier's uniform. I'm not so certain.
2. You can't blame Steve Breaston.
A redshirt junior wide receiver, Breaston wasn't healthy for much of the beginning of the season. An attempt to transform him into the team's deep-threat failed because Breaston wasn't well suited to the task. As a natural return specialist who excels from the slot, Breaston stepped up his play when he returned to his familiar role. He picked up 85 percent of his receiving yardage over the final six games of the regular season. Against Indiana, Breaston out-gained the entire Hoosiers team with 201 all-purpose yards - in the first half. Is it fair to blame him for being injured and playing an unfamiliar position? Probably not. Let's move on.
3. You can't blame Chad Henne.
Michigan's quarterback endured plenty of criticism during what many perceived to be a "sophomore slump." Barring a 500-yard, five-touchdown performance in the Alamo Bowl, the sophomore will fall short of his 2004 numbers. But many don't give Henne credit for playing superbly against Ohio State and showing flashes of brilliance against Michigan State, Penn State and Indiana. Add in a number of drops by his receivers, a quickly shrinking pocket and the loss of Braylon Edwards, and Henne's 20-touchdown, seven-interception season suddenly doesn't look so terrible. I've heard people say that Henne and his play are critical to the Wolverines' fate on the gridiron. But we all know that clothes make the man.
4. You can't blame the offensive line.
Opposing defensive lines dominated the unity early in the season, but that was understandable. After all, mammoth tackle Jake Long, perhaps the team's best lineman, missed Michigan's first seven games after suffering a freak injury in fall camp. Tackle Adam Stenavich, guard Matt Lentz and center Adam Kraus also took turns sitting out with various injuries. What's more, Rueben Riley, Mark Bihl, Mike Kolodziej and Alex Mitchell performed admirably while filling in for their stricken teammates. Starting guard Leo Henige and Long will miss the Alamo Bowl after undergoing surgery, and Kraus may also sit out. Still, it would be fair to say that the Wolverines' blockers overachieved, considering the circumstances.
5. You can't blame the coaching staff.
Lloyd Carr has repeatedly called this year's squad the most "unlucky" team he's ever coached, largely because of the rash of injuries. Carr fought for extra time to be put on the clock against Penn State, allowing Henne to toss the game-winning touchdown pass to Mario Manningham with one second left. Moreover, the Wolverines' coach motivated his players every week and made sure his team never took opponents lightly. Offensive coordinator Terry Malone gave his unit a lift by moving down to the field from his customary position in the press box for the Michigan State game. Malone incorporated more successful trick plays into the offensive attack and wasn't afraid to call the deep pass. Defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann adapted to the spread offenses that torched his group a year ago by frequently using formations with five defensive backs. Herrmann's unit even shut out offensive powerhouse Northwestern for an entire half. Michigan State was the only team to score 30 points against the Wolverines, and Michigan won that game. That should exempt the coaches from criticism. They get bonus points because they didn't actually have to wear those cursed new uniforms.
6. You can't blame the defense.
The play on the defensive line was solid for most of the year, and the secondary was surprisingly good, despite concerns heading into the season. Even when Michigan's projected fourth- and fifth-string safeties started against Penn State, the Wolverines held the Nittany Lions without a passing touchdown for the entire game. Quite a nice recovery after losing All-Americans Marlin Jackson and Ernest Shazor after last season. Plus, LaMarr Woodley was dominant when healthy. And is it really the defense's responsibility for allowing those late scores? Shouldn't the offense also be faulted for putting the defense in that position? Maybe the Wolverines should have scored more touchdowns. The defenders shouldn't bear the brunt of the critics' enmity.
All this leaves us with one possible explanation: the team's new uniforms. Did removing the block 'M's from the shoulders of the road jerseys rip out the heart of each and every Michigan player? Could the new light-weight, stretchy material - which replaced the heavier traditional mesh - have minimized the legacy of the Wolverines' storied history in the eyes of their opponents? Is it possible that the hideous yellow piping drew the ire - and laughter - of foes? And what about the stitched-on names and numbers? Did they add a hint of authenticity in place of the older silk-screened characters, or did they make the players feel like a patchwork collection of athletes?
We'll never know all the answers, but new duds can certainly affect on-field performance. Consider the Denver Broncos: After they lost their first four Super Bowls while wearing their famed bright orange jerseys, the team unveiled a sleek, new look to kick off the 1997 campaign. The result? The Broncos dethroned the Green Bay Packers to win their first-ever Super Bowl that same year.
I think not.
Gabe Edelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.