Tate Forcier's grip on the starting position may well yet prevail, but first he will have to weather the vagaries of success that accompany erratic freshman play. After his game-winning touchdown against Notre Dame, it looked as if that success would come in a single garish outburst of emotions, but laid low by disappointments, Michigan fans will now settle for a slow, grinding, workmanlike sense of competency.
Fans are still hopeful that Forcier can vindicate himself and wage a victorious war against the Buckeyes, which would be a clear victory for civilization, but Denard Robinson represents something much more radical, a true firebrand with a proclivity for leaving defenders behind at their posts.
In a way that is particularly exciting, he subverts the Michigan ethos while becoming part of it. The clamor and exuberance building behind Robinson is similar to the one that followed Forcier last year. But fans will ultimately be responsive to the quarterback who wins, no matter who it is.
Unfortunately, the battle for the starting quarterback position is likely to last well beyond the home opener against Connecticut on September 4. Until a winner emerges, the position is less of a guarantee and more of a stipulation. As a palliative gesture, the opening starter is merely symbolic. Both quarterbacks will receive ample time to showcase their abilities, and after the opening drive, their opportunities will be equitable.
Yet, I am inclined to believe that it should be Forcier's job until he does something to lose it, and conversely, Robinson does something to elevate himself. If Robinson eventually dethrones him, then it won't be a forced quarterback change. It will just happen. Everybody will know it if that moment comes, leaving little room for potential controversy.
Last year, Robinson could be brought in while the situation still retained some pretenses of desperation, but over time that will become more and more difficult, because at some point a benching will cease to become a teaching moment and may simply consign Forcier permanently to the sideline.
Perhaps it is not unexpected that a freshman quarterback struggled against good competition—Michigan played three of the top 10 defenses last year as measured by points per game—but many of those chronic pitfalls felt like ineffectual flailing, which he will have to learn to avoid. Otherwise, his continual equivocation will only cast further aspersions upon him.
The nature of Forcier's fate is already beginning to take on the aura of moral culpability. If he is demoted to permanent backup, then his attitude during the offseason will be to blame. This is the fertile province for backseat commentary and pop psychology, yet clearly his attitude matters, and it still remains to be seen whether the off-season experience was formative or destructive for his psyche.
I don’t necessary deride him for his performance against Iowa, in which Adrian Clayborn tried to ensure that Forcier’s organs would be donated early to science, but his attitude during and following the game seemed unregenerate even as the losses mounted. After all, losses can breed pride as much as wins by making a person defensive and unaccountable, ready to deflect blame.
Lately, Forcier has been saying all the right things, having re-earned his wings, but even if his character has grown, it should not come at the expense of valuable practice time with the team. Michigan cannot afford for Forcier to be lost in the wilderness for any length of time.
And yet it would be a shame to see him lose the starting position now, just when it seems as if he has finally come around. He may still make the tremendous strides in the correct direction that are inherent for an experienced sophomore coming off an embittered freshman campaign.
In the second year both quarterbacks will draw obvious comparisons to Rodriguez’s most famous protégé, Pat White, but neither has quite the same career arc. Forcier has similar passing stats and Robinson has similar rushing stats, lending some viability to the old joke that Michigan would have the perfect quarterback if only there existed a Denard Forcier.
White had a better passer rating in his first year than Forcier (132 vs. 128) and also towers over Robinson's 91, but White bloomed in his second year with a 159 passer rating. Forcier is more likely to reach those heights, and long term he represents the better hope for consistent quarterback play.
Robinson is much less refined, and part of that is mental. Last year against Iowa his late game interception was predictably forthcoming. One of the marks against him is his proclivity for forcing balls. It is hard to hold some of Robinson's failures against him—after all, he averaged fewer than three passes a game—but his passing game is more likely to be mitigated than truly unleashed.
As Mgoblog showed, Rodriguez's offense was at its best when it rallied around the rushing quarterback archetype. Robinson may represent a chance to break irrevocably from the past and adapt the Rodriguez offense in its totality, or that may have to wait for Devin Gardner, but Tate Forcier can certainly help the program develop toward that end.
If Rodriguez is fired, then Michigan's football program might find itself in the halfway house between the old and the new—and in worse shape than the state Bill Callahan left Nebraska in.