The Crimson Tide offense enters the 2017 season under the sixth different offensive coordinator since Nick Saban landed in Tuscaloosa. By contrast, Kirby Smart served as defensive coordinator for eight season sandwiched between one year each from Kevin Steele and the current man in charge of the defense Jeremy Pruitt. It has been a motley group of OCs with varying philosophies and personalities but always evolving along with the game.
The first season was a one year stint by Major Applewhite, who was 29 years old at the time. Saban saw talent in him but he called a pretty uninspiring game for the Tide. He introduced the one-running back formation which has become so familiar to Tide fans. It was an improvement over the previous season but there were a few games where nothing worked (the FSU and UL-Monroe games come to mind).
The next season, Jim McElwain brought in his version of a West Coast offense. He served four years (2008-2011) that saw two National Championships.
Doug Nussmeier guided AJ McCarron in 2012 to setting the school record for touchdown passes in a season with 30 as the Tide repeated as National Champs. 2013 was going swimmingly until a big kerplop at the end of the season. Soon after, Nuss left to join Brady Hoke at Michigan who was summarily canned 11 months later. He now runs the offense for McElwain at Florida.
The evolution of the spread took another step forward under the beleaguered Lane Kiffin. Say what you want about Kiffin’s mouth or attitude or personal life, the man can call a heckuva good game.
Steve Sarkisian went 0-1 as OC. That is all we need to say about that.
DABOLL (rhymes with table)
Which brings us to the current offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll. It was a surprise hire and a name few people recognized - especially in the college football world. He has been a NFL assistant since 2000 with very limited college experience. Like Saban, he is from the Bill Belichick coaching tree/philosophy. So far, he has done everything right at the Capstone. He has been hailed for his teaching and his ability to coach up the quarterbacks. His philosophy is believed to be much like that of the Patriots which is a modified Erhardt-Perkins offensive system (the “Perkins” is Ray Perkins btw) that was installed by Charlie Weis under Belichick. If you haven’t read the excellent Grantland piece yet, do yourself a favor and get educated.
The most basic of descriptions is a system noted for its multiple formation and personnel grouping variations on a core number of base plays. As much as we have seen the flexibility on the defensive side through hybrid players who can change positions during a pre-snap, expect to see more flexibility from the offensive skilled players as well. This means formations such as tight ends and running backs lining up in their regular spot for one play and then moving to a slot or out wide the next. The idea is to make it harder for defenses to anticipate a play based purely on the personnel on field.
The Patriots offense is mostly a traditional pro-style approach featuring a conventional drop-back quarterback with a smash mouth running game. The run is utilized to set up the pass via play-action passing, faking the run in order to throw deep downfield. Jalen Hurts (and Tua Tagalialoa for that matter) are not “conventional drop-back quarterbacks”, so there will have to be some tweaking. As an offensive coordinator with the Browns and Dolphins, Daboll was known to sprinkle in elements of the hurry-up and Wildcat offense. That should work well for Hurts and Tagovailoa.
If you are like me, all of the above sounds pretty good for Tide fans. But as much as Bama players are endeared to your hearts, they are not the caliber of NFL players (yet). What works for the Pats on a Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field may not work for the Crimson Tide on Saturday night at Jordan-Hare.
Beyond the spring A-Day game, nobody has ever seen Daboll call a college game. As I have expressed before, I have a great admiration for the offensive webs that Kiffin could so creatively spin, recognizing opportunities, and exploiting them to great effect. Can Daboll do such a thing?
It could be said that he truly has not been able to flex his muscles as an OC. The three NFL head coaches that employed him as OC (Browns 2009–2010, Dolphins 2011, Chiefs 2012) were lame ducks who were fired at the conclusion of the season. So, it is curious as to what kind of game he will call. If the A-Day game is any indication, he will be looking to throw downfield a good bit. But the spring game is not an accurate barometer for what a Saban team will do during the season.
TRANSITION TO THE COLLEGE GAME
While it would seem logical that perhaps the game “slows down” when moving from the pro ranks to college ball, there is no real precedence to compare it to.
We at RBR have racked our brains trying to come up with another instance of a long-time NFL assistant with very limited college exposure who has moved to the FBS ranks as an offensive coordinator. The name Cam Cameron came up but he served as head coach at Indiana from 1997–2001. Charlie Weis made a disastrous move from New England OC to Notre Dame, but that was as head coach. Daboll was a Saban grad assistant at Michigan State way back in 1999. We are in uncharted territory as far as this sort of move goes.
In conclusion, I am going to lean on the side of optimism. “In Nick We Trust” and all that. We will certainly find out soon enough in 27 days in Atlanta.