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Monday, July 17, 2006

Over the past week I've gotten a few emails that deserve responses in full; a couple are irritated Penn State fans who will get their say in a couple days. The other is from Don Hamm and is reproduced below with fisk comments (but friendly-like) interspersed:


I'd be curious about your take on CFN's All-Americans relative to the supposedly top-5 talent at Michigan. There is a notable lack of Michigan players on the list, and the only one meriting even an honorable mention is Hart.
Omission from CFN's list doesn't bother me so much. As I've written in the past, CFN is useless. They try to churn as much "content" out as possible in order to generate hits -- Orson has characterized this as "heavily caffinated Fiutak sitting in his basement pumping out copy" or some such thing, though he found it endearing instead of annoying -- and toss lists out that reuse the same banal capsule text every day, because there's nothing that gets the fan linkage like "love" from some ridiculous website. It's impossible to take anything they say seriously when every other word is "consistency," "nasty," "athletic," or another sports-cliche word employed to fill space without actually communicating ideas.

So, yeah, I take that particular omission with a grain of salt.

Your larger point, though...
Being a UM fan has its frustrations, many of which you write incisively about. One of them for me is the alleged talent at UM that's relentlessly hyped by UM fans everywhere. Every year I hear fan after fan assert that "Michigan has more/as much talent than anyone in the country", which is then used to buttress the analysis of Lloyd Carr as an incompetent coach whose staff can't develop the truckloads of NFL-caliber talent they recruit. I remember clearly hearing a caller to WTKA saying after the game last year that UM has better talent at every position on the field, both offensively and defensively, than Wisconsin. All he could point to are the recruiting rankings, which I am viewing these days with great suspicion. Of course, he then went on to lambaste Carr & Co. as dumb meatheads who can't coach the 5-star talent they've got at every position. a fundamental, difficult one that deserves an airing. Michigan, like Notre Dame, has found itself in a weird limbo in the last several years wherein expectations vastly exceeded results. (Michigan's limbo has been far shorter and less severe.) The response from the fanbases has always, always, always been to crucify the coach for his many failings.* The idea that our valiant warrior-poets are just plain bad at football never seems to cross the mind of the fan, because good God, how do you fix that? Any idiot can fix the coaching -- run more! pass more! -- but acknowledging the many and variegated flaws up and down the roster is the kind of thing that sinks future seasons. Humans naturally shy away from information that causes pain, so every unproven who-dat is a future All-American.

As a result, "Team X which incidentally is the team I support has as much talent as anyone in the country" is not a phenomenon unique to Michigan fans. Most fans overrate their team's prospects every season, then blow up at the meathead coach when the results do not conform to their impossibly inflated expectations. Every year is "the year" for every team across the country -- the year they win the National Championship or go to a New Year's day bowl game or any bowl game or show some signs of life -- until the harsh light of reality sets in for most. The easiest thing to do at that point is lash out at the coach, because you can fire the coach.

A balanced perspective of available talent is the least likely thing for any passionate fan to have. How do we work towards this?

*(And yes, I am just as if not more guilty than the next fan in this area. A Jake Long-less Michigan line at the beginning of '05? Well that sounds pretty good, let's give it a 4/5!)
While it's certainly not the only measure, to me the most telling measure of real talent (encompassing things both mental and physical) is how the professional scouts in the NFL regard it on draft day. And it's on this basis that I've been questioning this assessment of UM talent as being so superior to the teams they play. Note that I'm NOT saying that UM has no talent; I'm simply saying that our alleged talent superiority is just that: alleged.

Here are the draft-day results for the 03, 04, 05, and 06 NFL drafts for 5 Big Ten schools:

Iowa: 17 players selected
Purdue: 15 players selected
Wisconsin: 19 players selected
Ohio State: 31 players selected
Michigan: 16 players selected

Call me crazy, but I just don't see any evidence of the vaunted superiority of UM's talent, especially in comparison to Senator Tressel's bunch.
The NFL draft is not always the best measure of college talent, but it is a fairly good indicator of which players are the most physically dominant. A raw count over four years leaves a lot out. Let's do eight, which encompasses the entire Carr era, and give points based on draft position.

Edmonton Oiler fans often kick around charts like so...

...that clearly indicate an exponential relationship between pick placement and major-league success. The NFL has institutionalized such knowledge in the famous value sheet teams use when swapping picks back and forth; on it the first pick in the draft is six times more valuable than the first pick in he second round. So let's do this right: teams get points equal to the value on the sheet for draft picks. ... and holy God, that's a lot of calculator work. Plus the different values NFL teams place on certain positions -- centers hardly ever go in the first round, for instance -- could make the calculation even harder. I'll take a raincheck on it, but I can tell you that by eyeballing it that OSU would finish first by a wide margin, Michigan would be comfortably second, and then the other Big Ten contenders would trail the Big Two.

