Friday, June 13, 2008

Spring Fish Wrap - Harbaugh's Heroes Edition

Ah yes, Captain Comeback. We remember him from his NFL days, sure. Not the most skilled guy around, lacking the gun for an arm or all-pro quickness. And Mike Ditka hated his guts (but what QB did Ditka actually like? He even hated the punky QB known as McMahon, even when he led them to 19-1 and a SB title!). But the guy was a gritty veteran that somehow dialed it up when things got hairy. Harbaugh shouldn't be undersold for his NFL prowess. Check it out, via the always-helpful Wikipedia:


For his NFL career, Harbaugh played in 177 league games with 140 starts. He completed 2,305 of 3,918 passes for 26,288 yards with 129 touchdowns. Particularly during his time with Indianapolis - such as when he led the Colts to come-from-behind wins over the Chiefs and Chargers in 1995-96 playoffs and a near upset over the No. 1 AFC seed Steelers - he earned the nickname "Captain Comeback" (the second player to be so nicknamed after Roger Staubach) for his ability to win games in the fourth quarter after overcoming significant point deficits.

Wow. I knew Harbaugh was a journeyman NFL QB, and had some "shining moments" here and there. But 26,000+ yards? Not too shabby.

That said, I was among many Pac-10 fans who raised eyebrows when Stanford hired him in late '06. Jim Harbaugh? Really?? Harbaugh was an assistant for some NCAA teams, then an NFL offensive assistant with the Raiders for a few years before he landed the head job at U of San Diego. That, my friends, is where he really showed his coaching chops. San Diego had a lousy program prior to his arrival, but afterwards? Extreme Makeover-time. They went an amazing 22-2 from '05 - '06, winning their league title and the "mid-major national title" in both seasons. Harbaugh in three years overall went 29-6. Clearly the guy could coach up 18-22 year olds, but the raised eyebrows deal was based on such little head coaching experience to land a coveted BCS job. Even if said BCS gig was 1-11 Stanford. Now I know some on the outside wondered about our choice of Paul Wulff, based on him never having a D-1 head job. But at least CPW had EIGHT years as a head coach at just one step below D-1, so, he wasn't nearly the unknown commodity that Harbaugh was in landing the Stanford deal.

A few weeks ago, I ran into an old acquaintance who is a former Stanford player. He played for the Cardinal in the early 90's, under Bill Walsh of all people. Anyway, we chatted about the program, and naturally, Harbaugh. I expected him to gush about everything Harbaugh has brought to the program, but I didn't get that vibe. He said that there were a lot of former players still close to the program that were concerned about the choice. Now he did say he's made a very favorable first impression among the former players and donors. The enthusiasm and energy are completely off the charts, just like it appears from the outside looking in. They also believe he has a good plan and things are headed in the right direction.

Speaking of the USC upset, how about one more look?



I love how out of it the announcers are. Not only do they yell "TOUCHDOWN USC!" when Stanford scores on 4th down, but the color announcer starts saying they are going to go for 2 after the score, even though it's a tie game!?! Gotta love the VS. network! Another parting gift from outgoing Pac-10 commish Tom Hansen.

But don't place that order on the marble statue of Harbaugh just yet.

Just like any other Pac-10 program, I guess Stanford fans are like the rest of us. They have a newly-renovated stadium, they are in a desirable place in the country and are an elite high-learning institution. Even with their recent struggles since their last winning season in '01, they have expectations of at least a bowl-eligible season, if not contending for an upper-division finish. I know the 1-11 record of 2006 stands out, as they were widely regarded as one of the worst Pac-10 teams of all-time that dreadful, dark year. But they did win 9 games as recently as 2001. They were almost bowl-eligible in 2005, going 5-6. And who could forget that the hated Trent Edwards led the Cardinal to wins over WSU in '04 and '05. Trent Edwards, Trent Edwards, TRENT EDWARDS (sort of like the Seinfeld episode where Steinbrenner explains why he traded Jay Buhner: "My scouts kept saying, Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps, KEN PHELPS!") So we're not exactly talking dumpster-diving here.

