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What will Alabama’s offense under Bill O’Brien look like in 2021?

The hiring of the controversial NFL head coach has made waves, both positively and negatively, in the Alabama fan base this offseason.

NFL Combine - Day 1 Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

In 2014, Alabama was in need of a new offensive coordinator after parting ways with Doug Nussmeier. College football was in a state of flux with the proliferation of the spread offense, no-huddles, and lineman downfield rules all becoming a normal strategy, and the Crimson Tide paleo-ball philosophy was starting to look like week-old spinach in the fridge— Probably still pretty good, but clearly showing some discolored spots that’ll make you hesitate.

With that in mind, Coach Nick Saban went out and hired Lane Kiffin, a once-promising offensive genius who had some success as a high profile head coach before things utterly fell apart on him. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Alabama fan base about the hire, but Kiffin ultimately eased and guided the Tide through a transition (more like a revolution) to a modern offense based on spread concepts while still relying on the old-school ground-n-pound core philosophy so beloved in the deep south.

After Kiffin left, Alabama flirted with a couple of 1-year rentals with Brian Daboll and Mike Locksley who added their own imprints of pro-style passing and vertical run-pass-option (RPO) concepts, but both ultimately left before making too much of an impact.

In 2019, Saban knew that the Tide needed someone who could incorporate a full-field passing concept to go along with their mastery of the college spread RPO. He hired Steve Sarkisian, another once-promising offensive mastermind who had some success as a major program’s head coach before flaming out spectacularly in the forefront of the national spotlight.

Again, there was some significant angst from the fanbase, but Sark went on to turn Alabama into one of the best overall offensive units college football has ever seen with his masterful work at designing entire game strategies based on staples, constraints, and layers of play fakes to always stay one step ahead of opposing defenses.

And now, Alabama has found themselves in the same position yet again, hiring a former playcaller once considered one of the most innovative in the business who had significant success as a head coach before pratfalling and becoming the punch line of college and NFL media alike in 2020.

Can Nick Saban make this work for a third time? Or has the G.O.A.T gotten greedy?

Bill O’Brien spent some time in the college game in the early 2000s before making it onto the New England Patriots staff as an offensive assistant and quickly worked his way up into becoming Tom Brady’s QB coach. In 2011, he was promoted to offensive coordinator, and he directed one of the most talked-about and envied offenses of the last two decades.

Brady eclipsed 5000 yards in what was coined the “Year-of-the-QB” back when 5000 passing yards in a season was an unheard of feat, and he did it throwing to the most dynamic and unique TE duo in NFL history in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Throw in the creative usage of undersized slot receivers Wes Welker and Julian Edelman and the platooning of running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley, and Danny Woodhead as a committee (something much less common at that time, when teams were much more likely to go with a “bell-cow” back), and O’Brien was seen as one of the most innovative offensive minds in the game.

He was hired in 2012 as Penn State’s new head coach after the massive scandal and sanctions to end the Paterno era. With the program being nuked from orbit by the NCAA and media, most expected the Nittany Lions to be an absolute dumpster fire. Instead O’Brien managed to keep things together well enough to win 8 games and get Matt McGloin drafted. 2013 was much the same, and O’Brien was then hired to be the head coach of the Houston Texans, who had won all of 2-games the year before as the laughing stock of the NFL when QB Matt Schaub set an NFL record with the most consecutive weeks with a pick-six.

In his first season, O’Brien has the Texans improve to 9-7 while leaning heavily on superstar RB Arian Foster and journeyman QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. He held steady with 9 wins in 2015 and 2016 as well, though Brian Hoyer and Brock Osweiler were retread QBs who inspired fear in exactly 0 defenses.

I interviewed some of the folks at Battle Red Blog about O’Brien to get some more context, and here were their thoughts on O’Brien acting as both head coach and OC:

BO’B was officially dual-hatted in 2014/2017/2018. Honestly, when Bill O’Brien helmed the Texans, he pretty much had total control of the offense. While Godsey (2015-2016) and Kelly (2019-2020) were listed at the offensive coordinator, the offense pretty much remained the same. To be fair, both Godsey and Kelly were long-time assistants under BO’B, so they were probably not going to do much different from BO’B’s designs. That, and BO’B was not really good at delegation for the offense.

In 2017, the Texans drafted star QB DeShaun Watson, who exploded onto the scene as a rookie. A season-ending injury for Watson and the league’s worst defense saw the team fall to 4-12, though, as Houston lost all but a single game after Watson went to the IR.

2018, though, was a major rebound as Watson hit 8.2 yards per attempt at a 68% completion rate, and the team wound up winning the division with 11 wins. In 2019, Watson declined a little in efficiency, but the team still wound up winning 10 games. O’Brien was given the role of general manager, acting as both GM and head coach for the Texans.

