Nothing drove Alabama fans to the sweet loving embrace of the brown liquor last year like the Crimson Tide's red zone offense. It seemed like every game we'd get down inside the 20 yard line the drive would stall out and No. 99 would have to trot on the field and boot the football through the uprights.
The Ole Miss game last October was Exhibit A in this bizarre state of affairs. The Tide got inside the ten yard line no less than five times and couldn't put the ball into the end zone (four FGs, one fumble). Leigh Tiffin ended up with five field goals on the afternoon, the longest of which was a 31-yarder. Mark Ingram's solution to the problem was simple and elegant -- a 36-yard run that bypassed the red zone altogether to give Bama its only touchdown of the game.
If this was just a single incident it would be no big deal but Alabama's inability to produce touchdowns when they reach the last fifth of the field has been an issue for much of the Saban Era. And it's gotten worse each season, not better. The numbers... they are not pretty.
If you looked just at the red zone scoring you might think everything was hunky dory since it's clearly improved each year. But the next column shows the problem the Tide faced last season; while the number of red zone touchdowns has stayed pretty much the same over the past three years, the percentage dropped off precipitously in 2009.
The blunt fact is that last season Alabama came away with a touchdown less than half the time they got inside the 20-yard-line. That put us at 107th out of all 120 FBS teams and that's with the running back who won the Heisman Trophy on the roster, for cryin' out loud.
So this seems to beg the question, how dependent have we become on the kicker to score when we get near the opponent's end zone?
Quite a bit, it seems. The percentage of red zone scores that were kicks jumped a whopping 13% last season. And things were probably even more dire that that since its not by accident that the number of field goals from the 35-yard-line or less has increased every year as well.
This is not good. Our defense and sheer luck have made the difference up till now, but to paraphrase Harvey Keitel's character in Thelma & Louise: "Defense'll only get you so far and luck always runs out." Care to meet the last National Championship team who developed a severe case of red-zone-touchdown-itis? Say hello to your 2009 Florida Gators.
Of course there is evidence to suggest that, at least in the pros, red zone efficiency is susceptible to regression to the mean. So maybe 2009 was a fluke and we'll be back to our solid-but-not-spectacular numbers from 2008 and 2007. Maybe. But that's not doing much to stop the cold sweats when I wake up at 3 a.m. thinking about it.
The one silver lining? The quality of the kicker in this situation is kind of superfluous. While we will be breaking in a new guy next season, he doesn't have to be Mr. Automatic. Booting the ball between the uprights within the 35-yard range is reasonable to expect from even a mediocre kicker.
Tiffin's performance in 2009 bears this out. He only attempted nine field goals of greater than 40 yards in all of 2009. He made six, the longest from 50 yards out during the Tennessee game. And the rest, as they say, is history.