How will Bill O'Brien handle his first act as Alabama offensive coordinator on Saturday?
Bill O’Brien has never experienced anything like the situation he walked into at Alabama.
That’s a strange thing to say about someone who is freshly removed from being an NFL head coach and general manager. Never mind the fact that O’Brien has nearly 3 decades worth of coaching experience, including his 2 years as a head coach at traditional powerhouse Penn State. Oh, and O’Brien spent 5 years working on Bill Belichick’s staff with the New England Patriots, the last of which was as the offensive coordinator.
Scrutiny? O’Brien knows that. But even for him, being the Alabama offensive coordinator in 2021 will be a challenge unique to any he has faced in his career.
Perhaps Alabama’s spring game on Saturday will be the first true indication of that.
If the Crimson Tide’s first-team offense doesn’t look crisp from the jump, well, search O’Brien’s name on Twitter and you’ll see just what type of scrutiny is associated with his new gig. Or if that’s not your thing, wait until Monday’s episode of “The Paul Finebaum Show” and you’ll get a full dose of just how high the new offensive standard in Tuscaloosa is.
In defense of Alabama fans, the standard should be high. We’re talking about a program that put up its 2 best offenses in program history the last 2 years under Steve Sarkisian. In the midst of that, it became inevitable that Sarkisian’s successor was going to have a nearly impossible standard to live up to.
If Bryce Young doesn’t come out of the gate looking like the 5-star generational talent he came to Alabama as, expect a lot of that criticism to come back to O’Brien. That makes sense. That’ll start in the spring game, and it’ll continue well into what’s expected to be Young’s first season as Alabama’s starter.
In some ways, it’d be similar to the criticism Brian Daboll faced when Jalen Hurts struggled in the passing game in 2017. We had already seen Hurts thrive with the right offensive coordinator in Year 1 (Lane Kiffin), which meant the new offensive coordinator had to be the problem.
(Hurts still got his share of the criticism for the passing game struggles. I always thought it was more that their styles just didn’t mesh well at the time. Daboll and Hurts both went on to have a ton of success after 2017.)
Young is entering Year 1 as a starter, but this is still his Year 2 at Alabama. We saw those flashes of brilliance in Sarkisian’s offense. There’s no denying Young has a cannon capable of stretching the field any way that O’Brien wants:
Bryce Young comes off the bench cold and rips the fade 30 yards down field. The SEC’s in troubleeee pic.twitter.com/iG2MhLhHVD
— Alex Rollins (@AlexRollinsNFL) April 6, 2021
I’d imagine we’ll see a few of those instances with Young showing off the arm Saturday. I’d also think we’ll see O’Brien utilize some of those 2-tight end sets with the promising Jahleel Billingsley and spring star/converted linebacker Cameron Latu. That’s where Alabama should be able to have an advantage from the jump as it searches for its consistent non-John Metchie weapons in the passing game.
Whether O’Brien knows it or not, these things matter to the Crimson faithful. Fair or not, O’Brien’s spring game performance will shape the narrative until the games actually count. Welcome (back) to college football.
This Alabama situation is different from being the offensive coordinator for an established future Hall of Fame quarterback like Tom Brady, and it’s different from the post-Joe Paterno Penn State job that O’Brien took on nearly a decade ago. Unlike that first year in Happy Valley, where getting to 8-4 was seen as a massive win, O’Brien could be the subject of significant criticism even in the midst of a 6-0 start. Ask Pete Golding about that.
The heat in Tuscaloosa is just a different beast. This is the place where your spring game is broadcast to a national audience.
Remember 3 years ago when Saban’s mic was hot and he criticized Hurts’ read during the 2018 spring game? This play was a talking point for weeks:
Mic is HOT! Saban caught venting frustrations of Jalen Hurts’ struggles during spring game.
“I’m just saying you get a chance to *inaudible* get his legs around him for two years. I mean the 3rd string quarterback can move the team right down the field throwing the ball” pic.twitter.com/rABmeiuooa
— Chris Renkel (@Chris_Renkel) April 22, 2018
Saban criticizing a player wasn’t news. A national audience hearing that raw, unfiltered comment about a former SEC Offensive Player of the Year entering his junior season, however, was news.
It’s been a minute since we’ve seen that type of energy directed from Saban to an offensive coordinator. Everyone remembers Saban’s sideline outbursts directed at Kiffin.
Nick Saban rips into Lane Kiffin 😳. Whoa. pic.twitter.com/IDycPI1Iau
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 10, 2016
To Kiffin’s credit, he didn’t shy away from the criticism. He helped Alabama win 3 SEC titles with 3 starting quarterbacks.
We don’t know what that relationship will be like with Saban and O’Brien. Saturday won’t be a good indicator of that.
Saturday might not even be a fair indicator of what to expect from Alabama’s offense in 2021. O’Brien could roll out conservative looks that don’t feature 60-yard bombs to Metchie or highlight-reel fades to Jacorey Brooks.
What’s unique is that basically everywhere O’Brien has been for the last decade, it’s been his offense. He’s been the one in total control. He still has autonomy on that side of the ball at Alabama, but with Saban, O’Brien was tasked with coming in and adapting to their offense, not the other way around. Saban said earlier in the spring that “it’s really difficult” to be in that spot because not only does O’Brien have to learn the system, he also has to tweak it in order to maximize its potential.
And to be clear, as Saban also said in that same press conference, that doesn’t mean the expectation is for O’Brien to step in and be better than Sarkisian. Saban said “there’s no expectations” and that “we shouldn’t be making comparisons to what we did last year on offense and how we are going to be next year on offense.”
That’s fair. Alabama fans? They might see that a bit differently.
O’Brien’s first act is on Saturday. Call it the dress rehearsal, if you will.
Let the drama begin.