But as this Stanford acquaintance told me, hey, the kids are at least smart! Combine their brains with the passion and energy of Harbaugh, and they might have something special, sooner rather than later. And they have been very successful in other sports, such as hoops and even baseball, so, why can't they win again in football? Hard to argue with him at that point.

All that said, where are Harbaugh's Heroes today, spring fish-wrap style? Let's see.

2007: 4-8, 3-6 in the Pac-10, tied for 7th. But perhaps the biggest Pac-10 upset of all-time, winning at USC as a widely-regarded 40 or more point 'dogs.

Amazing catch to win it too. I don't think that video above did it enough justice.

Offensive Scheme: Traditional west-coast offense, with a running back, fullback and tight-end on typical plays. Another team that hasn't moved forward with the rage of the read-option shotgun attack. David Shaw was the offensive coordinator last year, a guy with a lot of NFL assistant experience and Harbaugh brought him to Stanford after Shaw was his OC at San Diego in '06. That said, it was a ROUGH first year. Stanford's offense was, well, brutal last year. 102nd running the ball, 105th in scoring offense, and overall, 107th in the nation in total offense. That's good for "bottom ten" in the nation. Part of those struggles can be laid at the feet of the QB's, as the starter heading into the '07 campaign, TC Ostrander, struggled with injuries and inconsistency.

He was ultimately replaced by the one that got away from WSU, of course, in Tavita Pritchard (by now you probably know the back-story here, but Pritchard is from Clover Park in Tacoma. Big deal, right? He's also Jack Thompson's nephew, and wanted to be a Cougar, but strangely wasn't really recruited much by the prior staff. Oh well.). Overall, an avert-your-eyes season with Stanford whenever they had the football. 2008 might not be quite as bad, but it could still be a big-time struggle on offense. Pritchard didn't have a stellar spring, and even though he started seven games last year, beat USC and is on top of the depth chart after practice sessions, it still sounds as though the job is open. Jason Forcier, a transfer from Michigan, will be in the mix to at least compete for the backup job, if not get some snaps with the 1's.

Top Offensive Player: WR Richard Sherman looks like the top returning offensive weapon. Sherman had a team-high 651 receiving yards, averaging a strong 16.7 yards per catch to go with 4 TD's. Sherman has really good quickness and size for the position (6-3, 190). Sherman was 2nd on the team in catches, but his yards per game were good enough for 10th in the entire Pac-10. The junior-to-be caught nine balls for 91 yards in their spring game, so he looks like he might be on the verge of a real break-out '08 season.

The scary part for Sherman is that he's suddenly the biggest man on campus at the WR spot. WR's Mark Bradford and Evan Moore combined for 90 catches last year, but both have finally moved on. Yet Sherman should still be a weapon to be accounted for on every snap. Some of the video I watched of him reminded me a little of Brandon Gibson in terms of body type and the same kind of hands and athleticism. Here's one TD catch he had vs. San Jose ST last year:




Defensive Scheme: Another 4-3 defense, but Stanford will attack and blitz to bring pressure. They good news is that they have nine starters back on defense, the most among Pac-10 teams for 2008. That includes their three best defensive linemen and their entire starting LB corps. But the bad news? They lost their d-coordinator Scott Shafer to Michigan. That is regarded as a loss, as Shafer is though of as a defensive guru with a very bright future. But that said, even with Shafer they were pretty bad on D last year. 107th against the pass, 98th in total defense. But one could put some of the blame on the feeble offense. Nothing deflates a defense more than constantly having to come back on the field after yet another three-and-out by the offense. If the offense can at least inch closer to average this year, the defense should benefit tremendously.

Top Defensive Player: Stanford has a couple of names that could work here, what with nine returning starters and all. But I'm going with LB Clinton Snyder. The senior is huge at 6-4, 241, and moves well for a linebacker of that girth. He had 96 tackles last year, averaging 8 per game, placing him 9th in the conference. He also had eight sacks, showing his all-around versatility. Here's an impressive sack-and-fumble recovery vs. Cal last year in the Big Game, a 20-13 win over the Berkeley Bears:




TOP Spring Questions:

1) With Pritchard starting so many games last year and having the ultimate upset of SC under his belt, why is their QB situation unsettled?


