Michigan keeps showing its advantage wasn't Connor Stalions stealing signs

Both of these things can be true:

1. Former-Michigan staffer Connor Stalions ran a brazen advanced scouting operation that violated NCAA rules (certainly in spirit) in an effort to gain the Wolverines an unfair edge in competition. Michigan should be punished for that violation.

2. The reaction to the scandal was way over the top and greatly overstated the actual advantage gained by sending people to record opposing signals from the stands.

It’s why, if Michigan were to defeat Washington Monday and win the national title, it might come with an asterisk to some ... it would also carry a measure of exoneration.

If nothing else, the best way for the Wolverines to argue that what Stalions did had minimal impact on the games was to carry on winning games without him. The Big Ten actually did the team’s credibility a favor by punitively suspending head coach Jim Harbaugh for three games in an attempt to weaken them on the field and calibrate the previous advantage. Michigan won all three games.

After all, if the ability to steal signs via advanced scouting was so significant — and there were plenty who declared it the reason Michigan had finally toppled Ohio State as the Bully of the Big Ten — then how do you explain seven consecutive victories since the scheme was uncovered?

That includes defeating Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State (all without Harbaugh) and then even vaunted Alabama in the Rose Bowl?

“I feel like it’s so unfortunate because there’s probably — I don’t want to say a crazy number, but I’d say a good number — 80 percent of teams steal signs,” Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy said Wednesday. “It’s just a thing about football. It’s been around for years.”

He could have probably said a crazier number, say 95 percent, and still been correct. There is a reason team's go to such lengths to hide their play calls.

“We actually had to adapt because in 2020 or 2019 when Ohio State was stealing our signs, which is legal and they were doing it, we had to get up to the level that they were at, and we had to make it an even playing field,” McCarthy said.

Former assistant Connor Stalions is the face of Michigan's sign-stealing scandal, but the team has continued to win even after his scheme was revealed to the public. (Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports)
Former assistant Connor Stalions is the face of Michigan's sign-stealing scandal, but the team has continued to win even after his scheme was uncovered. (Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports)

McCarthy wasn’t on those teams, but he is likely repeating the widespread belief within Michigan football that Ohio State’s ability to identify the Wolverines' defensive formation in the 2018 and 2019 games (they didn’t play in 2020) allowed the Buckeyes to call effective crossing patterns at critical times. The Buckeyes blew out Michigan both times, scoring 62 and 56 points, respectively.

Fair game. This is an intensely competitive sport.

Now, exactly what McCarthy meant by having “to get up to the level they were at” and whether that means there was a purposeful attempt by the program, rather simply the act of Stalions, is a reasonable follow up.

It might be something. It might be nothing more than some awkward phrasing. So far, the NCAA hasn’t found any widespread knowledge of the scheme, including Harbaugh. It seems unlikely a player would be in on it, but the investigation continues.

Regardless, as McCarthy noted, sign-stealing is part of the game. Teams study film. They study television broadcasts. They study All-22s. They use analysts to try to figure things out in-game.

During the week there is a web of information sharing between teams — a friend on one staff that has played against Team A helping a friend on another staff that is about to play Team A. Coaches freely admit it. Every team has someone who specializes in this; Stalions was that guy for Michigan.

Others go to perhaps gray areas. Coaches across the country say some teams have analysts viewing All-22 footage during games, or have people video record opposing sidelines once a game begins, then have that sent to staff analysts for immediate breakdown. That way, the code is cracked in time for halftime adjustments. It’s not hard to find unsubstantiated accusations against any number of teams.

“Everybody does it” is not a reasonable excuse for what Stalions was doing. The advanced scouting rule exists. Michigan got caught. If the NCAA wants to apply additional penalties beyond Harbaugh's suspension then so be it.

That said, using a different, and more direct way to steal the same information that all the other teams also steal in a different manner is why this never merited the hysterics that were reached.

Each Michigan victory diminishes the argument that the Wolverines received some monumental advantage by getting their stolen signs one way and not another way.

It is similar to the NFL’s "Deflategate" scandal where New England quarterback Tom Brady was accused of having football’s slightly deflated to gain an advantage. The reaction was nuclear. There were calls for suspensions, asterisks, and Brady being banished from Hall of Fame consideration.

Even allowing that the footballs were deflated — which the NFL never actually proved — the concept that Brady’s success was due to a small variance of air pressure proved ridiculous. He won three Super Bowls prior to "Deflategate" and four, with two different teams, after it. At some point even his most intense critic had to give up that even if it occurred, it wasn't anything meaningful.

It turned out Tom Brady was Tom Brady because he was Tom Brady.

And maybe Michigan is Michigan because of its players and performance and preparation and game plans and so on. Maybe it dominated Alabama in the trenches because it was more physical and tenacious, not anything a cell phone could have delivered.

Of course, if you ask Harbaugh, Michigan is at least partially Michigan because of the bond that came from the oversized reaction to a scandal.

“It’s almost been an unfair advantage,” Harbaugh said.

So there is that.