Well, it was bound to happen, I knew it. One of the coaches in football I respect the most said some truly idiotic things the other day. As I am sure everybody who keeps tabs on this blog knows, Nick Saban, after cruising to another victory last Saturday against SEC rival Ole Miss, expressed his deep existential concern for the future of football. Against the backdrop of the Baylor-WVU shootout, the unprecedent success of LaTech, and the slight run that Ole Miss gave the Tide the other night in Tuscaloosa, Saban rhetorically asked whether this was what we want football to be?
We all know the source of Saban's anxiety. A defensive coach by training, Saban is disurbed by the spike in scoring that has followed the spread, no pun intended, of extreme up-tempo, spread football. On the surface, Saban's thoughts are covered in a thin slurry about the physical safety of players. Beneath this gruel, however, rests his real concern: the perceived "unfair" advantage that offenses now have by being able to line up and call plays from the sideline. I say unfair because Saban's comments remind me of the rational that casinos offer for bouncing card counters. Because someone has adapted to his environs by developing certain skills that were supposedly not in the minds of the Founders at the beginning of it all it is declared cheating and subsequently banned by the authorities that be.
I understand why Saban is frustrated. But it has nothing to do with player safety. What upsets Saban so much is that the calculus of the game has changed so much so quickly. In the interview Saban complains about how coaches can now control the game exclusively from the sidelines. But has not this been the case since Paul Brown took play calling duties away from the quarterback? What we're seeing now is simply the natural progression of a process that was started over sixty years ago.
But I would say that what really bothers Saban more than anything else is not the fact that coaches can get their offenses out of bad plays and into good ones with relative ease now. Teams have been doing that now for over 10 years, so that's old hat. No, what pisses him off is the speed and efficiency with which teams play right now. Let's forget Nick's night with Ole Miss because they're not even that good; as improved as they are the Rebels still have a way to go to be as efficient as Hugh Freeze's Red Wolves were last year. Let's take LaTech, for example. While Oregon gets all the headlines, LaTech is probably the most advanced up tempo team going today. As readers of this blog know, we are big fans of what Tony Franklin is doing at Tech. The reason is concision. No team has probably dropped more from their package over the past three years than LaTech. Watch the Virginia game if you want proof. LaTech goes into every game with a very light package. (Just compare LaTech's package to the one UVA ran the other day and tell us whose offense is simpler) Each game it seems lighter and lighter as they get faster and faster. Practically gone from their package are old Air Raid staples like Mesh and Shallow. Basically all they do is run an increasing amount of IZ tied to key screens and two or threee man games on the flanks. When they want to get down the field they run Verticals, Sail, and Y-Cross. What makes them go though is speed and efficiency. Not only does LaTech play fast but they do so with very few mistakes. An offense that does not make mistakes is a difficult one to stop.
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So, why do I make such a big deal about efficiency? Well, so much of what Saban has done over the years was born out of the need to check increasingly complex and sophisticated offenses. The trend now is going the other way, making all of the bells and whistles you have in your package moot. What Saban needs to do, and I'm sure he will at some point or another, is streamline his defensive system ala Tommy Spangler at LaTech. Again, I do not wish to give the impression that we are in love with these guys, or that we think Spangler is a defensive guru of legendary proportions. While Spangler is not a genius, he is a very smart coach who clearly has the ability to learn. Being forced to keep pace with Franklin's offense at LaTech everyday forced Spangler to streamline his defense, making it, in effect, a no-huddle, check-with-me, self-correcting unit that, like the offense it competes against everyday, carries surprisingly little into each game.
I will close by saying that in a strange way the game is coming full circle, and maybe that is what bothers Saban so much. The best no-huddle teams today really do not check that much any more; they simply go with what they have. They can do this confidently because more often than not attached to every play is control concept that helps them go where the most grass is on the field. In this sense, the game today is more like it was before Paul Brown started calling plays. The players on the field are given a concept and are charged with making it go, leaving the coach with less and less say, something I can see being very problematic for someone like Nick Saban.