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The Curious Case Of A Quarterback Controversy

Cade McNamara was hung out to dry by a coach who had no intentions of giving him a fair shot.

Michigan Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamara (12) warms up in the tunnel during the weather delay before the game against the Hawaii Warriors at Michigan Stadium Saturday, September 10, 2022. Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

11 years ago, the Michigan Wolverines beat Ohio State for the first time in nearly a decade. An Ohio State team going through one of the worst seasons in school history, finally loosened the grip it had on the Wolverines for the better part of a decade. Another ten years would pass before Ohio State would lose another game to them.

No matter the coach, no matter the quarterback, no matter the circumstance, Michigan simply couldn’t get the job done when it mattered most. They came close several times, at that —who can forget the two point conversion in 2013, or the double-overtime thriller in 2016, but no matter the situation, the Buckeyes simply knew how to get the better of their mortal enemy. Until last season.

The culmination of the 2021 year was one Michigan fans have been waiting for, one that may have been long overdue. Jim Harbaugh had been inching closer and closer to the bar, but simply couldn’t clear it. The start finally aligned in such a way that felt both cathartic and therapeutic at once. The hump was finally cleared! Michigan had finally achieved everything Harbaugh promised the team would accomplished when he took the job. They beat Ohio State. They won the Big Ten. They made the College Football Playoff (they got their collective behinds handed to them, but that’s another conversation for another day). The future was bright, and most of the pieces who made that possible, especially on the offensive side of the ball, were back.

This is where things take an interesting turn. Cade McNamara, the quarterback that exorcised Michigan’s demons, was back for another season with the team. One would assume that the guy who finally rid the Wolverines of that who ailed them for so long would all but guarantee himself the starting job the next season. Well, it’s complicated.

Behind McNamara was a highly talented guy known as J.J. McCarthy, who, on his own right, showed what kind of potential he had every time he took the ball. He was raw and could certainly benefit from sitting behind someone else as he learned the offense, but it wouldn’t be long before he really pushed for the job. And boy did he push!

That, my friends, is where the rainbows and butterflies end. When you have a quarterback as accomplished as McNamara on your roster, after you've tried and failed to get the right guy in the system, you don’t just give the job to someone else unless you’re damn sure the other guy is better. And, my friends, Harbaugh was damn sure McCarthy was better. He simply chose to pretend that he didn’t.

The formula is simple. In the era of the transfer portal, it’s pretty easy for players to find a new home if they know things aren’t going to work out at their current spot. After all, Michigan is only a few years removed from having to start John O’Korn due to quarterback depth issues. Harbaugh couldn’t risk having one of his two star quarterbacks transfer out after not getting the job, so he let the “battle,” if we want to call it that, linger well past the point where it should.

It makes perfect sense, if you think about it. Why would someone who genuinely believes they are in an open competition leave? Why would someone who was just named captain by his teammates go somewhere else, a place where he’d have to earn the respect of his all over again? Why, when he’s already proven to be more than capable of winning, would he relinquish the chance to prove it all over again? The answer, of course, is because he never had a chance to begin with.

And even if you don’t believe that theory, and you prefer a more altruistic approach, the alternative is a coach who was too much of a coward to make a decision in the offseason. Anyone with the ability to think critically saw (or heard, for the visually impaired among us), how much McNamara struggled in the two games Michigan has played so far. And why wouldn’t he? A job he thought was his turned out to be an open audition against real competition, architected in such away that set him up to fail.

McNamara played like a guy who knew that anything other than perfection would be deemed insufficient. And thus, the prophecy was self-fulfilled. A guy with the pressure of a thousand suns, and the frustration only seen in the depths of incel-land, played, and spoke, like someone who genuinely didn’t understand why he needed to prove himself after having already done so a season ago. Worse yet, Jim Harbaugh made McNamara go out there to get booed by his own fanbase for having the audacity to not be a 5-star former recruit, piling on to an already frustrating series of events that led to where we are today.

Now, let me be quite clear: This isn’t an argument for McNamara to keep the starting job. J.J. McCarthy did earn the starting job, and he showed it to the rest of the world against Hawai’i. Problem is, you didn’t need games against the likes of Colorado State and Hawai’i to make that decision. The Michigan defense very likely gave the offense substantially more resistance than what we saw the past two Saturdays. And, while not impossible, it’s unlikely that McNamara looked that much better against Michigan’s defense than he did against Colorado State and Hawai’i.

There also isn’t anything wrong, per se, with trying to give McNamara every possible chance to earn the job. After all, the school I root for finds itself in a similar, quarterback-sharing-time-like situation at the moment*. This is about a coach who, even when you give him the entire world’s worth of benefit of the doubt, decided to go about his competition in the worst way possible. The point is so salient it bears repeating: Jim Harbaugh had plenty of ways he could have handled his quarterback competition, and of all the possible ways, he chose the worst one.

That makes him nothing but a coward at best, and a diabolical maniac at worst.

*The difference, of course, is that everyone in the Penn State quarterback room is well aware that Clifford came back for the purpose of easing Allar’s transition into the college game, which is why Clifford is perfectly OK with his counterpart seeing plenty of action when the game is yet to be decided.