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The Painful Intervention: Part One — Coach O’Brien, for the love of God, help your team out

Bill O’Brien has the mind of an addict. This is the intervention.

Alabama v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Dear Coach,

The first part of my life was spent growing up in Appalachia. Not the “JD-Vance-I-have-a-cousin-in-Southeast-Ohio, and-now-the-New-York-Times-likes-me”-sort of Appalachia. Real-ass Appalachia.

Cousins in county fair wrestling circuits, dirt track stock car races, half the family with owner-operator CDLs, hog-brains-and-eggs, truck stop-waitressing, cistern water-drinking, wrecked teeth-having, lack of rural electrification, outhouse with rattlesnakes, subsistence-farming, raw tobacco leaf-chewing, shared a chicken back with my brother on Sundays, sister died of whooping cough, an uncle who was an honest to god ditch digger-Appalachia.

And alcohol to get away from it all, to balm the wounds, to heal the psychic scars, to make it through another day of hard, hard living.

We always had moonshine. My first memories of childhood pain were also of it being accompanied by the palliative of fierce clear corn likker stinging my eyes, burning my throat, and choking down each glass with spoonfuls of raw sugar. I would wake up with my hands sliced deep from picking tobacco leaves; the poison and pus aching in my swollen palms. A few boiled eggs, a few shots of ‘shine, clinch my fists and drain away the blood. Earache? Drink until I fell asleep. Cough? Vap-o-Rub on the chest, liquor down the gullet. Four a.m. coffee percolating on the wood burning stove, playing Rummy with granny playing cards over hot tea and whiskey, and the men taking swigs from a mason jar hours before sun-up.

So, it will come as no surprise that practically everyone on that side of my family is an alcoholic — functional or otherwise, to one degree or another. It will likely also come as no surprise that I matured as a teenager, and then later grew into a man, who drank far too much, for far too long — at least a fifth (and up to a 1.5 liter bottle) of bourbon a day, every day for 20 years. I eventually got bored one morning, and just woke up and quit cold turkey six years ago, but that was not without having been to far too many Al-Anon meetings with incarcerated family, a few court-ordered stints in AA from beer muscles, and listening to far too many broken people recite the same mantra of hope, of fear, of exasperation.

Theirs is the talismanic phrase of 12-Step recovery, “the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again, and expecting to get different results.”

To the best of my knowledge, you Bill O’Brien, the Alabama offensive coordinator, are not an alcoholic, but you damn sure have the mind of addict. It is the mind that refuses to learn from the mistakes of the past; one staggering in the fog that still soldiers on in the belief that your decision-making is sound; one that blindly repeats the same doomed patterns of behaviors; the murky self-confidence that obstinately refuses to take in new information, to adjust as circumstance demands, to plan with clear eyes, and above all to effect a change.

It is the definition of insanity.

So, consider this the intervention, Coach. Because you have got to help your quarterback out. You’re harming others; you’re harming yourself. We concede, as is true with most addicts, not all of the problems resting at your doorstep are necessarily your fault. But, the definition of being a man — and certainly a coach — is in realizing that even those things that are not your fault nevertheless remain your responsibility. Like the drunk, it requires sobering up enough to realize that we don’t want or need apologies from you after the fact; we need better from you up front in not making the mistakes to begin with.

The point of this isn’t to pile on you — though I could certainly do that for hours — rather, it comes from a place of love for my alma mater. We genuinely root for our rehab projects at Alabama. We take pride in castoffs succeeding and getting another bite at the apple. The Island of Misfit Toys. Nick Saban’s Home for Wayward and Dissolute Coaches. Everyone deserves a second chance if they earn it. We want you to get yours. We want our players to be given the chance they deserve to showcase their talents. Because after 17 games, you’ve not earned that second chance, and too many players on this roster are not being allowed to shine.

In the simplest terms, we want to see the Crimson Tide score some points, without placing Bryce Young in the unenviable position of bailing you out of your own decision-making; to not have these kids’ backs lined up against the wall after being placed in one impossible situation after another.

But you have to listen: So, here are some problems, and here is how we are going to fix them.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

There was a whole lot wrong with Alabama’s offense last year, despite being one of the nation’s most efficient. In many ways, those numbers were so much stardust, ephemera dissipating across the night sky as they entered the atmosphere. And that rude collision to the ground came in the form of the Florida Gators, the Texas A&M Aggies, the LSU Tigers, the Auburn Tigers, and the Georgia Bulldogs.

