Cade McNamara sat at his press conference Saturday afternoon, fresh off a 51-7 victory in Michigan’s season opener, and spoke like a quarterback cognizant of his tenuous job security.
“It looked like a first game, I felt like, on the offensive side of the ball,” McNamara, a senior, said. “We definitely need to clean that up and I’m gonna be a part of that.”
McNamara is both uber-competitive and a perfectionist; those, if anything, are his defining traits. He lamented an errant throw to senior receiver Cornelius Johnson, a would-be touchdown; he did the same with a pass that nearly turned into an interception in the red zone.
It’s not unusual for McNamara to be particularly hard on himself; he nitpicked last season, too, as most quarterbacks tend to do. But this season’s rendition made for a bit of a jarring scene: The Wolverines had just won by 44 points in a game where 84 players appeared, and yet McNamara spoke in short, terse phrases while sporting a stern glare.
This is the backdrop right now for Michigan’s quarterbacks. Every move is scrutinized, every errant throw conjuring a quick glance to the sideline and groans from the fans. It holds true for McNamara and, in due time, will for sophomore J.J. McCarthy, too. But right now, at this juncture in the nation’s most intense quarterback competition, it is most apt for McNamara.
“I’d definitely say it’s pretty unusual,” McNamara said Saturday, speaking for the first time since Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh revealed his plan to start McNamara in Week One and McCarthy in Week Two. “It was kind of a thing I wasn’t expecting by the end of camp. I thought I had my best camp and put myself in a good position.”
Michigan’s quarterback competition is, contrary to popular belief, not over. Harbaugh is going to wait until after this week’s game to appoint a starter, a stance that he reiterated Monday. And, as he has maintained, the door is open to an ongoing rotation beyond this weekend.
“If things are exactly the same as they were coming out of camp, which was close to dead even, then we are going to have to, as coaches, find a way to maximize both of their talents for the best piece of the team,” Harbaugh said. “That remains a very viable option.”
The ‘if’ here carries the most weight. At the moment, its condition doesn’t appear to be true.
Harbaugh maintained that McNamara played a “really good” game Saturday, but it was not inspiring. The performance — 9-of-18 for 136 yards and a touchdown — did not reflect McNamara’s declaration from fall camp that he was playing the best football of his life. That buzz has fizzled.
Instead, against Colorado State, McNamara fueled the narrative that Michigan can be good with him under center, just not great.
McCarthy, by contrast, was “electric” — “no question about it,” Harbaugh said after the game. McCarthy’s attributes, to be fair, are inherently more flashy than McNamara. He is lightning quick and touts superhuman arm strength; McNamara, meanwhile, is gritty and reliable. On a highlight reel, McCarthy is bound to stand out.
Yet, what is increasingly apparent, is that Michigan has more options, and a wider playbook, with McCarthy under center. The razzle dazzle, whether it be cross-field throws or video game-esque jukes, is meaningless. A greater arsenal of in-game opportunities — whether it be through read options or whatnot — are significant.
McCarthy’s first highlight of the 2022 season, a scamper into the endzone off a read option, did not seem to be a call available to McNamara.
“They’re similar,” Harbaugh said of the playbooks for the two quarterbacks. “There’s a couple of quarterback runs. … JJ has that electric type of ability when he’s running the football. And I thought he acquitted himself really well.”
That is where, perhaps, we get a look into where the quarterback competition is headed. McNamara’s performance against Colorado State, though uninspiring, could not have moved the needle significantly. Would Michigan really take more stock in a so-so game against a Mountain West opponent than McNamara’s greater body of work, which includes a full season under center and a Big Ten Championship?
But what if McCarthy brings that electricity on a consistent basis, adding a new dimension to Michigan’s offense? Then the calculus changes.
Then an offense that should be one of the nation’s best becomes even scarier. What if McCarthy adds that dimension while eliminating his drawbacks: a knack for turnovers and bone-headed plays, which marred his freshman year cameos?
Then he should be QB1.
“I thought that he went through his reads very well,” Harbaugh said. “Great to see him playing super calm, cool and collected. He’s doing a great job, too. Really improved a lot, as you would expect going from his freshman year to his sophomore year.”
This all brings us back to McNamara’s press conference. He felt blindsided, clearly, by Harbaugh’s decision, noting he felt “confident” in his fall camp performance.
Yet Michigan has waited for McCarthy — through growing pains, gut-wrenching turnovers and an offseason shoulder injury — because his talent is apparent. His grand audition beckons Saturday under the lights against a woeful Hawaii team. If McCarthy does indeed light up the Rainbow Warriors, will that really push him past McNamara?
It’s hard to believe that it will.
What would vault McCarthy into QB1, though, is if he showcases the capabilities that McNamara lacks; if he is electric while not turning over the football, if his mobility makes a tangible difference.
In other words: If he is the quarterback that he is billed to be, and has been touted to be, since his commitment, then we might have an actual answer to the quarterback competition by Harbaugh’s superimposed deadline.
And right now, the road is careening towards McCarthy.