Jim Harbaugh loathes comparisons, whether they’re to prior seasons or occurrences in his own playing career. So, it came as a surprise when Harbaugh offered one up Saturday night in the wake of Michigan’s demolition of Hawaii.
Harbaugh compared the Wolverines’ current quarterback situation — with sophomore J.J. McCarthy officially earning the title of QB1, usurping senior incumbent Cade McNamara — to the one he oversaw in San Francisco.
With the 49ers, Harbaugh administered a competition that saw a mobile and dynamic Colin Kaepernick unseat a successful veteran in Alex Smith. Asked to elaborate Monday, Harbaugh snickered, conceding that he broke his own rule by invoking a comparison.
“That comparison was really only applicable and only comparable in the way that I compared it, which was, there are two really good quarterbacks in Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith,” Harbaugh said. “And, once again, (there are) two really good quarterbacks in J.J. McCarthy and Cade McNamara.”
As Harbaugh spoke of McCarthy and McNamara, he continued his months-long practice of speaking delicately. But there’s no denying that the tenor of the quarterback discourse has shifted following McCarthy’s dazzling performance Saturday and his anointment as the starting quarterback.
And as McCarthy’s reign begins, the new vernacular is just as important. The Wolverines recognize that McCarthy gives them the best chance to win:
“Whenever the ball’s in his hands, you know something’s gonna happen,” graduate defensive back Gemon Green said. “It’s gonna be a big play.”
Yet at the same time, they are keenly aware of McNamara’s continued importance — whether he starts or not.
“Our players embrace the fact that we have two really good quarterbacks,” Harbaugh said. “You’d love for our fanbase to be able to do that. And I’ll expect them to do that. But it’s irrelevant.”
Freshman defensive tackle Mason Graham added: “We go into every week knowing that both guys could make an impact on the game. Both are well-respected.”
McNamara’s role is complex. After claiming to be playing the best football of his life, he has managed two uninspiring performances and has now seen McCarthy pass him on the depth chart. And, unlike last season where Michigan carved out specific run packages for McCarthy, it’s unlikely the same would happen for McNamara.
So, McNamara will have to both uphold his duties as team captain and, in a more pertinent sense, stay sharp and ready in case of injury. Even as some Michigan fans bury him, he is still one play away from reclaiming QB1 obligations — which isn’t off the table, considering McCarthy’s propensity for reckless plays last season and his offseason shoulder ailment.
“Every day he’s gonna come out, he’s a grinder,” senior offensive tackle Trente Jones said Monday. “He’s real gritty. So regardless of what happens, regardless of who likes him or who doesn’t like him, it’s really just about going out there every day, feeling like you don’t own anything and keep working.”
Reading in between the lines, players and coaches seem unaffected by the change under center. Jones maintained that he doesn’t remember Harbaugh holding a team meeting to formally address the change. Whether that’s true or not, it speaks to the team’s mindset that they don’t care who is starting under center; they just want to win.
Similarly, in his opening remarks, Harbaugh emphasized all of the positives he’s seen from his first two games, seeming genuinely pleased with his team’s effort and execution.
“I thought it was visible, both in person and from the tape,” Harbaugh said. “They didn’t let any distraction come in the way of that.”
Perhaps that distraction Harbaugh referenced is the quarterback competition, the one storyline that has engulfed media coverage of the Wolverines since spring ball. But, if Michigan is to be believed, that has had no impact on the team.
Now, with the competition apparently over, that spotlight will dim. And the Wolverines seem ready to move on from it, too — no matter what happens with McCarthy and McNamara as the season progresses.
“The main thing is, it’s a big edge for our team to have two really good quarterbacks,” Harbaugh said. “We, as a team, embrace that.”