Alabama's offense is struggling a fair amount, obviously. It's not accurate to say they are playing Shula-esque, but they aren't doing as well as expected. And it's obvious as to why: John Parker Wilson.
I'm not one for irrationally criticizing players, but from a rational, objective perspective, it's relatively easy to see just how poorly that Wilson is playing.
If you look at his performance thus far in conference games, it essentially tells the tale. Through three games, Wilson is 55-108 for 662 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. You do the simple math, that's barely a 50 per cent completion ratio, barely a 6 yard average per attempt, and effectively a 1:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
The yards per attempt statistic -- more specifically, Wilson is averaging 6.13 yards per attempt thus far in conference play -- is really the one to keep your eye on, and the one that should really raise your brow. Though it doesn't get very much attention in the mainstream media, football statisticians and researchers have been harping on the importance of this statistic for ages, simply because it is a statistic that combines both yards gained and completion percentage. Unfortunately, 6.13 yards per attempt is very low, and it really tells a story. Wilson isn't completing a lot of his passes, and even when he is they are generally going for short gains, which is even more damning in terms of completion percentage when you realize that he's not completing very many passes even though they are short throws.
Moreover, just look at the game film, it's just very bad. You don't need to do any real in-depth analysis to figure out that he's playing poorly. Yes he has occasionally thrown the ball well, but as a whole its been very inaccurate and inconsistent at best. And it's not just a particular type of throw, it's the entire litany of throws. Take the Georgia game last night for example: he one-hopped an out-route to D.J. Hall, missed two throws to a wide open Terry Grant on screen plays, and overthrew a wide open Matt Caddell on a seam route that would have been a touchdown, just to name a few off the top of my head. All in all -- again, just watch the game film -- it's just bad quarterback play. He's locking on receivers, struggling through his progressions, and then being very inaccurate when he actually throws the football.
And you can't just say that it's great defenses that are stifling him. Even against Vanderbilt -- which a year ago had easily the worst pass defense in the SEC, and one of the worst in the nation -- Wilson could only complete 50% of his passes and barely average five yards per attempt. And that was with a tailback behind him cranking out 170+ yards on the ground. So that argument is not valid.
At the end of the day, Wilson has no one to blame but himself.
Last year everyone blamed poor pass blocking, and that's simply not applicable this year. Thus far, Wilson has been sacked only four times in conference play despite registering 108 passing attempts. Crunch the numbers really quick and that's a sack rate of only 3.70%. That's very, very good. Tennessee was, statistically speaking, the best pass blocking team in the conference last year, and even they had a sack rate of over 4.0%. You just have to give the big uglies credit, they've done a great job of protecting Wilson, and they've done so against two very good pass rushing teams in Arkansas and Georgia. And if you don't buy into that, just look at the Georgia game in particular. We had 35 passing attempts, plus another five scrambles by Wilson, and out of those 40 passing plays, Georgia amassed a mere one sack for a loss of three yards. Bottom line: Wilson is getting very good blocking up front.
And what about the wide receivers? They are every bit as good as expected, and they are healthy. We easily have one of the best wide receiver corps in the SEC and arguably the nation, so that's not the problem either, obviously.
The ground game, too, has been good. Yes it did struggle against Arkansas, no question there, but as a whole, it has still been quite effective. Against Vanderbilt, Grant alone ran for over 170 yards, and against Georgia our tailbacks averaged over 5.6 yards per carry, and the success rate -- just looking at the play-by-play breakdown without crunching the numbers just yet -- seems to be quite high. So, they're not the problem.
So what can you say? The offensive line is pass blocking really well, the running game is doing well, the receivers are very good, yet we still aren't producing like you should as unit. What gives? There's really only one other variable, and that's quarterback play, or in our case I should say the lack thereof.
Given the way the rest of the offense is performing, there is simply no reason as to why we shouldn't be putting a lot of points on the board.
Likewise, there's no reason to beat around the bush regarding Wilson. He's playing quite poorly at the moment -- despite an otherwise good supporting cast -- and he has been the weak link thus far. If he plays well against Vanderbilt, we win by a couple of scores more. If he plays consistently good against Arkansas, there is no need for last-second heroics. If he plays well against Georgia, we almost certainly win.
Some people wonder if Saban will bench Wilson in favor of McElroy. I think that's entirely too early to say, but rest assured that Saban is not going to play anyone that he does not think is the absolute best player in regard to accomplishing the team's goals. In that sense, Saban will bench Wilson in a heartbeat if he thinks McElroy can do better. And it may get to that, if Wilson's struggles continue. At the moment though, the harsh truth of the matter is that Wilson -- for better or for worse -- is likely the best quarterback we have on the roster. If McElroy were truly better than Wilson, you can rest assured that Saban would have likely had him under center by this point.
The problem is, though he's likely the best quarterback we have, he's not playing well, and at the moment he's not one of the better quarterbacks in the conference. Judging from his performance thus far in 2007, if asked to rank the SEC starting quarterbacks, Wilson would be behind all of those who have shown themselves relatively well thus far, such as Erik Ainge, Tim Tebow, Matt Stafford, Andre Woodson, Matt Flynn, and even Blake Mitchell. Judging by his performance thus far, the only quarterbacks that you can really say that Wilson has outperformed are the terrible ones who have greatly struggled, like Henig, Cox, and others.
Bottom line: Wilson must play much better on down the stretch than he has in the opening stanza of the regular season. Honestly, he's playing a good bit worse this year than he did a year ago, and all things considered that is simply ridiculous. At this point, it's pretty hard to make a valid argument that Wilson has not regressed from a year ago. Given the talent and depth we have at receiver, how successfully we've ran the ball, and how well we've pass protected for Wilson, he should be completing a high percentage of his passes for a lot of yards, all of which should culminate in the offense scoring a lot of points. In reality though, despite all of the other players doing well around him, Wilson is completing a very low percentage of his passes, getting relatively small amounts of yardage per attempt / completion, and the offense's point production is mediocre.
For his sake, and our sake, he needs to get it together quickly.