SportsTuesday Column: At quarterback, quantity isn’t quality

Monday, September 2, 2019 - 7:53pm

Redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey’s role this season as Michigan’s backup quarterback has thus far been in run-option looks and other trick plays.

Redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey’s role this season as Michigan’s backup quarterback has thus far been in run-option looks and other trick plays. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

There’s an old football platitude that if you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none.

It’s one of those folksy cliches you hear when the Miami Dolphins are sifting through the pile of rubble to decide whether Gus Frerotte or Sage Rosenfels should be the one to lead them to a 4-12 season.

As it pertains to this Michigan football team and its quarterback room, that sentiment couldn’t be further off. The Wolverines have two capable quarterbacks in Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey. They are a good football team, with aspirations to be a great one. There are (or should be) no questions about which of the two is the starter.

In the quarterback room, the lone question left to answer — how do you best maximize both of them? — is one of immense luxury. This group is a far cry from the John O’Korn/Wilton Speight/Brandon Peters wilderness that came to define the early Jim Harbaugh years. But that question is still one that seems like it will continue to linger, and in the modern era of college football, it’s a question that must be treated with caution.

Still, while Michigan’s quarterback depth is one of this team’s biggest strengths, that doesn’t justify using it on some milquetoast gimmicks. This is not a position in which an excess of quantity on the field generally translates to quality. Frankly, if there is a single important play this season in which Patterson isn’t under center, something has gone wrong or someone has erred.

Saturday’s display was a clear example of how excess creativity could backfire. McCaffrey’s first appearance against Middle Tennessee came in the middle of the first quarter, lined up as a wide receiver. He came in motion while Patterson faked the handoff and eventually gave the ball to Christian Turner for two yards. Moments later, Michigan was flagged for an illegal substitution, with confusion swirling. The very next play, McCaffrey came in motion, while Patterson once again faked the handoff. McCaffrey then caught an ill-conceived screen pass and took two body blows on a one-yard gain.

The drive stalled. The Wolverines punted. Tensions heightened.

Later on, with the game well in-hand, McCaffrey led two drives as the quarterback. Harbaugh said after the game that Patterson had been banged up and that he wanted to give McCaffrey some zone read looks in order to avoid exacerbating any nicks and bruises. He scored on a 6-yard read-option rush. In the context of the game, it made sense.

Harbaugh has consistently stated his desire to play both quarterbacks, starting at Big Ten Media Days in mid-July. Doing so, the thinking goes, keeps both (mostly McCaffrey) engaged and ready, while also using the skill set he possesses. 

Some of this reasoning is sound. McCaffrey is faster and therefore a better weapon in option looks. Giving Patterson a breather here and there could help ensure his health when it matters most. Getting McCaffrey ample in-game looks could help appease any qualms he has about sitting second on the depth chart for another year, avoiding the disgruntled transfer that has become so prevalent throughout college football.

And if all goes according to plan, McCaffrey will be atop the depth chart a year from now. From all we’ve seen, he has the potential to be a high-caliber Big Ten quarterback. For now, he’s vital depth. Soon enough, he’ll matter far more.

None of that is to degrade McCaffrey’s value to this team right now. Newsflash: Football is violent. People get hurt. Things do not go according to plan. If Patterson — Michigan fans, knock on wood — were to go down, as Speight did in 2016 and 2017, as Peters did in 2017 and as hundreds of other football players do every year, this team has the great fortune of not folding up shop and calling it a year. 

That, more than any trick plays or fancy packages, forced gimmicks or out-of-rhythm rotations, is the value Dylan McCaffrey brings to this team. It should stay that way.

Marcovitch can be reached on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch or via email at maxmarco@umich.edu