I think it’s fair to say that we saw the definite impact of coaching in 2022. The problem however, was that we did not necessarily see improvements manifest themselves more at the coordinator spots...or on the scoreboard. The Crimson Tide, despite being a more fundamentally sound team by and large, was not as efficient a team as it was in 2021, and had gaffes in fundamental strategy that cost games and ultimately a chance at a playoff berth.
Today, we’re handing out the final grades for the work of the offensive coaching staff. You can see unit-by-unit specific breakdowns below as well.
Offensive Line: A+
The offensive line improved tremendously in Eric Wolford’s first year. He came to Tuscaloosa with a mercenary reputation as a quick-rehab specialist that focused on building tougher lines with a propensity for eliminating negative plays. The Tide did not become a Joe Moore award finalist or anything, but it rose from among the worst in its recent history to become mostly-solid across the board, and it actually had an identity. The two biggest issues for Alabama offensive line — penalties, inability to control the interior — made it painfully, and glaringly clear what the actual core problem is: Alabama simply lacks elite talent on the inside and mindful disciplined players. Too many busts in evaluation, too many busts in personnel. This isn’t an issue remedied overnight either. But the fact that we can point to exactly the problem and know who was committing miscues and why tells you that everyone else was doing their job and it showed. Wolford did a great job given the hand he was dealt. This simply is not a good group that he coached to their maximum potential. Could not be more pleased with this one. You can’t make Emil want to play smart, and no one behind him was capable of it.
Special Teams: A+
Saban identified Alabama’s biggest problem with 2021 special teams, and went out with customary administrative brilliance and found a coach with the skill set to correct it. But it was far more than that: Saban found someone with the same general special teams philosophy as his, and one that would still retain those things which Alabama does very well. It’s hard to say much more about the work that Coleman Huztler did. Alabama’s special teams were elite in almost every phase. And, as with Wolford, his excellent coaching was most apparent were Alabama found its biggest problem: kick returns. And, again, it is a talent problem — the Tide simply does not have a naturally gifted returner back there; it requires a very different type of player than one who is returning punts, and Alabama doesn’t have it. That will be remedied.
Running Backs: B+
Robert Gillespie was a hire for 2021, and intended to not only be a recruiter, but to develop a new stable of Alabama running backs entering Tuscaloosa. It’s hard to fault him too much for the lack of a running game in 2021. He wasn’t exactly dealt the fairest cards. He was given the worst offensive line of Saban’s tenure then hamstrung with repeated injuries to the depth pieces he was meant to develop. That left Alabama with two options: hope a youngster could stay healthy and get into a rhythm, or lean on 5th year Brian Robinson — a guy who plays on 90% heart and 10% elite skill.
It’s fair to say that in 2022 we got a much more representative sample. Alabama led the SEC in yards per carry, yards per carry in conference games, catches out of the backfield, reception yards by running backs, receiving first downs and receiving touchdowns by running backs. Gillespie also finally established something of a rotation: Gibbs as the man; Jase as 1A; Royce as the goal and short yardage specialist; JMar as the kid being worked into the rotation. By and large, it worked.
My quibbles here are mainly that too: quibbles. He did dial up too few touches for Gibbs at times, and it seems as though he had committed himself to a rotation well in advance rather than feeding the hot hand or letting youngsters get in a groove. But the drop-off between 1A and 3 is not as steep at Alabama as it may be at other schools, so it largely worked out, despite Alabama’s interior blocking still being hot garbage served out of a truck stop toilet. Gotta’ work on the fumbles though, Royce. Woof.
Wide Receivers: C-
Now in his 5th year, WRC Holmon Wiggins was promoted yet again this offseason. If you need to know who is the No. 2 for the program, on paper? This is it (though now, it’s probably going to be Kevin Steele). I’ve been high on Wiggins as a recruiter, and as a bright spot among the young staff. His reputation is stellar across the fraternity, and many of his results speak for themselves.
