Nick Saban Likes Boring Football, Trying Grand Experiment at Alabama

Mark Schipper@@MyTimesProseContributor IIIOctober 9, 2012

The Coach
The CoachMichael Chang/Getty Images

When coach Nick Saban isn't postured behind an elevated speaking lectern, glowering over a room of frightened sports nerds—flogging them with his angry voice for not asking the questions he wanted to hear, he will rarely—if you ask with the proper amount of tremble in your voice—offer a more philosophical thought on the state of the game in general. You will probably wish that he hadn't. 

The coach's latest notion has it that no huddle offenses are bad for football because they are dangerous for players. 

“I think that the way people are going no-huddle right now, that at some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety," said Coach Saban during his weekly conference call with reporters. "The team gets in the same formation group, you can’t substitute defensive players, you go on a 14, 16, 18-play drive, and they’re snapping the ball as fast as you can go and you look out there and all your players are walking around and can’t even get lined up. That’s when guys have a much greater chance of getting hurt when they’re not ready to play.

He added what I imagine was for him a rhetorical question: “I just think there’s got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking, is this what we want football to be?”

This isn't what "we" wanted football to be. This is the natural state of the game's evolution. This is like getting angry at basketball for using taller, more explosive athletes instead of short white men in thigh-high shorts; or better still, at a coach for using the more athletic players to full court press your team into submission. Offenses are created to beat defenses, and defenses are then engineered to stop those offenses. Then, when the cycle spins out of its own accord, the process repeats itself with the echoes of the old forms alloyed with new innovations. That is why football "is what it is" at the present, not because some offensive Wizards "created" it that way in seven days. 

Beyond the sort of misrepresentation of no-huddle, spread offenses running 16 or 18 plays during a nine-minute drive—because the good ones often score much faster than that—I'm not sure I accept that Coach Saban is really concerned that the no-huddle is acutely dangerous to players. 

Isn't it common knowledge that football is not a safe game? As just a simple matter of course, arms are snapped, legs are broken, ligaments are torn, ankles are wrenched, shoulders are separated, pieces of ear are ripped from the head, brains are bruised, fingers are bent permanently in the wrong direction, vertebrae are fractured, and in very rare cases, spinal cords are irreparably damaged. 

For players, the six days between games are spent, at least partially, sank like an unhappy polar bear into a tub of ice water to facilitate the healing of semi-permanent contusions, muscle damage, ligament strains and general body-wide inflammation. After that, they visit the team's training staff to have the remaining kinks rubbed, taped, massaged or numbed out of their body with a needle or drugs.   

There are many other aspects of the game I consider more dangerous than the no-huddle offense. These include, but are not limited to, defensive linemen, power runs into the middle of the field, linebackers, crossing routes over the middle of the field toward those linebackers, the field itself (if it's artificial), safeties with a running start, unblocked blitzes, especially to the blind side, kickoffs, punts, cut-blocking and tackling. 

The game, essentially, is what should be considered dangerous. The whole idea of it. What at all is safe about a 250-pound pylon of muscle who can sprint 40 yards in 4.6 seconds being trained to "run through" another man built like a two-legged rhinoceros toting an inflated pig's hide toward a goal line? I cringe when a player gets mashed. The thing to do is deliver a short prayer to the Cosmos that he rises to stand again. Yet I love the sport, and not even a little less for the injuries. They are a part of the game.

I think Coach Saban revealed what his real concern was at a different point in the call, when he said, “I think that’s something that can be looked at. It’s obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points." (The italics are mine.)

This whole commentary on the state of the game is really about a coach obsessed with defense. It is clear that he would like a more "process" oriented game in general—a sort of violent chess match against his tactical inferiors on the offensive side. 

In this slow form of Saban-ball, the coach would punch the time-clock and stand along his sideline scanning the terrain and the personnel package "tipped" by his opponent. From Saban's eyes, the field would be laid over by that grid-pattern from the Esper machine Rick Deckard used for the photograph in Blade Runner. In Saban's heads-up display (HUD) there would be clicks and beeps, and he would zoom in and out of the grid squares, scanning them for weaknesses. When he was satisfied, the coach would order his defense deployed to protect the terrain he felt was most vulnerable, then the other coach would run his play. 

I've gotten the impression that coach Saban doesn't care much for offense. I wonder if he'd accept the proposition that his teams be a purely defensive enterprise. When they made a stop on the traditional third down, he could send out the punt team to kick the opponent back into their own end and make them try again. Or, if his team stopped the opponent close enough to their own uprights, he could send his team out to kick a field goal. The defense could get as many points off of turnovers as they were capable of scoring.

This game would provide an opportunity for coach Saban to chase the ideal of "processing" together a defense that was the closest human equivalent to a force-field with the density of a neutron star stretching into infinity in every direction. 

But why not just create some hybrid game where the Wisconsin Badgers basketball team could play the old New Jersey Devils neutral zone trap defense into 15 consecutive scoreless overtimes? If the process was right, I think Coach Saban could go for that, too. If a scoring system could be developed where his team could win 1 to -50, I know he'd go for it.

This style of purely defensive football was the problem with last year's national championship game between Alabama and LSU. It was not that two SEC schools played in it. The southern states, with that paranoia so immense that the rover "Curiosity" accidentally photographed it from the surface of Mars, have invented a story that "The North" (represented by the Big Ten) couldn't stand it because two southern teams (represented by the SEC) were the nation's best. 

The reality is that it was the second-most boring championship football game ever played: worse than the last three Buffalo Bills Super Bowls combined, and second only to the 2001 Oklahoma-Florida State Orange Bowl. The LSU-Bama game ended last year's party for good, and when the final gun sounded, instead of a ticker-tape celebration with champagne corks arcing off the balconies, a wrinkled balloon with the air flapping out squibbed dejectedly across an empty room. Most of the country had tuned out around the third quarter and started thinking about next season. 

The SEC does that to one another from time-to-time: beats each other into submission and wins running a ball control offense that a Pop Warner team would consider a little simple. But contrast that with the national championship game two years ago between Auburn and Oregon. The SEC, with their other fixed narrative about being just too tough for everyone else on the face of the earth, had to slug it out with a mislabeled "finesse" team from the "soft" Pacific Northwest. Auburn won on a field goal as time expired, 22-19. There were 968 yards of offense between the teams, and yet a lot of big defensive plays to keep the scoring down. It was a tremendous—nay, glorious—crescendo to the season. 


What is this sort of joyless, field position score a defensive touchdown and "get out of there" with a win football Coach Saban seems to be calling for, and others seem to be emulating? I'd thought the Sunday game held a monopoly on cautious, low-scoring, bland, defensive football. 

The coach is looking after his own interests here, which include winning every game his Alabama team takes the field for. The no-huddle, spread offense, when run with precision, constitutes a clear scoring threat to every defense in America. If a game got going in the wrong direction, the coach knows his "tank personnel," ball control offenses would not have the lightning artillery to keep up the attack.

It is not known whether coach Saban is actually a football reactionary, or just flat out conservative in his outlook, but it is clear that the fast moving, spread systems are just a little too loose and free for his "old school football" tastes. The injury concerns are an effective place to begin an argument against anything in football, and Coach Saban knows that; but in this case the real injury concerns are secondary.     


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