Thursday, July 9, 2009

Revisiting Former Michigan Defensive Coordinator Scott Shafer

I seem spend an awful lot of time on this blog looking in the rear view mirror, over-analyzing the living crap out of stuff that happened in the past. I would apologize for this if past events were not so damn interesting with 20/20 hindsight.

Rich Rodriguez himself frequently quotes the classic line of the Disney movie “Lion King”:

“It doesn't matter. It’s in the past”.

Rodriguez is right. Dwelling on the past is unwise. You’ll miss what’s happening in the here and now. Oh and there’s probably more than a few opportunities and threats up ahead, by the way. Looking backward, one can quickly forget to make important adjustments and make things right next time around. The least anyone can hope to do is learn something from the past. This rule applies whether you’re a national championship caliber college football team like the Florida Gators, or a 3-9 Michigan Wolverines football team.

Great Expectations
Soon after accepting the head coach position at Michigan, we know that Rich Rodriguez decided to fire all of Lloyd Carr’s staff save one, running backs coach Fred Jackson, and bring in his own guys. The services of Michigan’s defensive coordinator Ron English were not retained. Instead Rodriguez brought in Scott Shafer. Shafer had served as a defensive secondary coach and defensive coordinator at several division 1 schools including Northern Illinois, Illinois, Western Michigan and Stanford.

The responses to the Shafer hire in the college football community were universally positive. Stanford head football coach Jim Harbaugh (Shafer’s previous boss) described him as "One of the most creative and innovative defensive minds in the country." As we’ll explore below in some detail, there were some very compelling reasons why Mr. Harbaugh would hold such an opinion.

In early 2008, it was said that Shafer would bring his own opportunistic brand of defensive play to Ann Arbor in the form of a higher-risk, 4-3 “flex” defensive set that would blitz frequently and force gobs of turnovers. Wolverine football fans suddenly grew nostalgic from this news, reminiscing about those hard-hitting, bulwark Michigan defenses of the past - those coached by Bill McCartney, Gary Moeller and former head coach Lloyd Carr. Sacks galore, interceptions, fumble recoveries and memorable reversals in game momentum that gave 98% of Ann Arbor residents acute laryngitis. It all sounded so familiar and welcoming.

But perhaps what excited Michigan fans most about Scott Shafer at the time was the sort of “coming out of nowhere” results at places like Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Stanford. This is made most evident when we review the numbers during Shafer’s career. These were football programs that seemed to have been literally “switched back on” defensively upon Shafer’s arrival. From these great stories, it was believed that Shafer, combined with Rodriguez’s offensive ingenuity, would bring the much needed breath of fresh air to the “stale” Michigan football program.

This was an interesting slice of time, in my view, that many fellow UM fans, I suspect, would just as soon forget. I took a closer look at some of the key defensive achievements during Scott Shafer’s career as a defensive coordinator up to his brief stint at Michigan, including:

• Total Defense
• Turnovers Gained
• Scoring Defense
• Rushing Defense
• Passing Defense
• Sacks (I only found data from 2005 on)

So just what do I intend to prove by revisiting former defensive coordinator Scott Shafer, who presided over the worst defensive performance at Michigan in a generation?

I wanted to show that it was reasonable for expectations of Scott Shafer to be very high as he joined Rodriguez’s football staff for the 2008 season. High expectation always comes with this territory at Michigan - the college program with the most football victories on the face of the planet. At Michigan championships are won with great defense first. I also wanted to remind people that Scott Shafer was a proven, successful defensive coordinator well before he arrived at Michigan. There was every reason to believe that this guy would take Michigan’s talented roster of defensive players, shape them into exponentially better football players, and turn the Wolverine defense into something goddamned scary on the gridiron.

Of course, we all know this did not happen. And there is plenty of speculation as to why it did not. Some state that Shafer never meshed well with Rodriguez and the rest of the new Michigan football coaching staff. Some refer to Shafer’s accountability for the defensive team discipline, which was sub-par by Michigan’s traditional standards (missed assignments, giving up many big plays, inappropriate sideline behavior). Others mention that Shafer was way too hands-off in the first place, that he coached the defense from the booth and would have been much more effective coaching the young, inexperienced Michigan team from the sidelines. Still others try to excuse Shafer because of the horrendous performance of Rodriguez’s first year offense, which frequently placed near impossible demands on Shafer’s defensive unit game after game.

