Let me start by saying up front that I have been one of the harshest critics of Al Borges since he was announced as Michigan’s Offensive Coordinator. That continues to this day for a number of reasons however; lest it be said that I am unwilling to give credit where it is due…
Far too often football coaches develop a “my way or the highway” philosophy. Many get caught up in the details of their own system and what they want for their team. They lose sight of one of the most important factors in football, flexibility. A friend of mine agreed to help coach a youth football team this fall. At the first coaches meeting the head coach informed the other coaches that they would be running the option as their primary offense. My friend was stunned since none of coaches had met or seen the team they would be coaching. “What if we have the next Peyton Manning, are we still going to run the option?” my friend asked. The answer was yes.
Al Borges took over the Michigan offense with some preconceived ideas of his own about the kind of system Michigan would run and the structure of the offense. One of those preconceived ideas included using one tailback as the primary ball carrier, giving that back 25 carries a game or more. Unfortunately for Borges, Michigan’s offensive roster did not include an every down work horse. Michigan has had to rely on a number of different backs to carry the load through the first 4 games. At his weekly press conference Borges said the following about the tailback situation:
“I still prefer a guy that can tote it and go. But if we can produce over a hundred yards rushing from our tailbacks between two guys, I can live with that. As long as there’s productivity at the position, and we’ll get into a little of that now, I’m not going to complain about it. It’s just not my preference.” (MGOBLOG)
Borges comments display what too few coaches are willing to practice, pragmatism. Every coach in the country has a system and preference for what they want in their teams. In most cases, coaches will insist on their system and their preference despite the state of their team or the course of the game. The best coaches are the pragmatic ones. In 2007, Michigan and USC faced off in the Rose Bowl. Both teams had strong running games and stout defenses. Throughout the first half both teams struggled to run the ball despite numerous attempts and the score was 3-3 at halftime. In the 2nd half one team displayed a pragmatic approach, the other did not. Michigan took the opening kickoff of the 2nd half, handed the ball off to Mike Hart 3 straight times and promptly went 3 and out. USC threw the ball 31 straight times in the 2nd half and went on to rout the Wolverines.
In the end productivity is what matters, not personal preference. Al Borges may have preferred riding one back throughout the course of the game, but his personnel does not allow for that. What Borges has learned during the course of this early season is that each back on the Michigan roster has a different set of skills. Picking one back and giving that back all the carries was not going to produce a good result. Borges wisely abandoned the idea fairly quickly. That is not something that most coaches do and it is something Michigan fans are not accustomed to.
The flexibility that Borges has shown with this offense has been his most impressive feature to date. While there are certainly areas where improvement is needed from a coordination standpoint, I give Borges a lot of credit for the pragmatic approach he has taken. Many coaches in a similar position would have abandoned the spread altogether, moved Denard Robinson to another position, and force fed their preferred system from the get go. Borges has not done that whether on directive from Brady Hoke or on his own. Certainly there are still intricacies to the spread offense that Borges needs to understand. Using the bubble screen to take advantage of the defense and force defenders outside of the box immediately comes to mind. With that said, Borges has shown more flexibility than others in the same position. Borges has begun to rely on the spread earlier and earlier in games, recognizing that Michigan’s offense is at its best in those situations.
As most can see every Saturday, Michigan’s offense still has a ways to go. If football had an ICU, the Michigan passing game would be at the top of the waiting list to get in. There is a lot that goes into having a good offense, being flexible is just one factor. Having a pragmatic approach is an important part of being highly successful nonetheless. Considering the fear many held that Al Borges would do nothing but force square pegs into round holes, the pragmatic approach Borges has taken is refreshing. Things aren’t perfect on the flexibility front, we still ask players to do things they aren’t completely comfortable with or perfectly suited for. We haven’t reach a point where the Borges is flexible enough to accept only being able to effectively run from the shotgun. Despite that, in comparison to the complete lack of flexibility that goes on at football programs all over the country from little league to the NFL, Michigan is ahead of the curve.