That was when things fell apart. O’Brien made more than a couple of trades that drew the laughter of the entire NFL, Watson became disgruntled, and he was ultimately fired after a horrible start to 2020.

And now he’s in the Nick Saban rehab program, where he’s tasked with putting together an offensive gameplan, and, thankfully, not making roster decisions.

Next, let’s take a look into the overall philosophy of his offenses with New England and Houston, and then we’ll finish up by trying to mesh that with how his concepts will translate to the already established system at Alabama.

As mentioned earlier, his one year in New England took an already lethal Patriots offense from 2007-2010 and turned it into one that was all the rage at water coolers across the nation. The offense was built primarily on short stick routes across the middle, with the leeway for the receiver in question to run a couple of different routes depending on the defender’s position.

Wes Welker in particular made his entire reputation on his ability to run this option-stick route. He’d start in the slot, run straight to the linebackers, and then either keep going, stop, or pull a 180. It was utterly undefendable as long as the QB could make the same read on the defender that Welker did, and the diminutive slot man racked up a ridiculous 1500 yards.

Meanwhile, TE Aaron Hernandez was a unique player with the speed and YAC ability rarely seen in tight ends, while Gronkowski was only just beginning his storied career of being absolutely massive, catching everything, and running over people in the process. Both of these guys were used in those same stick routes, but they also regularly leaked downfield in deep post crossing concepts. The deep post man was typically Brady’s next read if the opposing defense was determined to keep all of their linebackers short to limit Welker’s damage.

Hernandez, Welker, and a number of other receivers were used quite regularly on screens, sweeps, and hand-offs, and O’Brien regularly incorporated a nice bit of post-snap “eye-candy” and fakes to prevent defenses from keying in on any certain direction on the screens.

In fact, a lot of the orbit motion concepts that we saw Alabama use under Sarkisian last year were featured regularly in that 2011 Pats offense.

The running game featured a mix of running backs in a complementary role to act as a constraint against defenses trying to key in on pass plays. Green-Ellis was an older, dependable back who got short chunks of yards with astonishing consistency. Ridley was a big, young, explosive player who could suddenly take over a game if a defense wasn’t paying attention. And Woodhead was the go-to change-of-pace gadget player when the Pats were dropping pretenses and going into a full-passing mode at the end of halves.

There were, of course, some of the major sins of offensive indicative of that era— most notably the ridiculous insistence on the dreaded run-up-the-middle-for-3-yards after an incomplete pass on first down, as well as a strict adherence to aiming for a “balanced” offense, even when the opposing defense is clearly giving up the pass and stopping the run (or vice versa).

The offense relied heavily on yards after catch by the receivers and tight ends, but struggled to develop much deep down the field other than the occasional TE post up centerfield.

Next, I wanted to jump into 2017, when O’Brien was designing an offense around his rookie superstar talent at QB, DeShaun Watson.

Pulling in a brand new QB with roots in a high-powered college offense, O’Brien reworked the Texan’s offense into something that took a lot of inspiration from some of the major trends in the college game at the time while blending it with what he did in 2011.

Formationally, Houston worked primarily out of a shotgun, but regularly incorporated tight ends and fullbacks as up-blockers. A shotgun or pistol version of the old school full-house formation was common, and those extra blockers were used in similar fashion to what we’ve seen all the time with Auburn under Gus Malzahn: max pass protection for deep shots and versatile lead blockers who can cut back across the formation for the myriad of possible directions of running on read options.

In fact, the read option was the primary type of run play for Houston, as Watson had the speed to be a threat on any given play. O’Brien pulled some concepts from his time back in New England on these, and regularly brought wide receivers into orbit motion into the backfield and then using them as either a threat as a triple-option pitch man, a play action wheel route, or a double play action fake with the wheel.

In terms of passing routes, these misdirections out of read option looks were a staple of the offense with deep crossers designed to slip receivers free on the back side of a defense. Sideline fades to DeAndre Hopkins were a regular 3rd down staple, and Hopkins and Will Fuller both were frequently targeted on deep shots and wide receiver screens.

When it came to crunch time moments, O’Brien often came back to his comfort zone from 2011: short crossers and stick routes across the middle. Unfortunately, Watson’s play-extending tendencies didn’t often lend to that old Brady-style offense, and opposing defenses were able to regularly jump those short middle routes on 3rd downs when Watson hesitated.

2018 looked very similar, and the Texans blasted out the gate with a high powered offense. As the season wore on, though, their core strategy seemed to change. Instead of the carefully crafted plays with orbit motion fakes designed to get receivers lost on the backside of the formation, we started seeing a lot more slants and stick routes to Hopkins, with one guy running deep. Watson was given free reign to either take the quick pass to the sidelines, or make a defender miss and start freelancing in search of the big play.