In my view, Michigan’s 2008 results were probably a function of all of the above. There’s a lot to consider here.

Scott Shafer as Huskie DC
Huskie head coach Joe Novak certainly took his sweet time to turn things around in DeKalb, but the UNI administration apparently had patience-a-plenty, or they didn’t know any better. Well either way, it turned out ok, because Novak gradually built Northern Illinois football into a respectable football program that no one would take lightly anymore. Scott Shafer was there with Novak from the beginning, first as the Huskies’ defensive secondary coach from 1996-1999, and then as defensive coordinator from 2000 to 2003. Checking out UNI’s defensive numbers as defensive coordinator, it’s easy to see why Shafer’s efforts early in his career would raise more than just a few eyebrows:

Total Defense

YearTeamTeam RecordTotal Defense Rank
2000Northern Illinois6-553rd
2001Northern Illinois6-570th
2002Northern Illinois8-473rd
2003Northern Illinois10-216th

Turnovers Gained

YearTeamTurnovers GainedTurnovers Gained Nat. Rank
2000Northern Illinois2723rd
2001Northern Illinois2167th
2002Northern Illinois2840th
2003Northern Illinois3114th

Scoring Defense

YearTeamPts Allowed/GameScoring Def Rank
2000Northern Illinois25.560th
2001Northern Illinois26.568th
2002Northern Illinois24.849th
2003Northern Illinois21.531st

Rushing Defense

YearTeamRush Yrds/GameRush Def Rank
2000Northern Illinois150.760th
2001Northern Illinois157.666th
2002Northern Illinois131.838th
2003Northern Illinois140.355th

Passing Defense

YearTeamPass Yrds/GamePass Def Rank
2000Northern Illinois210.0953rd
2001Northern Illinois227.8269th
2002Northern Illinois254103rd
2003Northern Illinois162.55th

Notable Wins




2002Beat Wake Forest 7-6, Beat Miami(OH) 7-5, Beat Bowling Green 9-3

2003Beat Maryland 10-3 (OT), Beat at Alabama 4-9,

Northern Illinois’ 2003 season would be Novak’s finest. Shafer’s Huskie defense was spectacular in almost every respect except perhaps rushing defense that year. Over his 4 year career at UNI we see steady improvement in scoring defense and forced turnovers, while the passing defense seemed to worsen each year until the glorious 2003 season. With Shafer’s defensive unit and Novak’s improved running game, UNI knocked off Alabama on the road and Maryland. (This was not the best ‘Bama team ever seen, but this WAS the same Maryland team that dismantled WVU twice in one year 34-7 and 41-7 in the Gator Bowl.

Shafer left UNI to become the defensive secondary coach for Ron Turner at Illinois in 2004. The Illini proceeded to go 3-8 in 2004. Turner was fired at season’s end. Replacement coach Ron Zook told Shafer to hit the road.

Scott Shafer as Broncos DC
Shafer landed softly, however, into the welcoming arms of new MAC coach Bill Cubit of Western Michigan in 2005. The Broncos had just fired long-standing head coach Gary Darnell who suffered 4 straight losing seasons (2001-2004) in Kalamazoo. Shafer would be replacing former WMU defensive coordinator J.C. Harper (current head coach at Stephen F. Austin). A lot has been written about Bill Cubit’s explosive, +400 YPG offenses at WMU. Cubit and Shafer would introduce a major step change at Western Michigan that is still being marveled today by many in the college football media. The Broncos’ national defensive rankings under Scott Shafer broke several school records. We see a dramatic turnaround in defensive performance the moment Shafer arrives at work:

Total Defense

YearTeamTeam RecordTotal Defense Rank
2004WMU (DC J.C. Harper)1-10115th
2005WMU (DC Scott Shafer)7-4108th
2006WMU (DC Scott Shafer)8-511th

