In the exhaust fumes of uncertainty, heartache and failure, the man nicknamed Dr. Blitz was sacked.
The news came suddenly like a screaming rusher off the edge. Don Brown, Michigan football’s defensive coordinator, became the first casualty from the most painful season endured in Jim Harbaugh’s tenure.
Shoddy quarterback play undermined an offense that was punchless for stretches. But it was Brown’s defense that experienced the greatest regression — plummeting from 25th in the nation in points allowed to 96th in a year’s time.
It’s how Michigan, who finished the season 2-4, came to rationalize the removal of Brown when Harbaugh’s status with the program remains up in the air.
With one year left on his contract, Harbaugh is engaged in talks about an extension and Brown’s termination is the clearest sign yet there will be a resolution that will lock down Michigan’s head coach beyond 2021.
After all, what’s the sense in making staff changes if the boss is eventually removed?
But an argument can be made that Brown is a convenient scapegoat because he presided over the underperforming unit that stands opposite the sagging offense that has Harbaugh’s fingerprints all over it.
But Brown wasn’t offered any clemency in this bizarre year considering his track record at Michigan.
Upon being hired in December 2015, Brown achieved immediate success as the Wolverines finished in the top three in total defense in each of his first three seasons in Ann Arbor.
During that same period, Michigan’s offense never had a final ranking above 50 in average yards per game.
It’s why Brown’s agent, Gary O’Hagan, is confident Brown will be coveted on the open market.
“I think there will be some teams interested in him,” O’Hagan said. “He definitely wants to coach some more. He’s a real professional and he doesn’t duck.”
Rather, Brown has weathered relentless criticism that materialized in the aftermath of Michigan’s last two encounters with rival Ohio State, when his unit hemorrhaged in all areas while surrendering 15 touchdowns and 1,144 yards in a pair of resounding defeats.
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The scars from those setbacks were lasting, defacing Brown’s body of work that had been cheered for so long.
“The Ohio State game was a huge negative for us,” Brown said in May. “I’m not gonna live in that world. And I don’t want the players to live in that world. We acknowledge it, we move on from it, and hopefully I do a better job. Because I don’t blame players for anything. You blame the old guy right here, OK? I got to do a better job of getting our guys ready, and I promise you I’m going to.”
But Brown never got that opportunity during a season when he fielded a patchwork defense that had been depleted by opt outs, injuries, transfers and natural attrition. At times, Brown was forced to deploy multiple walk-ons, which revealed U-M’s shortcomings with recruiting and roster management. The diminished talent was particularly visible in Brown’s man-based scheme, where defenders must frequently win their individual matchups. The secondary, by and large, did not. It produced one interception and was vulnerable in the deep halves — conceding the most pass plays of 30 yards or more in the Big Ten despite playing only six games.
As the head coach, Harbaugh is ultimately responsible for the composition of a unit that was not equipped to execute Brown’s system and not experienced enough to adapt to different coverage principles.
Yet Brown takes the fall here.
His departure won’t cure Michigan’s affliction. The problems are deeper and more far-reaching.
But his removal gives the university an opening to retain Harbaugh and simultaneously promote the idea of change.
If this is the way it had to be, Dr. Blitz had to see it coming.