The offensive line was the very worst that Nick Saban has fielded at Alabama, and likely the worst of his entire career. Despite that, some aspects of the running game were serviceable — and at times, were even able to shine. Beyond the top two wide receivers, the group of pass catchers you had to work with were unpolished, inexperienced, unmotivated, or untested: superstars or missed opportunities; there was no in-between. Still, for all that, there were some positives people could point to: Bryce Young took home the Heisman Trophy. The Tide’s offense finished 6th in the nation in points per game; and were 4th in the nation in PPG vs. ranked teams and against FBS teams. More importantly, the Tide were able to claim the SEC Western crown, the Conference championship, and make the finals of the College Football Playoff.

But, there were a lot of structural weaknesses popping up in the playcalling, ones that would doom the Tide in 2021, and that are repeating themselves again in 2022. Outside of Jameson Williams, there simply was little explosiveness in the passing game. After finishing 1st, 3rd, and 2nd in the nation in explosive passing the previous three years, the Tide were 14th last season, and lost two full yards per attempt from 2018-2020. In losses, it was even worse: Alabama was 39th in the country. Meanwhile, even when Alabama dropped games in 2018 and 2019, explosive passing was still 3rd and 2nd in the nation — at 11 YPA. And last year, the explosive passing game simply did not carry its weight under B’oB. In ‘Bama’s two losses, the Tide averaged 7.0 YPA. You have to go back to the awful Jalen Hurts passing game in 2017 (5.4 YPA in losses) to find something that bad.

When Alabama was trailing in the previous three years, its passing game was 1st to 14th in both YPA and QBR, and the Tide threw 15 TD strikes with just one turnover. Last season, that number dropped to 24th and 39th respectively. And, when Alabama’s backs were really against the wall, when Bryce was asked to do too much with too little, and the Tide trailed by more than a TD, he threw just 2 TDs but notched almost half of his interceptions (3 INTs).

Sure, Young had room to grow after last season’s phenomenal output. But I fear those accolades disguises pedestrian offensive efficiency that needed the best 3rd down conversion rate in the country. Alabama played with fire far too often, and at times it seems as though O’Brien is calling plays for a 3rd down coin-toss; that he is putting pressure on Young simply because when Alabama is down by a touchdown are less, the kid is money (6 TDs, zero INTs, two game-winning drives). But Young should rarely be in that position at all. Not with the talent Alabama has, and O’Brien should not wait until the waning moments of the clock to decide to unleash the offense.

And this year? The results are even worse. By every single measure the offense has taken huge strides backwards.

Through two games, here are the Tide’s numbers:

  • 66th in YPG (but 23rd in attempts)
  • 103rd in YPA (and a ghastly 6.3 YPA)
  • 56th in QB rating
  • 34th in completion percentage
  • Scoring down from 40.5 PPG to 37.5 PPG
  • 55th in the country in TDs scored
  • 44th in 3rd Down conversions
  • 64th in made 3rd Downs
  • From 17th to 57th in TOP, down over a full minute
  • 57th in explosive plays (at or greater than 20 yards), and just three that have gained 40+ or more yards
  • Only 12 rushing plays at/greater than 10 yards (39th)
  • 106th in pass plays at/greater than 20 yards (2nd last season)
  • An offense that has fallen from 1st and 2nd in efficiency, all the way down to 17th...and that includes stats rang up against a winless Utah State program who got hammered by f’n Weber State.
  • And you can’t blame it on negative plays, either: TFL are down almost 2 per game to 5.5 per contest. That is still high, but that is dead-average nationally (65th).
  • Likewise, sacks are down by almost half (1.5 from 2.83 per game), and Alabama has gone from 120th in the nation in pressure allowed to 51st. Again, high to be sure. But it’s in the top half of the country.
  • A drop rate that has been halved as well, jumping from 9.6% of attempts, to 5.33%. Again, too high. But these receivers are catching a little better — and that number includes safety valve, Jahmyr Gibbs.

In short, it is an offense in disarray despite better line play, despite more sure-handed receivers, and despite another year of experience.

And much of this — if not most — falls squarely on the shoulders of coaching.

What are the problems then?

The issues lie in spacing, in slow-developing routes, the lack of a coherent scheme, the lack of in-game flow and game management, in asking a retooled and often inadequate line to do more than is capable, in failing to ride the hot hand, in its predictability, and in making Young think too long, for too long.

These were issues last season, to be sure. But not only are they all repeating themselves again this season, every last one of them is worse.

Next time, we’ll address these in depth and talk about ways to fix the mess...before it’s too late.