While it may appear new (or old-but-new-again) University of Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is in a no-win situation, that’s not entirely accurate.
Sarkisian can win, if a few things happen — Alabama dominates every game, scores an unprecedented number of points, shatters a stack of school record and produces a Heisman winner in the process. Short of that, fair or not, Sarkisian is going to hear about it.
That’s not entirely out of the ordinary. Since the days when quarterbacks called their own plays, offensive coordinators have been second-guessed and sometimes harshly criticized by fans who react strongly to every play that isn’t a touchdown, or even a first down. There have been some who were popular for their innovations (Homer Smith) or their play-calling (Lane Kiffin) but the job comes with high expectations.
Sarkisian has a good reputation from his USC days and Alabama head coach Nick Saban (as well as quarterback Tua Tagovailoa) seem comfortable with him. Sometimes he is mentioned as “not winning” the 2016 championship game against Clemson, not exactly a fair sample size given (a) the fact he was literally called on to take over for Kiffin between the semifinals and the finals, (b) the injury to Bo Scarborough and (c) the play of Deshaun Watson. Furthermore, his two-year stint with the NFL Atlanta Falcons was not universally viewed with approval, although the structure of an NFL team makes it hard to assign blame to one assistant coach.
Most importantly, though, Sarkisian is perceived as having been given the keys to a Ferrari this fall, given the Crimson Tide’s roster of offensive talent. The machine will probably run well as long as the oil is changed and the tires are rotated (and there is no catastrophic collision) but will it hit on all cylinders?
“It’s very similar to when I went to Atlanta and they were just coming off going to the Super Bowl, and Matt Ryan was MVP and (we had) Julio Jones, so I’m a little bit accustomed to stepping into this role of taking over an offense,” Sarkisian said at Alabama’s Media Day in Saturday, the one preseason opportunity to visit with the coordinators. “I even go back to 2005 when I had been with the Oakland Raiders and I came back to USC the year after Matt Leinart had won the Heisman and they had won the national championship beating Oklahoma. This isn’t as foreign to me.
“I think you come in and you try to evaluate the whole thing. We say, ‘OK, how can I help this team continue to get better? How can I help these players improve and put them in the best position to have success, not only short term but long term?’ That’s our job as coaches. And then buying into the entire organization, and the program, and the values of the organization. That’s kind of my mindset – what I can do to help, do my part to put us in the best position to be successful.
“I think it starts with running the football,” he continued. “Every year I’ve called plays in college football I’ve always had a 1,000-yard rusher (Alabama did not have one last season, a slightly deceptive statistic given the shared production of Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris and Najee Harris.) When you can run the football, you can play-action pass. The play-action pass game is a quarterback’s best friend. Defenses are trying to stop the run and now you can create throwing lanes down the field for explosive plays. And then an efficient passing game, high percentage completion-type passing game where you get the ball in your playmaker’s hands in space to go create plays.”
That is a time-tested (and undoubtedly Saban-approved) model for offensive football. It will be fascinating to gauge development over the next four weeks and the Crimson Tide season opener against Duke — and then to see the numbers on the scoreboard.