Lloyd Carr made it clear for what seems like the 100th time – he has no plans to bench Chad Henne in favor of Matt Gutierrez.
The reasons to make the change were obvious after Michigan’s 23-20 loss to Minnesota. Henne completed just 14 of 29 passes for 155 yards on Saturday, and it was the first time in his Michigan career that he didn’t throw for a touchdown. Under pressure all day, the sophomore repeatedly missed wide-open receivers for almost guaranteed scores.
It’s been that kind of season for Henne. His overall numbers are respectable – 108-of-192 passing for 1,266 yards, 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions. But like his team, Henne has struggled in critical moments. Michigan’s three losses have coincided with the three games Henne’s completion percentage has been less than 50 percent. In the six second halves combined, he has completed just 46.2 percent of his passes and thrown all three of his picks, compared with 61.6 percent passing and nine scores in the first half.
But Carr has not lost faith in his quarterback. After the Wolverines’ loss at Wisconsin, Carr was asked whether Gutierrez could receive playing time in light of Henne’s struggles. In response, Carr said he had “great confidence” in Henne, and that hasn’t changed despite his poor performance on Saturday.
So to all those fans who want the Wyomissing, Penn., native to start this weekend on the bench – I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but it looks like Henne will be under center when the offense takes the field against Penn State.
And I couldn’t agree with the decision more.
Henne proved he is capable of being a great quarterback last season when – as a true freshman – he completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 2,743 yards and 25 touchdowns. It was the third-best statistical year of any quarterback in Michigan history.
But no one cares about his past success when the Wolverines are just 1-2 in the Big Ten. Except for the big win over Michigan State, Henne hasn’t done much for us lately, and that is a problem. But it doesn’t mean he should lose his job.
For starters, Henne is still just a sophomore. I know, I know – that shouldn’t be an excuse, especially after he played so well in his first year. But with as much experience as he gained last season, I have to believe Henne is still learning this year. And even if he has an expert’s command of the offense, he has to adjust to the fact that teams have seen a lot of him – either in person or on tape – and are better able to exploit his faults this time around. It’s frustrating to watch, but playing through it is the only way Henne will learn.
It doesn’t help that injuries have forced Michigan to start a different lineup on offense in each of its six games. In fact, Henne is one of just four offensive players who have started every contest. (Jason Avant, Leo Henige and Adam Stenavich are the other three.) The Wolverines have also been without injured All-Big Ten second-team right tackle Jake Long all season. As a result, the offensive line’s pass protection has been sub-par in a number of games, leading Henne to speed through reads, force throws and move out of the pocket.
But explanations aside, Henne deserves to start because he is the best quarterback on the team, and the fact that he continued to start even after Gutierrez returned from injury is proof.
A similar situation took place in New England in 2001 when Patriots coach Bill Belichick started Tom Brady even after Drew Bledsoe was healthy. Three Super Bowl wins later, I’m pretty sure Belichick made the right choice.
It’s not an exact comparison, but Carr made a similar decision last year. Gutierrez had been named starting quarterback for the season opener against Miami (Ohio), but he suffered a shoulder injury before the game. Henne started in his place and had an impressive debut, completing 14-of-24 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns. And after struggling against Notre Dame, he led Michigan to its second straight Big Ten title.
Carr saw something special in Henne then, and he continues to see it now. I’m confident that he will be proven right.
Stephanie Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.