Some thoughts on the Houston offense in 2017 vs the following years from Battle Red Blog:

Maybe it wasn’t BO’B’s ideal scheme, but he had a rookie QB and an offensive line that seemed to only excel at “lookout” blocks. The spread/read-option scheme that allowed Watson to move out of the pocket was as much out of necessity as any brilliance for BO’B. It was a case that BO’B finally adapted his schemes to his players, not forcing his players to adapt to his grand designs. Sadly, after that, he reverted back to form, demanding his players adapt to his desired scheme, and whatever success came on that side of the ball resulted as much from Watson’s individual brilliance as anything schemed by BO’B.

Watson put up big numbers, but the offense looked more and more like one that the OC had just quit calling plays and started just depending on Watson to make the big play.

In 2019, Tim Kelly was made into the OC, and the offense looked even more vanilla to my eyes. Run an outside zone run. Throw a 6 yard stick to Hopkins. Run an outside zone. 6 yard stick to Hopkins. Watson scrambles. Repeat.

Again, Watson was typically viewed as a top tier QB in the pros as he repeatedly made some eye-popping plays and put up good stats, but there was very little design behind the offense.

What led to this shift from the start of Watson’s career?

I would say a combination of NFL defenses adapting to what the Texans were doing, BO’B being stubborn in his offensive designs and Watson making things happen (which is a lot more effective when you had a receiver like Hopkins). Also, a lot of Watson’s ad-libbing resulted from having one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Watson’s style of play opened him to a lot of sacks, but he also had to scramble to avoid getting killed more often than you’d want to see from a quarterback.

Now, the team could put up points, as they were in the top half of the league in scoring in 2018-2019, but it always felt like the team could and should do better on offense, especially since they finally had the long desired QB. Yet, the combination of the team letting the offensive line atrophy under his watch, and the seeming inability of BO’B to alter his scheme to fully utilize the strength of his team (an inordinate number of inside runs for a team not really built to do that, etc) made a number of us Texans fans feel like the team was wasting the talents of Watson/etc.

In any case, a massive blown lead to the Chiefs in the playoffs in 2019 turned into an offseason of drama for Houston, and they entered 2020 with a lifeless offense. Run. Run. Sack. Punt. O’Brien was fired 4 weeks in, and that was that.

So, where does that leave Alabama? Will the Tide be getting the creative play caller that designed one of the NFL’s most unique and productive offenses of it’s time, turned Penn State into a respectable offense when they never should have been, and then went on to redesign another offense to maximize the skillset of a hotshot rookie QB? Or will we see a continuation of the listless playcaller with a dreadful fascination with 6 yard stick routes and inside zone runs?

The optimist in me wants to think it will be more of the former now that he can focus on being just an offensive coordinator, rather than a head coach and GM on top of it.

I think that we’ll see a fairly consistent rotation of three running backs under O’Brien, rather than focusing on one guy. The run game will be used similarly to how it was under Sarkisian: it keeps things going and sets up many post-snap fakes, but ultimately takes back seat to the passing game when yards become critical.

I expect Jahleel Billingsley to have a huge year. From his time in New England to even his final years in Houston, O’Brien’s offenses relied heavily on using tight ends across the middle and on play action boots, and often designed the plays for tight ends to pick up extra yards after catch— something that fits right in Billingsley’s unique skillset.

With Bryce Young’s speed, I also expect to see a return to many of the read option and designed QB runs and bootlegs. It’s something any offensive coordinator should do with Young, and O’Brien did just that for many years with Watson.

In terms of short yardage and redzone conversions, O’Brien has been consistently one of the best in the business, even when the overall offense was failing. On the other hand, his offenses have typically lacked the explosive plays from wide receivers that Alabama fans have come to enjoy since 2017.

Overall, I expect a good bit of growing pains. Much will be due to Alabama breaking in nearly an entirely new starting offense, but there will also be gnashing of teeth at O’Brien’s lack of deep shots and explosive scores, as well as a lack of situational awareness when deciding what play to call on 1st downs. Competent defensive coordinators will also be expecting those 6-yard stick routes across the middle on 3rd downs, so O’Brien will have to adjust there.

However, O’Brien’s track record with creative offensive play design goes back much longer than the fiasco we saw in Houston the last two years. He’s far from a guaranteed slam dunk hire, and there is a more than insignificant chance that this retread hire fails spectacularly. But there’s also the potential for a highly deadly offense to come out of O’Brien’s brain if Nick Saban is able to put him into the right circumstances.