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History says Michigan’s “Harbaughfense” will be more explosive in Year 2

September 1st, 2016 by Josh DeMille


Harbaugh

Last week we looked at how Don Brown’s scheme might affect Michigan’s defense. We learned that while it is indeed very aggressive, it is not a high-risk defense. I surmised that we can expect Michigan’s defense to eliminate roughly one big play allowed per game, which would theoretically result in three to seven points fewer per game, potentially taking an already very good Michigan defense into the elite stratosphere.

So of course this got me thinking about how Jim Harbaugh’s offense might develop from Year 1 to Year 2. Sadly, CFBStats does not have big play stats prior to 2010 so I couldn’t compare all of his Stanford teams. But we can still look at the 2010 team, or FULL Harbaugh as I’m going to call it, because it was his fourth season there and he had fully implemented his system with mostly his players. For good measure, and to give us a better idea of year to year progress, I also looked at his first two years in San Francisco and the year prior to his arrival.

Here is what I came up with.

The 2010 Stanford Cardinal offense averaged 5.8 big run plays per game (27th nationally) and 3.7 big pass plays per game (18th) for a total of 9.5 big plays per game (21st). The Cardinal’s big play percentage (total big plays divided by total offensive plays) was 13 percent, which was good for 22nd nationally. Not bad for something that looks like an offense from 1973, eh Joey Galloway? Oh, and by the way, Stanford went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl that season, dominating Virginia Tech 40-12 — the most points the Hokies allowed all season.

Stanford’s 2010 toxic differential (big plays for, minus big plays against, plus turnover margin) was 3.5 on a per game basis, which was good for 16th nationally. The BCS title game participants that year, Oregon and Auburn, were tied for second in toxic differential at 6.1. Teams that are around at the end tend to rank highly in this metric.

Obviously, these numbers don’t give us much context on year to year improvement without comparing them to his earlier years at Stanford but I’ll go out on a limb and say he made significant improvements across the board from 2006 (pre-Harbaugh) to 2010.

Now on to his San Francisco years. Disclaimer: The stats I will use here consider big runs as 10 or more yards, as we’ve already used, however they use 25 or more yards for big pass plays as that is what the NFL stats consider big pass plays. I also understand that comparing college to NFL is not an insignificant factor but it will illustrate my point just the same: Harbaugh’s teams get drastically better Year 1 to Year 2 and beyond. No, this is not an unheard of concept, but people like Paul Finebaum didn’t get the memo. I assume he’s an avid reader of this blog.

Side note: I did not break these stats down into per game as I did with the college stats as all NFL teams play the same amount of regular season games.

The season before Harbaugh arrived, the 49ers had 40 big run plays (24th in the league) and 36 big pass plays (5th) for a total of 76 big plays (17th) with a big play percentage of 8.04 percent (15th). In other words, the running game did not generate many big plays but the passing game did. Overall, the Niners were a very middle of the road team in terms of generating big plays.

Enter James Joseph Harbaugh. The 2011 49ers had 56 big run plays (9th) and 28 big pass plays (19th) for a total of 84 big plays (13th) with a big play percentage of 8.46 percent (12th). A massive improvement in the run category, a regression in the passing game, but overall it was a jump up just outside the top third of the league.

Year 2 of Harbaugh — 2012 — saw the 49ers break out with 81 big run plays (2nd) and 33 big pass plays (11th) for a total of 114 big plays (2nd) with a big play percentage of 11.76 percent, also good for 2nd best in the league. Year 2 saw another big improvement in the run game as well as the pass game.

To recap, from 2010 (pre-Harbaugh) to 2012, our guy took San Francisco from 24th in big run plays to 2nd in just two seasons. The passing game saw a dip from 5th to 19th before recovering back to 11th. And the overall big play percentage went from a middling 15th to a whopping 2nd. If that’s what a 1973 offense looked like, I’ll take that any day!

Standard caveats apply, but let’s look at San Francisco’s toxic differential from that time period too. In case you forgot, toxic differential is big plays for minus big plays against plus turnover margin — a useful measure to help further see the big picture.

Harbaugh’s first three seasons in San Francisco
Year Toxic Diff. Big Play Diff. T/O Margin Result
2010* 11 (9th)* +12* -1* Missed playoffs*
2011 56 (1st) +28 +28 NFC Championship Game
2012 72 (1st) +63 +9 Super Bowl Appearance
*Pre-Harbaugh, no playoff appearances in 9 seasons before Harbaugh arrived

I’m no rocket scientist but I think those numbers and results are pretty solid.

What does all this mean for Michigan? A few things. First, it means that Michigan’s offense is very likely to improve in the big play stat categories. Here’s a look at their 2015 offensive big play stats.

In 2015, Michigan had 3.6 big run plays per game (118th) and 3.7 big pass plays per game (40th) for a total of 7.3 big plays per game (100th) with a big play percentage of 10.49 percent (98th). Big plays in the passing game were solid but big plays in the running game and overall left much to be desired.

It won’t be hard to improve upon the pedestrian rushing and overall numbers, but I’m not so sure we can expect significant jumps, especially in the running category. Why not? For as much as I like De’Veon Smith he is not an elite running back. No one will confuse him with Toby Gerhart or Stepfan Taylor and most definitely not Frank Gore. I do think we will see improvement (only eleven teams had fewer big run plays per game than Michigan last year) but I don’t think they’ll crack the top 50. But as I said last week, an improvement of one big play more per game could, in theory, yield more points.

In conclusion, as if we didn’t already know, Jim Harbaugh’s teams get much better (what a novel concept) year to year. Now while I don’t expect this to be an explosive offense I fully expect the man who attacks each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind to take his offense to the next level. Combine that with a high-pressure, low-risk defense, and it backs up the expectation that Michigan could be in for a very special season.