If you've been following Michigan's 2011 season or read any newspaper or fan articles, you would probably have realized there is a lot disdain regarding Denard Robinson's throwing abilities. In fact, at Michigan's last home game against San Diego State, I overheard several fans commenting on how Devin Gardner (Michigan's backup quarterback) should be thrust into the game because Michigan "doesn't have a quarterback, just a running back."
Now, I think most fans realize qb controversies and criticisms are nothing new (I actually posted a 3 part series on Denard Robinson as a qb: here), but the amount of negative criticism from both the media and Michigan "fans" (you have to question their "fan" status if they spend 4 quarters criticizing everything Michigan does) has reached a new all-time high against Denard after 4 "lackluster" games.
So, if we believe this criticism what should we think? Well, Denard has good rushing ability, but he can do NOTHING against good competition and has almost no passing ability. He also cannot last the length of a season because the rushing breaks him down physically. Now, I addressed most of these points in my Denard QB series (located here), but that was pre-season, I think that since roughly 1/3 of the season is over and the anti-Denard folks have taken over, it's appropriate to take a new analysis of his performance.
So, first let's take a quick look at his stats for 2011:
35 of 72 passes completed
48.6% completion percentage
624 passing yards
8.67 yards per attempt
6 passing tds
71 rushing attempts
552 rushing yards
7.8 yards per rush
5 rushing tds
At first glance, the rushing statistics are phenomenal, but the passing seems to be a little underwhelming. Completing less than half his passes and turns it over as much as he scores through the air? Wow....that's not a good sign. However, as I noted last summer and will repeat now, going off simple stats like this is NOT the best method for determining success either on the ground or through the air. It doesn't adjust for opponent difficulty, receiver failure, or luck.
Now, it may sound like I'm making excuses, but let's take a quick look at his "horrible" completion percentage. If a quarterback completes less than half his throws he must be doing bad, right? Well....not always. Arguably, the biggest factor this season in Denard's completion percentage has been his low number of passing attempts.
Theoretically, this should have no impact on Denard's completion percentage, but as we all know, that doesn't always work in real life. The reason is because there are so many factors impacting just one completion. Offensive blocking, defensive pressure, catching by the receiver, defensive coverage, and finally the quarterback's reads and throw. For example, in the game against San Diego State, Denard made a perfect pass to Koger, but it bounced right off his hands and resulted in an incompletion. Should Denard be blamed for this? Well of course not, he didn't drop the pass, but if you simply look at the stats, you don't realize this statistical problem.
This is even more important this season for Denard beccause he has been attempting such a low number of passes. I'll just use the Notre Dame game, since they are probably Michigan's best non-conference opponent. Denard attempted 24 passes (his only game this season with at least 20 attempts). However, in Michigan State's game against Notre Dame, Kirk Cousins attempted 53 passes. Cousins and Denard are not the best quarterbacks to compare, especially in varying game situations, but Cousins still attempted more than DOUBLE the amount of passes as Denard.
However, an even better comparison is Denard 2010 and Denard 2011 against Notre Dame. In 2010, Denard had his best game of the season against Notre Dame and attempted 40 passes. This means that against the same team a year later, Denard attempted 16 fewer passes. As I said earlier, this shouldn't impact percentage, but there's no doubt that any potential mistake either from Denard or a receiver would be much more significant with fewer passing attempts. An incompletion against Notre Dame last season would have lowered his completion percentage by just 2.5%, but this season an incompletion would have lowered it 4.2%. Clearly, this makes any one mistake much more important statistically.
So Denard's completion percentage isn't a good indicator this season, but what about his touchdown to interception ratio? He has 6 tds and 6 ints, certainly this shows that he doesn't have passing ability. However, as I pointed out last summer, this is not a good stat to use when analyzing Denard. It may work for most quarterbacks, but most quarterbacks typically don't score on the ground. If you've watched Michigan, you know that many times they will opt to run Denard in the red-zone instead of going to the air just because it's more effective.
For instance, Kirk Cousins currently has a +3 ratio, meaning he scored 3 more touchdowns than interceptions. Denard would be at 0, but if you include his rushing touchdowns he ends up at a +5 ratio. Although this is not the best quarterback comparison, it does illustrate that just because Denard uses a different method to score doesn't mean it's ineffective.
So if completion percentage and td/int ratio aren't good indicators, how is Denard doing this season? Well, first, let's not forget the team is 4-0 right now. It's hard to justify switching anything, if everything has gone well to this point. Along with that, let's not forget that against Michigan's toughest non-conference opponent this season, Notre Dame, Denard won Player of the Week honors and led the team to a comeback victory, relying much on the passing game (ended with a 193.3 qb rating for the Notre Dame game).
I can't sit here and claim Denard has NFL talent passing abilities or is the next Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, but what I can say is that the anti-Denard folks have certainly been basing a lot of their claims and solutions (Devin Gardner has NEVER started a collegiate game) on questionable data.
Along with that, there seems to be this perception against rushing quarterbacks. For some reason if Denard had more passing yards than rushing it means he's a good quarterback. As far as I'm concerned, 293 total offensive yards is still 293 total offensive yards. Until it's proven that passing yards counts more than rushing, I don't see the difference.
Denard will need to improve this season, particularly passing, but let's not jump on the anti-Denard bandwagon. He's still the defending Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year who is averaging 294 total yards a game. Along with this, he has yet to leave a game because of injury (hopefully it stays this way...please!) after 4 games when he left for significant periods in almost all the first 4 games last year. I've always enjoyed watching Denard and have learned to never doubt his abilities. I say go get 'em Shoelace.
Full Summer Denard QB Series:
Part I: "Sure He Can Run, But When He Has to Throw He Can't Do Anything"
Part II: "He Can Play Well Until He Hits The Red Zone"
Part III: "You Looked Good For Five Games Against Nobody"