Turnovers Gained

YearTeamTurnovers GainedTurnovers Gained Nat. Rank
2004WMU (DC J.C. Harper)1697th
2005WMU (DC Scott Shafer)2532nd
2006WMU (DC Scott Shafer)343rd

Scoring Defense

YearTeamPts Allowed/GameScoring Def Rank
2004WMU (DC J.C. Harper)39.6114th
2005WMU (DC Scott Shafer)32.1829th
2006WMU (DC Scott Shafer)19.939th

Rushing Defense

YearTeamRush Yrds/GameRush Def Rank
2004WMU (DC J.C. Harper)215.4108th
2005WMU (DC Scott Shafer)147.556th
2006WMU (DC Scott Shafer)76.16th

Passing Defense

YearTeamPass Yrds/GamePass Def Rank
2004WMU (DC J.C. Harper)165.18108th
2005WMU (DC Scott Shafer)303.1116th
2006WMU (DC Scott Shafer)199.3157th


YearTeamSacksSacks Nat. Rank
2004WMU (DC J.C. Harper)??
2005WMU (DC Scott Shafer)3123rd
2006WMU (DC Scott Shafer)461st

Notable Wins



2005Beat So. Illinois 9-4, Beat Bowling Green 6-5, Beat Central Mich 6-5, Beat UNI 7-5

2006Beat at Virginia 5-7, Beat UNI 7-6,

While there may have been fewer victories of note while at WMU, the statistics of Shafer’s WMU defenses, particularly total defense, turnovers, sacks and rushing defense were impressive in a conference that by this time was notorious for being rather “WACish” (i.e. lots of offense, not much defense).

The Cardinal DC
Following the 8-5 season at WMU in 2006, Schafer joined Jim Harbaugh at Stanford for the 2007 season. How did Harbaugh choose Shafer? He discovered the internets. Harbaugh was replacing former Cardinal head coach Walt Harris who had finished 1-11 in 2006. Shafer would be take over the job of former Stanford defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff. Like Western Michigan, the Stanford job from the outset looked to be a major overhaul project. On paper, at least, it would not be difficult for Shafer to improve upon the god awful defense exhibited by Stanford the prior year:

Total Defense

YearTeamTeam RecordTotal Defense Rank
2006Stanford (DC A.J. Christoff)1-1197th
2007Stanford (DC Scott Shafer)4-898th

Turnovers Gained

YearTeamTurnovers GainedTurnovers Gained Nat. Rank
2006Stanford (DC A.J. Christoff)15108th
2007Stanford (DC Scott Shafer)2639th

Scoring Defense

YearTeamPts Allowed/GameScoring Def Rank
2006Stanford (DC A.J. Christoff)31.4108th
2007Stanford (DC Scott Shafer)28.365th

Rushing Defense

YearTeamRush Yrds/GameRush Def Rank
2006Stanford (DC A.J. Christoff)210.5117th
2007Stanford (DC Scott Shafer)169.377th

Passing Defense

YearTeamPass Yrds/GamePass Def Rank
2006Stanford (DC A.J. Christoff)17723rd
2007Stanford (DC Scott Shafer)266.17107th


YearTeamSacksSacks Nat. Rank
2006Stanford (DC A.J. Christoff)14111th
2007Stanford (DC Scott Shafer)3811th

Notable Wins



2007Beat No. 1 at USC 11-2, Beat Cal 7-6

In almost every individual category, Stanford’s defense excelled - and not by just a little bit. It is interesting to note, that in terms of total defense, Stanford actually worsened under Schafer. Stanford’s total yards surrendered per game in 2006 was 387.5 (5.51 ypp) but 435.5 per game in 2007 (5.82 ypp).

But when your team “comes out of nowhere” beating No. 2 ranked USC on national television in the Coliseum (USC was favored by 41 and had a 35-1 record at home up to that point), and then you end up shocking your top rival Cal, and all the while you increase Stanford’s overall sack total by an unheard of factor of 3 from the previous year, well, let’s just say you’re gonna get noticed. All of this helped raise Schafer’s stock considerably as a proven defensive coordinator.

