Bill O'Brien was a good OC, but he wasn't good enough to be Alabama's OC ... so who is?
He led a pair of top-6 offenses, his 2 units had a combined 85-15 touchdown-interception ratio and he was the play-caller for Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy winning quarterback.
Yet when the news broke Tuesday that Bill O’Brien was leaving Tuscaloosa to become the New England Patriots offensive coordinator, you could hear the celebration from Alabama.
O’Brien left under his own terms, though if it came out that Alabama fans packed his bags, showed up in a limo, drove him to a private jet and waved goodbye, would anybody be surprised? Of course not. O’Brien and Pete Golding took more heat than anyone in Tuscaloosa. Now, both will be in their same roles in new places.
Good riddance? For some, definitely.
Golding’s case was a bit different because Alabama never finished worse than No. 7 in scoring defense in the 10 years prior to his arrival, and in his 5 years in Tuscaloosa, the Tide never got back into the top 7. The frustration over O’Brien’s tenure stemmed from the belief that Bryce Young’s improv skills were at the root of the Tide’s best offensive moments — not schemed looks like it was under Steve Sarkisian or Lane Kiffin.
Both Sarkisian and Kiffin were considered “good enough” to be Alabama offensive coordinators. O’Brien wasn’t. Neither was Brian Daboll and by the end of 2018, the Mike Locksley-Josh Gattis duo wasn’t exactly in high favor among the Alabama faithful (the wild thing is that Locksley won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant that year).
There’s no higher bar for an assistant to live up to than calling offensive plays in Tuscaloosa. O’Brien learned that the hard way. While the pro-O’Brien numbers suggested he shouldn’t have been public enemy No. 1 — current and former players went to bat for him — there were some other factors working against him.
In his 2 years as OC, Alabama was in a 1-score game in the 4th quarter 13 times. That’s not the Nick Saban way. In 9 true road games during that stretch, Alabama’s offense averaged 30.7 points in regulation (that’s if you take away the non-offensive points).
There was frustration in the play-calling, as well. Even though the Tide finished No. 4 in FBS with 5.57 yards/carry, it ranked just No. 82 in rushing attempts/game. However, against teams that finished ranked in the AP Poll in 2022, Alabama averaged just 4.3 yards/carry and 123.2 rushing yards/game. Against those final AP Top 25 teams in 2021, Alabama averaged just 4.1 yards/carry.
It wasn’t just that. After all, Alabama won titles in 2011 and 2020 even though it averaged less than 4.3 yards/carry against ranked foes. But with O’Brien, it often felt like the Tide’s offense often struggled to impose its will against halfway decent foes. In the past 2 years, Alabama played in 11 1-score games. In the 6 pre-O’Brien seasons, the Tide totaled 12 games that were decided by 1 score.
Is that all on O’Brien? Of course not. He’s also not entirely to blame for an overwhelming preseason No. 1 Alabama squad finishing No. 123 with 68.7 penalty yards/game.
But naturally, that blame comes with the territory. O’Brien was never going to get credit for Young’s development, in part because he came to Alabama as the No. 2 overall recruit and also in part because his predecessor, Sarkisian, was largely responsible for his recruitment. Sarkisian never called a game that Young started, though the duo worked together in 2020 during his true freshman season. Some treated that like O’Brien was handed the keys to a Ferrari and he was told not to crash it.
If Young was a new Ferrari that O’Brien was told not to crash, what would that make the 2022 Alabama receivers? A used Kia Forte in need of a new transmission?
The anti-O’Brien crowd put that all on the Alabama offensive coordinator and claimed that it was his fault that those pass-catchers weren’t schemed open. In reality, this was the first time since 2011 that the Tide lacked that true, go-to receiver. There wasn’t an Amari Cooper, a Calvin Ridley, a Jerry Jeudy, a DeVonta Smith, a Jaylen Waddle or a Jameson Williams. There wasn’t even a John Metchie or a Henry Ruggs. That would’ve made life more difficult on any play-caller, but it was O’Brien who had to make the best of it.
In his defense, he never crashed the Ferrari. Young won a Heisman and became, for my money, the best quarterback in program history. Alabama went 24-4 and averaged over 41 points per game in those 2 years under O’Brien. In any other coordinator job in America outside of Alabama or Ohio State, that’s considered a remarkable success.
In a strange way, though, O’Brien’s public perception will make life a touch easier on his successor. Who might that be, you ask?
Well, Saban’s Playoff era hires have typically had some significant NFL background (Mike Locksley was the lone exception in the Playoff era). If Saban wanted to go that route, Kliff Kingsbury would be an obvious target. The newly available former Arizona Cardinals coach could get back to his roots as a play-caller after spending the past decade as a head coach, both in college and in the NFL. The last time Kingsbury was in assistant role was in 2012 when he called plays for a certain Johnny Manziel, whom Tide fans remember well:
10 Years Ago Today: Johnny Manziel leads Texas A&M past No. 1 Alabama with a legendary performance inside Bryant-Denny Stadium pic.twitter.com/b3LP1ueMwN
— SEC Football Vids (@SECFootballVids) November 10, 2022
Lost in the shuffle of how greatly that day impacted Manziel’s life was how it impacted Kingsbury. Could Saban let Kingsbury come into Alabama and tweak the offense with the Air Raid concepts that have become common in college and NFL circles? It’s possible. Kingsbury is reportedly hanging out in Thailand without any urgency. Perhaps a $2 million salary — not that he needs the money — and an opportunity to work with an immensely talented roster would pry Kingsbury back to North America.
The other obvious free agent candidate doesn’t necessarily have an NFL background, but he’s as proven of a college play-caller as there is — Dan Mullen.
It’s long been a fascinating thought among college football fans to consider what Mullen could do with Alabama’s talent level. Of course, that became a source of frustration while Mullen was at Florida because he couldn’t recruit on an Alabama or a Georgia level. Still, his track record at speaks for itself. At Florida, it wasn’t his play-calling that came into question. It was how he handled his CEO duties. At Alabama, Mullen won’t be asked to do that.
So he’s not a relentless recruiter? So what? Last I checked, Saban has been able to handle that despite having as much coordinator turnover as any Power 5 program in the country.
It could come down to what Mullen is looking for. He got a $12 million buyout from Florida after 2021. He spent the last year as an analyst for ESPN (he was excellent in-studio and calling games). Clearly, though, he wasn’t in any hurry to get back into coaching based on the fact that it’s late-January and he appears content to spend another season on the media side. If Mullen’s desire is to take over his own program at some point — that’s been the indication from everyone I’ve talked to about him — what better path is there than “Alabama offensive coordinator.”
Kiffin is running his own program now. So is Brian Daboll, as is Locksley and Sarkisian. Technically, O’Brien just got a promotion by getting the same gig in the NFL (I’d argue there’s some debate about that). As much scrutiny as there is with the position, it has become quite the stepping stone.
— Lane Kiffin (@Lane_Kiffin) January 24, 2023
All Alabama can hope for from a potential OC hire is that he leads multiple prolific offenses. O’Brien certainly did that, though not at the level many in crimson hoped he would. It remains to be seen if his successor will ever be good enough. Anybody outside of Kingsbury or Mullen would probably be considered a non-splashy hire. