Nick Saban rules Alabama football: Should he overrule his assistants on play calls? | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
Sports Editor

Nick Saban has the ultimate authority over every aspect of Alabama football, as he should. Not even at the pinnacle of Rome, however, did Caesar personally watch every bridge or aqueduct being built. There has to be some delegation of authority and a degree of trust in the lieutenants.

That’s why things are a little more complicated than just saying Saban should instantly overrule any offensive play call he doesn’t like, This has been a major point of discussion after Alabama’s 41-38 loss at Texas A&M on Saturday, and again on Monday when Alabama's head coach opened the door to the topic himself.

“I don’t know if we challenged them running (the ball) as much as maybe we could have,” Saban said. “That’s one of the things we need to work on to try to improve on.”

The online reaction was swift, with many people sensing a not-so-veiled reference to first-year offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and others saying that Saban can change the play if he wants since he is on the headset. 

Sep 11, 2021; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

There are three factors involved in changing a play on the fly. First, a pass play may be the best call for the situation. Alabama scored four touchdowns in the game, one on blocked punt. But two Crimson Tide touchdowns came on red-zone passes, including a well-designed route for Roydell Williams’ 20-yard score and another easy-pickings 7-yarder from Bryce Young to Jameson Williams.

The counterpoint is that Alabama made three relatively short field goals by the ultra-dependable Will Reichart, which are important but aren’t touchdowns – and, perhaps more critically, Young threw an interception in the Aggie end zone on a ball that might have been better thrown away.

For the head coach to change a play on the fly is possible, but it also puts one more variable into what can be a borderline chaotic situation. The play-call has to be relayed to the quarterback, who certainly doesn’t need to get one call from upstairs and another from Saban on the sideline. Sometimes, after a call has been sent in, the defense changes alignment and what looked like six defenders in the box becomes eight, with some pretty obvious passing opportunities. Young has to have a chance to see that for himself, and it’s easier for him to check out of a running play than sift through conflicting calls from the sideline.

The word “challenged” is the key to Saban’s statement, and it isn’t new. Lane Kiffin certainly heard “run the ball” in his Alabama OC days. Brian Daboll knew who was boss, and that it wasn’t easy to get the boss to change direction. The use of “challenged,” however, is that no matter how much Saban has been praised, rightly, for modernizing the offense, there always will be, deep in his DNA, a desire to make the opposing defense, especially their hind parts (to use a euphemism), quit.  

Texas A&M had relinquished the lead late. For Alabama opponent after Alabama opponent over the last 12 years, that would have set the tone. But the Aggies, while certainly under pressure, had not been physically pounded into submission. There is a big difference in murderball and Ping-Pong. Noting the fact that the 2020 Alabama team played Ping-Pong with tactical missiles simply revives the unfair comparisons between different teams with different personalities. 

There will be those philosophical discussions this week, along with the instructional meetings. What Saban wants, he will get. The question is not whether the Crimson Tide players challenge the other teams but whether they can challenge themselves and return to the old ways.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt