There are lots of myths about Jim Harbaugh.
One such myth, a sentiment that has gained traction following the tumultuous end to Michigan’s season, is that he is unwilling to adapt. This caricature of Harbaugh’s offensive philosophy — a relic of a bygone era, too proud to conform to modern football, too stubborn to adapt to his personnel — is largely unfounded. But it persists and is only amplified with every loss in a big game — every lackluster offensive performance.
The hiring of former Alabama co-offensive coordinator Josh Gattis to become the offensive coordinator (yes, the sole offensive coordinator) at Michigan is the latest and most discernible proof of Harbaugh’s willingness to evolve.
Gattis is going to run the offense. He’s going to be calling plays. And the subtext isn’t hard to see here: He’s coming to change the entire offense. Harbaugh’s offense.
To say Michigan’s offense didn’t change in 2018 would be wrong. After 2017, a year in which Michigan’s three quarterbacks combined for just nine touchdown passes and less than 2,300 passing yards, the offense reflected and rebounded. This past season, junior quarterback Shea Patterson threw for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns. The Wolverines had three wide receivers exceed 500 yards. While that figure might seem uninspiring, it comes after a year in which no receiver exceeded 307 yards.
And it wasn’t just that the offense opened up, but the way it did so. Harbaugh ostensibly ceded run-game responsibilities to offensive line coach Ed Warinner this season. In turn, the team implemented more zone-read looks and more run-pass options. There were new formations and an emphasis on getting Patterson on the move to best utilize his athleticism.
Harbaugh adapted in 2018, no doubt, just as he has his entire career. But hiring Gattis and relinquishing all play-calling duties isn’t mere adaptation. It’s a complete offensive overhaul, and a welcome one at that.
From 2012 to 2017, Gattis worked under James Franklin at both Vanderbilt and Penn State, where he quickly developed a reputation for his recruiting prowess. In his lone season at Alabama, Gattis led an offense that averaged 522 yards over 45 points per game. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa averaged 11.17 yards per attempt, narrowly behind Heisman Trophy-winner Kyler Murray for tops in the nation. Tagovailoa also finished with an adjusted completion percentage of 63.4 on throws of 20-plus yards downfield. When presented with that information on Twitter, Gattis provided a response sure to be music to Wolverines fans’ ears.
No dink-and-dunk offense, you say?
And while to an extent Alabama is Alabama, and Michigan is decidedly not, the Wolverines would be wise to take lessons from the Crimson Tide’s offensive evolution in the last five years.
Michigan will bring back Patterson, along with talented sophomore wide receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Nico Collins next season. It retains most of its offensive line and brings in a talented running back, Zach Charbonnet, to an already versatile group. The group has the potential to be the Wolverines’ most talented offense in years. And with Gattis, it has added the most important ingredient: a fresh, forward-thinking offensive mind necessary to reaching new heights.
This is all, of course, contingent on Harbaugh truly handing the keys over. Any team coached by Harbaugh is going to maintain some elements of the pro-style offense he’s run his entire life. The working marriage of Harbaugh and Gattis now serves as perhaps the most important offseason development. If the offensive collaboration remains the convoluted bureaucratic entanglement it has been the past few years, criticism will rightly follow.
But Harbaugh had no choice to broadly evaluate the shortcomings of last season. He, too, watched his offense wilt at Notre Dame in the season opener. He saw it thoroughly outpaced and outclassed at Ohio State. He had a front-row seat to the 26-point Peach Bowl drubbing.
To his credit, it now appears, Harbaugh adapted.
Marcovitch can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch. He also appreciates Venmo donations to @Mike-Persak