The Wolverine DC
Schafer entered a very different situation at Michigan. Although Michigan defensive staffs since 1998 were now infamous for wholesale incompetence when it came to holding a candle against read option spread offenses with mobile quarterbacks, the Wolverines still managed to field comparatively high ranked defensive units by both Big Ten and national standards. Shafer would replace Ron English, who had demonstrated a strong start as Michigan’s defensive coordinator for the first eleven games of 2006. However, Michigan’s defensive performance seemed to erode down the stretch versus opponents like Ball State, Ohio State, USC. This lackluster play continued versus Appalachian State and Oregon in 2007. With 7 returning starters for 2008, it was believed (incorrectly) that Michigan’s team offered more tools for Scott Shafer to work with than he ever possessed at UNI, WMU or Stanford.

The on-field results at Michigan were surprising:

Total Defense

YearTeamTeam RecordTotal Defense Rank
2007Michigan (Ron English)9-424th
2008Michigan (Scott Shafer)3-967th

Turnovers Gained

YearTeamTurnovers GainedTurnovers Gained Nat. Rank
2007Michigan (Ron English)2920th
2008Michigan (Scott Shafer)2077th

Scoring Defense

YearTeamPts Allowed/GameScoring Def Rank
2007Michigan (Ron English)21.423rd
2008Michigan (Scott Shafer)28.984th

Rushing Defense

YearTeamRush Yrds/GameRush Def Rank
2007Michigan (Ron English)156.858th
2008Michigan (Scott Shafer)136.9250th

Passing Defense

YearTeamPass Yrds/GamePass Def Rank
2007Michigan (Ron English)178.858th
2008Michigan (Scott Shafer)23087th


YearTeamSacksSacks Nat. Rank
2007Michigan (Ron English)3233rd
2008Michigan (Scott Shafer)2933rd

Notable Wins


2007Beat PSU 9-4, Beat NW 6-6, Beat Illinois 9-4, Beat Purdue 8-5, Beat MSU 7-6, Beat Florida 9-4

2008Beat Wisconsin 7-6, Beat Minnesota 7-6

There were games where Michigan’s defense played well enough to forgive the anemic performance of Wolverine offense (Miami, Wisconsin and Minnesota games). In other games, one wondered if the repertoire of opponent big plays would ever come to an end. Michigan’s defense in 2008 did not “come out of nowhere” with incremental aggressiveness. There were fewer sacks and fewer turnovers gained from the prior year.. Michigan’s scoring defense worsened considerably. While the rushing defense did improve under Shafer: 157 yards per game in 2007 versus 137 yards per game in 2008 (50th rank nationally in 2007 to 58th!), this would be completely cancelled out by the sieve that was the Michigan pass defense: 179 yards per game in 2007 to 230 yards per game in 2008 (8th rank nationally in 2007 to 87th!). Poor emphasis on pass defense appears to have been a recurring theme for all of Shafer’s defenses at WMU, Stanford and Michigan. This might be the resulting tradeoff when you utilize a defensive set that involves incessant blitzing.

Lessons Learned
We know the rest of the story. The three and nine record, Shafer’s resignation, and another new sheriff in town named Greg Robinson.

I don’t profess to know all of the reasons why Scott Shafer did not succeed at Michigan. I do know this: Michigan returned an experienced defensive line, and known trouble-spots at linebacker and a vulnerable secondary. As coach of the defense, one would have hoped Schafer could have easily identified Michigan’s obvious weaknesses right off the bat, fortified those areas appropriately, or taken some other corrective action, just as he appeared to have done while at UNI, WMU and Stanford.

Michigan’s youth, poor depth at key positions, poor tackling fundamentals and angles of pursuit, poor coverage communications, and lack of chemistry no doubt all contributed to the 3-9 record. But weren’t such challenges and attributes also present at UNI, WMU and Stanford? They must have been present there too.