But, for the second year in a row, Alabama was not gifted a deep stable of NFL-ready wideouts, and for the second year in a row, the Tide offense suffered. But it was far, far worse in 2022. In 2021, after a ghastly run of injuries, tons of freshmen were pressed into service in high-pressure games. They came up big, and they came up short. They looked like talented freshmen, in other words. But what we saw in 2022 was frankly inexcusable. These guys knew there were starter spots open. They knew it was them or no one. They knew they would get more looks, more tosses, more opportunities...and they simply did not seize the moment. To a man.
I doubt we will ever see the amount of NFL talent at Wide Receiver like that produced at Alabama and Ohio State over the preceding five years. The Rydeouts spoiled many people, for sure. But it’s not even a regression to the mean we’re talking about here. It’s the demonstrable lack of progression by any of the younger classmen over the last two years. There’s simply not a WR1 on this roster. There are two WR2s pressed into service. And if that’s coaching, it’s piss-poor; if it’s talent, then well, these are your guys, Wiggins.
So, at what point can we say it’s coaching — indeed, at what point will we say it’s coaching? At least for Nick Saban, that time has not come. But he may be one of the few not grumbling.
Bryce Young is Bryce Young. When he’s healthy, when the offensive line holds, when the receivers are getting off their cuts, when they actually catch the ball, he’s as cerebral and clutch a performer as we’ve ever seen. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft for a reason — Alabama’s first.
Is he limited? Sure. His height makes much of the field inaccessible, but probably not as much as you’d think. His footwork buys a lot of time for defenses to break down, just as it affords him the ability to find throwing lanes. He doesn’t have the biggest arm, but he doesn’t need it either. He has enough arm and more than enough brains to read the defense to see the potential for a big gainer rather than forcing one. And he’s also been really tough. He missed one and a half games, and labored with that shoulder for another 2-3. But given his slight frame and over 60 sacks he suffered in two years, he’s been far more resilient than bigger guys. Call him the anti-Tua: he just doesn’t take many big shots. He preserves his health even as he’s willing to hang in there and take a hit to unleash the pass. Young really showed us what he was made of in a “meaningless” Sugar Bowl where he and Will Anderson almost without hesitation announced that they were playing — and played well, I add.
Just one more likable, affable, talented superstar cranked out by the ‘Bama machine.
The downgrade happens here because, owing to Alabama’s many close games last season, the Tide once again failed to develop depth at the position. For the third straight season, Alabama did not have backups accrue meaningful PT. And the ones that did see action proved they were an emergency stopgap at best. Slight demotion there, but not as much as you’d expect in assigning this grade. And for that, I give credit to Bill O’Brien. Pressed into service against the Hogs and A&M, he schemed a way to hide Jalen Milroe’s arm, rather than attempt showcase it. And, throughout the season, BoB realized that Simpson may be the future, but that future was certainly not now.
I don’t envy Tommy Rees’ task in 2023, either in following up the string of ‘Bama quarterback accomplishments, in developing any of the five on hand, or in replicating the unbroken string of (mostly) successful offensive coordinators that now includes two NFL coaches and two of the best offensive minds in college football. Time to earn that money...and it will have to start here, at this position. It would be a tough act to follow for even gifted playcallers and developmental coaches.
Offensive Coordinator: C
In 2021, we gave Bill O’Brien much grief for his antiquated Perkins/Earhart approach to playcalling: One where the plays are scripted out before the game, based on what is seen in tape, rather than on-the-fly adjustments that put players in space and exploit what is given. And, yes, he got much grief for those drive-killing second and long runs, reliance on slow-developing pass routes behind that Christ-awful offensive line, and various other sins. But one thing the Tide did very well, and that disguised a lot of weaknesses, was be remarkably effective on third down.
In 2022, I think we saw somewhat more of a player-oriented approach, and one that really showed why the guys liked him. BoB leaned far more into getting the ball out of Young’s hands, as quickly as possible. Two of BY’s top receivers were a tight end and his running back, with Gibbs actually being Alabama’s top receiver. Alabama had the fewest 25+ yard attempts it has thrown since 2016, Jalen Hurts’s freshman season.
It was curious that BoB emphasized those quick aspects of the offense behind a much better offensive line and a much deeper, much better running back corps, isn’t it?
