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Alabama Football 2021 Mid-Season Report Card: Has the Bill O’Brien experience been acceptable?

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NCAA Football: Alabama at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In terms of scoring, Alabama is currently 2nd in the nation at 45.9 points per game with the team’s quarterback, Bryce Young, in the forefront of the Heisman race. That sentence alone should be enough to say that the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator is doing a phenomenal job, right? ..... Right??

Bill O’Brien was a bit of a controversial hire coming in as someone who was a laughing stock of a failure as a combo head coach/GM for the Houston Texans, and a lot of words have been spilled on this site lamenting his presence.

With such an effective offense, has he dispelled the angst within the fan base? Not so fast. There’s still lingering anger over his redzone playcalling in the loss to Texas A&M, and some legitimate concerns about the nation’s second-leading offense.

With all of that, I wanted to think a little deeper than just “is Bill O’Brien good or bad?”

It’s a nuanced discussion, and I think any coordinator has to be judged on more things than just their playcalling. Because I’m lazy and don’t want to type things twice, here’s a Twitter thread on Pete Golding I made the other day that prompted me to write this article:


So, how has Bill O’Brien done so far? Lets jump into some advanced stats first to get a picture of where the offense is in relation to the rest of college football:

For the overall offense, Alabama is 25th in the nation in overall success rate and a little further down at 34th in explosiveness. Both good, but not great. However, the offense is 13th at avoiding defensive “havoc” plays (pass breakups, TFLs, sacks, interceptions, fumbles), 5th in scoring once they cross the opponent’s 40, and 6th in success rate on passing downs.

For the running game, they’re 26th in success rate but 92nd in explosiveness. This is combined with only being 51st in success in short yardage situations and 45th in getting stuffed.

The run game isn’t explosive, struggles in short yardage, and isn’t particularly reliable at grinding yards... Yet the overall success rate and 12th overall in line yards is quite good.

Basically, the Alabama running game is used not as a staple, but as a constraint to the pass game that break off some nice gains on 2nd downs to set up easier 3rd down conversions.

We already hit on most of the important stats around the passing game above, but it is funny that Alabama is only 34th in passing success rate, but that skyrockets to 6th on 3rd and 4th downs. Bryce Young just thrives on passing downs.

On top of that, he’s 4th in the country at avoiding letting defensive backs cause havoc plays on his throws. The 3 teams ahead of him? Navy, Army, and Air Force. The triple option teams.

These stats paint an overall picture of this offense. They’re pretty good, but not great, on a play-by-play basis. The run game is often used to set up easier 3rd downs, and they’ve been outstanding at converting those to extend drives. Once they’re in sniffing distance of the endzone, they almost always score. And they get within sniffing distance very, very often due to the passing down success rates and a lack of drive-killing plays.

It’s a methodical offense that, at it’s core philosophy, reminds many of the NFL offenses from 2005-2012 despite being based on college spread concepts.


The Grades

As a scheme, I worry that it’s not sustainable. Depending on 3rd down success is operating on razor thin margins. Though I do appreciate the play design to be able to so consistently covert chains in those middle-yardage downs (I’ve seen many, many football teams unable to do this), the lack of big play explosiveness as well as 1st and 2nd down plays that allow for yards after catch is something that could be exploited.

Philosophy: B-

I’ve overall been happy with the run-pass splits (other than in the Texas A&M game) as well as the playcalling designed to feature players who are playing well rather than trying to force things that arent working.

In the vein of adjusting, O’Brien has consistently come up with varying gameplans to attack different defenses (such as switching to a lot of under center rushing against Ole Miss’s light boxes) as well adjusting midgame to opponent’s strategies. When Texas A&M found success overload blitzing Bryce Young, O’Brien quickly designed some outlet routes with shifted protection in the second half, and then used those same plays against Miss State and Tennessee in the following weeks as they tried to copy A&M’s early success.

Strategy and Gameplanning: A

After a rough start in the game against Florida, the offense has, overall, been consistently lined up and ready to go without many issues pre-snap. The OL has been a bit prone to false starts, particularly in opposing stadiums, but receivers have mostly been lined up correctly without confusion and the playclock has rarely been an issue (the moments against Tennessee were more on the officials, though of course the offense could have been a little sharper getting to the line of scrimmage).

There’s also very rarely been instances of receivers and Bryce Young not being on the same page, and the running backs have been pretty solid at being in the right place for blitz pickups (if not always actually making the block).

Communication and organization: A-

When we start looking at fundamentals, it can be a little tougher to assign what the coordinator is responsible for vs. the position coaches and, honestly, the ability of the players themselves. The tight end and receiver groups have both been plagued by drops all season, and the OL (mostly RT and C) has been susceptible to just getting beat 1v1.

The perimeter blocking by wide receivers and tight ends was straight up bad earlier in the season, but has really improved the last 2.5 weeks, and so we’ve seen the receivers starting to pick up more yards after catch.

QB Bryce Young continues to show improvement in his decision making when balancing looking for the big play vs taking easy scrambles, and that has to be credited to O’Brien as the QB coach.

Teaching fundamentals: B+

There are two more aspects of the job that, as of now, are incomplete for O’Brien. We need to see if he is able to get players to improve their game year over year, and we need to see his overall recruiting ability.

Those won’t be answered for a while, so for now, those grades are incomplete.


Overall, Bill O’Brien has been a better offensive coordinator than I expected, and has impressed me with his strategic adjustments. There are some flaws with his scheme that have me a bit worried, but for now, I’m happy with where the Alabama offense is.

I’m still not sure he’s going to be anything more than a 1-year stop-gap coordinator, but that remains to be seen.

Poll

Have you been satisfied with job Bill O’Brien has done so far?

This poll is closed

  • 68%
    Yes
    (727 votes)
  • 31%
    No
    (330 votes)
1057 votes total Vote Now