I wasn’t alive yet when Rick Leach captivated the college football world as a true freshman 34 years ago. Until yesterday, I had no idea how ridiculously stupefying that feat actually was. True freshmen don’t start at quarterback for a reason. So, it’s always newsworthy when one manages to fool enough of the coaches to win the starting job. It’s just downright transcendent when one becomes so good so immediately that he becomes the identity of an already iconic program. Five years ago, Chad Henne started as a true freshman at Michigan. By all measures, he played well. In fact, he played so well that he is regarded as one of the rare exceptions—a “poster boy” if you will—for success as a true freshman starting quarterback. With all due respect to Henne, though, what we’re seeing from Tate Forcier is literally rewriting what is possible for a true freshman quarterback to accomplish. Henne was good because of his physical attributes. He could zip the ball through a meat grinder. He was also good because he had both the all-time leading receiver and leading rusher in the history of Michigan football at his side. Henne had enough in the toolbox early on to guide Michigan; but not lead Michigan. He allowed his teammates to make plays while Forcier makes them himself. Consider that Michigan is fielding one of its weakest receiving corps in recent memory and yet that hasn't hindered him in the slightest. That distinction is where Forcier’s greatness lies. What he has that even most seniors don’t is so ambiguous to describe and so obvious to see. It’s something that could not be taught by 1,000 teachers in 1,000 years.
All the might in Jeff George’s right arm could not account for Forcier’s matrix-like ability to “feel” the field. 90% of the quarterbacks who ever played in the NFL could not do what Forcier did on Michigan’s second-to-last offensive play; the one where LaTerryal Savoy tragically dropped the ball. In fact, if you’re wondering where the missing piece to George’s Hall of Fame career has been hiding, it’s in Tate’s head. It took just two games for Forcier to become a legend and a leader in Ann Arbor. On a day when the next great USC quarterback was coronated, he became the story of college football. I’ve heard Michigan fans say on more than a few occasions that “Tate will do for now” but Michigan will really start rolling once it gets a more dynamic player behind center. I hate to disappoint these people, but they might want to check into a hotel because they’re going to be waiting for a long, long time. Tate is your starting quarterback for the next four years. You should be so lucky.
If you don’t have Saturday’s game saved on DVR, then I extend my condolences. It was a performance worthy of the most successful Broadway stage. Forcier was a magician or a maestro or whatever metaphor you want to use. What I’m still undecided on is what part of his performance was the most astonishing. I can’t decide if it was his cat-like quickness or his ability to feel without feeling a collapsing pocket. I don’t know if it was fitting the ball into space that seemed geometrically impossible or his ability to shrug off misreads and interceptions like they were the learning experiences that they were. The sheer number of breathtaking plays that Forcier laid on the Irish was astounding. If you have the luxury of watching the game again, do yourself a favor and count the number of times he escaped from the pocket and threaded a needle through a needle to extend a drive. It was mesmerizing the first time I saw it all live in the stadium but it requires a second viewing to truly appreciate how often and how beautifully he altered the game.
(Jump to the 5:40, watch for two minutes, and marvel.)
I wrote last week that—in the face of early success—Rich Rodriguez deserves patience. It’s not his fault that his team is better than anyone expected much earlier than anyone expected. He should be applauded for the rate of progress rather than saddled with new expectations. Saturday hasn’t changed my perspective. This season has the potential to be one that will be remembered forever not because of a win or a bowl but because it was immaculately conceived. Rodriguez has returned glory to the Michigan program in the face of a negativity storm that would humble even the most accomplished of political degenerates. So, I will gladly refrain from extrapolating Saturday’s success over the remainder of the season. I’m not even the slightest bit tempted to do so. Michigan is back and Rodriguez is so obviously a “Michigan Man.” Asking for more than that from 2009 is dangerously tempting the limits of fate and karma and whatever other cosmic forces are out there.
What I don’t mind doing is emphasizing just how satisfied I am with the present. I don’t care what happens in two or three weeks. I don’t care what bowl game waits. I just want to watch Michigan play football. At some point as I was very slowly coming down from my suspended state of euphoria on Saturday night, a question entered my mind and an answer followed nearly simultaneously. It wasn’t an important question but the answer does more to ease the pain from last season than any case of amnesia could ever do. Here it is: if given the choice, would you go back in time 18 months and secure a commitment from Terrell Pryor, or would you leave the present unchanged? There’s no doubt in my mind that Pryor is going to follow Vince Young’s path, stride for lengthy stride, to the NFL. Pryor is physically gifted beyond design. So far, though, that’s where it ends. Tate Forcier has already shown more in just two games than Terrell Pryor has in two years. Pryor will put it all together and it will be to the detriment of Michigan but if you’re looking for my answer, I hid it in the title of this post. Who would’ve thought that it would ever be possible to look back on the failure to secure a commitment from Pryor—something that has been incessantly referenced by pundits as a huge misstep by Rodriguez—and look at it as a blessing? Not me.
I don’t know what this season has in store for Michigan. I don’t know how good this team is and, frankly, I don’t care. I spend more time being frustrated by totally meaningless football games than I could ever care to admit. Miraculously, that frustration is gone right now and I’m not in a hurry to go looking for it. I often wonder why I put myself through the emotional turbulence of sports. I think it’s because I know that under the right conditions awaits a state of total satisfaction that money could never buy. I don’t know how long it’s going to last but I have found that state. In a sport cursed by its brevity, I realize this utopia will ultimately be fleeting like Tate Forcier on 4th and 3. It would be great if it lasted forever but I’m just thankful that my inexplicable sports fetish has yielded a return. I can’t say that I saw that coming walking into the Big House on Saturday.