Not an easy answer, but I think the biggest thing is really two-fold: First, Pritchard didn't set the world on fire with seven starts last year, completing just 50% of his passes and nearly doubled his INT-to-TD ratio (9 int's, 5 TD's). He was also sacked 23 times. Statistically his best game was vs. our Cougs in Pullman, where he threw for 263 yards, but with zero TD's and two costly picks, one which was taken back to the house by Abdullah.

Second, Pritchard will already be a senior. This is only Harbaugh's second season in Palo Alto, and he may lean towards going younger to develop his program vs. going with Pritchard and then having to start over at the most important position on the field in 2009. There is some pressure to win immediately and improve on the 4 wins from '08, but if Harbaugh really wants to build for tomorrow he may try and go younger at QB.

2) Even with the QB issues, is there any chance they will improve on offense?

They probably will be better. After all, they do return seven starters on O, and on paper at least, that's a good thing. But while we highlighted Richard Sherman as the top offensive player, it must also be noted that 651 receiving yards isn't exactly All-Pac-10 material. When someone with 37 catches last year is labeled as your top returning star in Sherman, you have some issues. That said, the Cardinal running game might be a pleasant surprise in '08. They did finish 102nd in the nation in running the ball last year, so there is nowhere to go but up! But in the same breath, they do return their top four ball-carriers from last year, led by senior Anthony Kimble. Kimble had injury issues last year and played in only seven games, but he did average 4.4 yards per carry and had a team-high eight TD's on the ground. All told, the four returning rushers had over 1300 yards combined on the ground. Not fantastic by any stretch, but you can see that the depth in the backfield combined with a big loss at the WR positions will lead to an emphasis on the running game.

Most of all, the O-line looks to be much improved. They return four out of five starters up front, led by Alex Fletcher, an all-conference second-teamer at guard last year. This spring he slid over to center and will start there this fall. But the most talented of them all is left tackle Allen Smith, but he's coming off a knee injury. It remains to be seen if he'll be ready by the opener, but if he's ready to go, the Cardinal running game could be formidable.

WSU Football Blog Says: Stanford's schedule is a little odd. In a weird twist, they play their first two games against Pac-1o foes, opening at home vs. the Beavers on a Thursday night, August 28th game before heading to Tempe to take on the favored Sun Devils on September 6th. They don't play out of conference until at TCU on the 13th, their third game of the season. One interesting aspect for when we finally play them on November 1st is that both teams will be coming off bye-weeks.

So, can Harbaugh's lads take another step after an improved 2007? They did go from one win in '06 to four wins last year, with the highlight of course the USC stunner. There is some legit momentum behind the program right now. They even got a bump up in recruiting, landing a top-10 QB in Andrew Luck, a big Texas high school star who surprised many by casting his lot with Harbaugh. While they are headed in the right direction, 2008 will still be tough. Losing their WR depth will hurt, and the QB situation still looks unsettled. Outside of Sherman, they lack speed and play-makers on offense, and that could ultimately be their downfall. Combine all that with the idea that they have seven road games next season, and it's not a stretch to see another 4-win season. But their down times may not last much longer! Get 'em while you can.

ENJOY YOUR FATHER'S DAY WEEKEND!

2 comments:

medinabooster said...

sedihawk even manages to write something good about stanford? what next? You will probably pump up my dawgs as a bcs contender and locker as the top heismen candidate. we will be the surprise team this year. oh and you should write for politicians not sports. you could even convince this gop veteran to vote obama. never mind.

good job. I also agree that they will be better and better as time goes on. i don't know why your stanford friend is not thrilled with harbaugh. imagine the excitement and fear on your faces if harbaugh was coaching us right now. better that tw. start up the harbaugh to uw rumors.

Sedihawk said...

Good morning Medina. It's been a while. Are we still part of your morning routine?

Harbaugh to UW?? Ok, I admit it - I would be a little nervous about that one. I think you are on to something, that if Willingham fails to produce a winner and they go elsewhere, that they go in the rah-rah direction, ala Harbaugh. But I don't think Harbaugh is a dummy, and I think he could rebuild Stanford quickly. They have the stadium, they have the great reputation, they have the great location. I don't think they'll be down for long if he stays there.