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Sugar Bowl Review: The Offense

Talking offensive play calling and Alabama's offensive performance in the Sugar Bowl.

Stacy Revere

Even the best coaches are not above criticism. On rare occasions I've even criticized Nick Saban, such as when he sent Jeremy Shelley in to attempt a long field goal against LSU in 2011. I felt justified in doing so -- there's a reason why Shelley didn't attempt the long field goals, and Saban did not put one of his players in a position to succeed. That's a pretty black and white situation, and I think I have all the information at my disposal to make a reasonable assessment of the decision.

But I try to avoid criticizing the coaches as much as possible, because most decisions aren't black and white. And play calling, by and large, is almost never black and white.

First of all, Doug Nussmeier probably knows more about football than you. There are exceptions to this -- some fans really do understand the game well -- but it's a pretty safe bet that if you're reading this, you don't know as much about football as Doug Nussmeier. So if you're criticizing play calling, you're immediately at a disadvantage. When two people disagree about something, and one is more knowledgeable about the relevant topic than the other, it really helps to be the one that knows more. Keep in mind, there's a very good chance you don't even fully understand what the play call. For instance, on a pass play, it's a good bet you don't fully understand the quarterback's progression. Do you know what the hot route was if the defense blitzed? Do you know exactly how each receiver was supposed to alter his route if he read Cover 2 vs Cover 3? How about if he read man? Does that change the quarterback's progression? I'm not trying to beat a dead horse here, I just want to stress that there's a lot you probably don't know, which should give you pause before calling for Nussmeier to be fired.

But hey, lets say your football knowledge is on par with Nussmeier's, or heck, even superior. That's impressive. The problem is that the information at your disposal is still vastly different than the information at each coach's disposal. First off, you don't get to watch the players practice. Even if your eye for talent is on par with the coaches, you aren't afforded the same opportunity to evaluate that talent. So if the coaching staff thinks Player X should play more snaps than Player Y, yet you think Player Y should play more snaps than Player X, I'm probably going to side with the coaches on this one. Second, you're watching the television copy of the games. They're watching the All 22 copy of the games. It's much tougher to evaluate players and scheme when watching the television copy. Third -- and this one gets us back to play calling -- Doug Nussmeier and the other offensive assistants have spent countless hours during the week watching film of Alabama's upcoming opponent. They have diagnosed what they're trying to do schematically, and how the offense should exploit it. You haven't done this. That film study allows them to understand what plays, in what situations, give the offense the best chance to succeed. You don't know this, because you haven't studied the film.

Sometimes plays work, and sometimes they don't. But as long as the reasoning for calling a certain play was sound, then there really is little point in criticizing it. And none of us can be sure what the reasoning was, so we're not in a proper position to criticize the play call. If you're criticizing a play call I cannot guarantee you're wrong and Doug Nussmeier is correct. But I can pretty safely say that you're simply not in a position to criticize him, because you just don't know the same things he knows.

If you guys have very specific play calling criticisms, lets discuss them in the comments.

With that out of the way, lets discuss the offensive performance against Oklahoma. Based on the commentary surrounding the game, you would think the offense played poorly. I have no idea where that narrative came from. The offense gained 516 yards of total offense, their fourth highest output of the season and only the fourth time they surpassed the 500 yard mark.

They ran the ball extremely well, mainly because of Derrick Henry and the offensive line. In his first real opportunity of the season Henry was phenomenal, showing great burst, punishing would be tacklers in one on one situations, and even finishing some runs with surprising breakaway speed that led to a pair of long touchdown runs. At least for one night he was the total package, and hopefully that is a sign of things to come. But a lot of credit also has to go to the offensive line, which was excellent when Alabama ran the ball, consistently winning at the point of attack.

The passing attack was a mixed bag. I thought that, on the whole, the wide receivers played well. Oklahoma has a very good secondary that can hold up in man coverage, yet for large chunks of the game the Alabama wide receivers were winning their one on one matchups. Amari Cooper, in particular, played well, especially after the catch where he showed the same explosiveness that wowed us last season. With the Tide breaking in a new quarterback next year, expect the early season play calling to try and take advantage of Cooper's ability in space, with lots of screens and quick throws, taking the pressure off the quarterback and putting the onus on the veteran skill position guys. DeAndrew White also had a nice game, and I would expect him and Cooper to be one of the best one two punches in the country in 2014.

On the other hand, the offensive line really struggled to pass block with any consistently. Both tackles, especially Cyrus Kouandjio, had rough nights. Kouandjio is great once he is able to get his hands on a pass rusher, but at least on Thursday night his feet looked slow, especially when going against a speed rusher. I know we're all hoping that this poor performance leads him to return for his senior year, and while I still wouldn't count on that happening, it is worth mentioning that he was one of the biggest topics of conversation following the game. People noticed how much he struggled. Leon Brown also had a rough night, but I think it's fair to cut him some slack considering it was the first meaningful playing time of his Alabama career. On the plus side, I thought Ryan Kelly played really well, and has been generally impressive since coming back from his injury. If Cyrus bolts for the NFL, going into spring ball center is the only position I would have set in stone along the offensive line.

And then there's AJ McCarron. The yardage was good because of some big plays, but overall McCarron had a rough night, one that, in my opinion, is an accurate reflection of his weaknesses. I've never had much concern about McCarron's physical tools. McCarron has a strong arm, one that allows him to throw a good deep ball and drive the ball into tight spaces on his short and intermediate throws. But when his deep ball comes up short, as it so often does, and when he doesn't throw his short and intermediate passes with enough zip, it's almost always because he fails to step up into a soft pocket. Far too often he either throws off his back foot or simply throws flat footed, rather than moving up into the pocket and stepping into his throws. His other issue, and this is one we saw crop up on several occasions against Oklahoma, is that he is too quick to abandon the pocket, even when it's totally unnecessary. And this almost always proves costly, because once McCarron leaves the pocket, nine times out of ten the result isn't a positive one for the offense.

Check out these highlights from last year's BCSCG against Notre Dame. Notice how often he steps up in the pocket, and how that affects both his shorter throws and his two deep balls to Cooper. He still leaves the pocket a couple times when he doesn't have to, but on the whole he does a good job staying in the pocket and being patient. It helps that, for the most part, his offensive line did a good job that night, but these are still things he struggles to do in other games when his offensive line holds up equally well. The guy in this video is an NFL starting quarterback. AJ needs to make this his norm, and it remains to be seen whether or not that is possible.

Anyway, on the whole, the offense was able to move the ball pretty consistently against the Oklahoma defense. One TJ Yeldon fumble and two AJ McCarron interceptions were huge game changers, and without those Alabama almost certainly wins the football game. The first interception is almost certainly on McCarron. For starters, with Oklahoma showing a two deep safety look on a running down, I would've preferred AJ check into a running play, assuming he has the freedom to do so. Second, I just really have no idea what he saw on the play. There was absolutely no chance for a completion, but AJ threw it anyway and the result was predictable. The second interception is much tougher to break down, only because we really have no idea what Cooper was supposed to do on the play. If he was hot on the play and was supposed to break his route off short, making sure he crossed the face of the defender, then that interception is as much on him as it is on McCarron. But we'll never know, so speculating is sort of pointless. I only bring it up to show that, like so many other things in this game, it's not a black and white situation. And yeah, TJ needs to do a better job holding onto the ball. Hopefully that changes next season, when the running game will be the focal point of the offense.

So that was a disappointing conclusion to the season. But what shouldn't be lost on us is that, once again, the players, coaches, and program as a whole provided us with another exciting season and a lot to cheer about. Can't ask for much more than that (other than a BCS title, that is).