Well, it makes sense if your intent is to not jeopardize the kid’s career: Young’s forte isn’t the deep pass; Young’s frame is not one built for being hammered on long seven-step throws. BoB played into those things that best put Bryce in a position to succeed, or at the least could help showcase his strengths and minimize damage to him or his draft stock. We can criticize O’Brien for many things, but I give him full credit for helping to get Young drafted No. 1 overall...and in helping to keep him upright and healthy enough to do so.
But the downside to that praise is that the same ole’ BoB lurked beneath individual merits which negatively impacted the offense as a whole. One game, in particular, was inexcusable and directly led to a loss: at LSU, the only game where I’ve seen get two coordinators forced out of town.
I think an illustration is better than just stats. So, here we go. In analyzing that game beforehand, here’s what we noted:
For LSU, the Tigers are led, as always, by defense. It does quite a few things respectably, but where it is elite, it is elite. The Tigers have the 9th best explosive play efficiency defense in the country, and part of the reason is that they have the 10th best pass efficiency defense in the country. You may be able to score on the Tigers, and plenty of teams have, but you’re not going to go into the game expecting to win on gimmes.
Where teams have had success is in moving the ball, and then in scoring, has been going tempo and with a balanced attack that leads from the ground. One-dimensional running teams have no shot (Ole Miss 117 yards; Auburn 101 yards). But those who go fast, and threaten to stretch the field, have devoured the Tigers’ front (Tennessee 263, Florida 210). From there, the passing game has exponentially improved — teams hit almost 70% of their passes if they can average 4.5+ YPC. It’s a new look for football, but the bottom line is going to be the same here as it has been for a century: Alabama will need to get out of its comfort zone and run the ball to set up the pass. If ‘Bama tries to do the inverse as it has generally done in the O’Brien era, the Tide will struggle.
For teams looking to drive the field, controlled passing on third down and particularly running the ball are effective. Kelly may make you nickel and dime the Tigers, but they can be nickel-and-dimed. It looks a lot like a 2012 Alabama defense, honestly...or even a 1992 one. It’s built to try and beat paleoball upfront and play conservative in the backfield, but it struggles with modern tempo that can run to set up efficient passing.
Did O’Brien do any of that? No, of course not. Alabama threw the entire game. And, on a night where Gibbs was averaging 7 yards a touch and LSU’s interior defense was struggling, still decided to abandon the ground game. Did O’Brien use the run to set up the pass? Absolutely not. It was so bad, in fact, that Young had the most second-most throws of the year: 51 attempts, on a night where Young didn’t quite have it, in a hostile road environment, with iffy wide receivers, and against one of the best pass defenses in the country. I can’t even give that a sarcastic golf clap.
And, at the end of the day, these things did get Alabama beat. The unforgivable part here was that the exact things that we predicted would get Alabama beat not only were realized, but were so painfully obvious beforehand even to an idiot like me. I’m just a guy with access to little more than a VHS machine, a pair of eyeballs, and the ability to do statistics. But not only could we see it, but we called the shot to right-center, and then put it 400 feet over the fence. That should not happen. Nor should that loss have happened.
After this and many other regressions throughout the season, including an obstinate refusal to buy into analytics, O’Brien sought other opportunities at season’s end. With the 37th “best” per-play efficiency offense, behind the reigning Heisman winner, it’s kind of hard to fault anyone for the decision either. Funny what happens without a Top 10 game-changing slot receiver and incredible success on third down, huh?
Was it all bad? Of course not. I’ve given him praise where it was appropriate. But when it was bad, it was bad. And against any sort of defense approaching elite, it was unwatchable filth. I can’t say I’m sorry to see O’Brien go. Perhaps Alabama can get back to running a coherent offensive game plan instead of just calling plays, and of not relying on 3rd and YOLO passes to move the chains.
O’Brien held the offense back as much as he furthered it. Was he the worst the Tide have had? Not by a long shot — not even the worst Saban has had. But he can certainly be shortlisted among the Saban coaches who did the least with the most, particularly given the wealth of talent at his fingertips in 2022.
2022 Offensive Final Grade: B-
What final grade do you give the 2022 Alabama offense?
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