Perhaps Shafer recognized all of the defensive team weaknesses, but was not given freedom to make the changes he felt were needed? Or perhaps he used trial-and-error to implement such changes only to encounter significant resistance from players – and/or from fellow assistant coaches?

I don’t know.

My suspicion is that faith was lost in Shafer early on in the season, and the situation only worsened as the year progressed. I welcome readers to offer their own views.

When I look at the numbers and still consider Scott Shafer to be a good defensive coordinator. He may be the kind of coach who excels under certain circumstances like those present at UNI in 2000, WMU in 2005 and Stanford in 2007 – i.e. recovering programs under reconstruction, where the pressure to succeed is still high, but for different reasons: Trying to build something exciting and new out of nothing. The new construction project that lies before Scott Shafer today at Syracuse might be right up his alley.

More power to him.

A Final Word
The Scott Shafer episode reminded me that

a. College football is a business.

b. We live in a Drive-Thru society.

As Americans we seem to feel entitled to ours, and we want it now. Instant gratification - or there will be consequences. There are certainly some merits to this within our American experience. But there are drawbacks as well.

In college football, the gradual and time-consuming rebuilding projects that took place at Indiana under Bill Mallory, or Kansas State under Bruce Snyder, or Iowa under Hayden Fry, tend to get short shrift in today’s media. Hayden Fry’s first years at Iowa were 5-6 (1979) and 4-7 (1980). In year three Iowa beat UCLA, Nebraska and then Michigan in Ann Arbor, and was playing in it’s first Rose Bowl in something like 30 years. By today’s threshold of administrative patience, Fry would probably have been kicked out on his ass after the 1980 season.

Some wanted the very same for Shafer and Rodriguez after last fall.

My petition would be that before any more boos start raining down on Greg Robinson and this young Michigan defense this coming fall, maybe fans could pause for a second and consider what Scott Shafer said when he first accepted the offer to come coach at Michigan:

"It was tough leaving Stanford. Working with Coach (Jim) Harbaugh, we had a blast. I felt like we were doing something special there. But I'm really excited to be here. There are a few jobs you drop everything for, and this is one of them. My wife, Missy, my family - they're fired up to be here."

I wish Mr. Shafer great success in the future.


Andy said...

Nice article. I suspect his leaving was due (mostly) to not meshing with the other coaches and maybe the team. While I don't have links, I remember Rodriguez mentioning multiple times that he hired Greg Robinson partially because he could fit in well with the staff (saying this with no mention of Scott Shafer, but I think it points out partly why he was let go).

Also, any starts on the 2007 and 2008 defenses per play? That may be interesting for how much extra passing yards per game were had because of our poor offense.

Florida Buckeye said...

I am of the opinion that it has to be the "not meshing with other coaches" ...primarily RR. If it was for performance reasons, there would have been a whole lot of offensive heads rolling as well!

Believe me, we have the same frustrations in Columbus, wondering why some coaches aren't given their walking papers, while worrying that the replacement could be worse.

I am just anxious to see you guys get back to the former years so this rivalry can be returned to it's national importance!!

Anonymous said...

Nitpick: you wrote "With 7 returning starters for 2008, it was believed (incorrectly) that Michigan’s team offered more tools for Scott Shafer to work with than he ever possessed at UNI, WMU or Stanford."

I'm not quite ready to concede that Shafer had more to work with at those schools than he did at Michigan. Certainly, on the defensive line, there is no doubt that he had far better talent here than elsewhere. The back seven might have been a closer call, but I am unconvinced that he had better players at those schools. How many of them made the pros?

Rasmus said...

Yes, I mean, Taylor may well be the starting nose tackle for the Colts this year. And I've always had a secret belief that Trent will excel in the pros -- that he was playing the wrong position at Michigan, one not suited to either his physical tools or his mindset. There are at least four genuine NFL prospects among the returning players as well.

BUT -- the difference between the good programs and the middling ones is not about good players -- all teams have good players. The difference is the cut-off for the rest of the team. In other words, there are usually fewer bad players at Michigan.

Rodriguez wants to use a three-man front. Shafer's departure is as simple as that, IMHO.