Perhaps in that light the streak against Ohio State makes some sense, but I believe that the NFL numbers, even in the four year period cited, show something of a talent edge for Michigan. But not a large enough one to warrant that sports-talk radio stupidity from above. The sad truth of the matter is that if the NFL metric is accurate, 9-3 is the record Michigan fans should expect and talk radio should be full of dudes saying "well, it was a good try."
Now I know that many would reply by saying, "well, UM has the talent, but they just don't know how to develop it at all." I have my doubts about certain aspects of the UM coaching staff; I don't have much confidence in the o-line coaching at the moment, and I think it's pretty clear our S&C is behind the times. The problem I have with the "Carr can't coach and develop" theme is that the logical result of this assessment is that UM would have relatively few players drafted, which is not the case. We simply don't have the superiority that so many allege.

Taking it further, I'm convinced by things I read on draft day and after that a big reason that UM does not have a draft-day superiority (and recent success against bowl teams and OSU) is very simple: speed. Maybe this is an indictment of Gittelson, but if there is any one physical attribute that is least improvable by coaching I would have to think it's speed. Every year you read about some 220 lb freshman somewhere who after 3 years is a 295 lb behemoth at right tackle, but I don't think any S&C guy is going to turn our typically ponderous linebackers (Prescott Burgess comes to mind) into legit 4.7 demons. Marginal improvements maybe, but that's it. Why else was Jarrett Irons not even able to last through an NFL training camp? Why did Marquise Walker not make it? What's the knock on Jason Avant? Why has Ian Gold made it, by contrast?

Here's a contrarian theory that I'll offer to have knocked down: Lloyd Carr is greatly OVER-rated as a recruiter of true talent, especially with regard to speed and quickness. Meaning that he's UNDER-rated as a game-day coach. I'm not saying he's actually one of the best 10 in the country, but that he's not the clueless dope so many say he is.
Well, to some extent I agree. The vast talent gap Michigan is supposed to have does not exist. The talent advantages Michigan has against Iowa and Wisconsin are incremental at best. And clearly Carr has some idea what he's doing: blah blah blah National Championship blah blah winning percentage blah.

However, a brief survey of Michigan horrors over the past few years shows losses decided by horrible special teams play, horrible late-game performance, and plain horrible luck. A speed deficiency never seemed to be the problem except in very specific cases, e.g. Markus Curry versus Keary Colbert or Vince Young versus Anybody. Michigan's losing streak against OSU seems directly attributable to getting our asses kicked on the lines -- something like 2.0 yards per carry for Michigan over the past two years while OSU was busy grinding out 99 yard drives in '04 -- and the similarly disappointing results against Notre Dame have been due less to overwhelming speed and more to plain old idiocy, bad luck, and the general bloody-mindedness of the universe. After all, one of the trademarks of Michigan football for the past decade or so is that there is always one utterly terrifying receiver on the field. He's 6'4", runs like a gazelle, has arrogance issues, &c. Is that not emblematic of team speed?

I might agree that we've been lacking speed on defense, but was Zach Kaufman's problem speed or general crappiness? How about Todd Howard? Or any safety we've put on the field for the past five years? (Engelmon/Barringer/Adams/Harrison evaluations still pending.)

As for Carr, his extreme stubbornness loses Michigan games. One would think that Carr would pull the plug on Wacky Iowa Punt Formation after the first two or three attempts were nearly blocked. Surely after the first actual block. But no: it took a second blocked punt and a humiliating loss for Carr to scrap it. Similarly, his loyalty to crappy coaches (Herrmann), crappy players (Massey), and crappy pooch punts has cost Michigan for years. The coaches put the defense in a position to fail time and again this year and then acted surprised when they failed.
A final example: UM won the Big Ten title in '03 and played a clearly superior and dominant USC team in the Rose Bowl. In truth, the game wasn't as close as the score, but we certainly were far more competitive than Oklahoma was a year later against USC.

Yet we were able to do all this with three senior defensive lineman (Heuer, Stevens, and Bowman) and one sophomore (Massey), none of whom even got a whiff on their draft days. I read some pre-draft scouting reports on Bowman and Heuer, and it was clear these guys were going to have a tough time landing free-agent spots, let alone get drafted. Yet somehow UM was able to win 10 games, and if it wasn't for our special teams meltdowns against Oregon and Iowa (perhaps thanks to Lloyd's inexplicable selection of the thoroughly unqualified Boccher as ST coach) we might have gone into the Rose Bowl undefeated.

So tell me how I'm wrong and that our talent really is 5-stars across the board. Maybe fodder for one of your articles?
All college teams not named after prophylactics have guys like Heuer, Stevens, Bowman, et al, who have no chance in the NFL but are able to not suck enough so that players like Braylon can bash some heads. That's where the NFL draft anaylsis falls short: it's one thing if those guys are Bowman and Heuer -- competent -- but another entirely if they're Massey or Courtney Morgan. This is where I think a large portion of Michigan's talent advantage lies in most years: they never have to put Jaren Hayes on the field. It was the 2005 team's misfortune to have three Hayes clones start (Henige, Lentz, and Massey) plus one guy who spent the year transforming from Optimus Prime to Hayes at random (Henne).

The Jaren Hayes effect combines with game theory errors I believe Carr makes on a regular basis to lend hope that in a couple years when some hot young thing is the new Michigan coach, there will be reason to move the expectation baseline away from 9-3. But of course I think that: I'm a fan.

I throw the question open to any and all commenters and bloggers: is Michigan's talent advantage overstated? What is a reasonable expectation for the team this year and in any given year? Will that expectation rise if some dreamy new coach takes the helm?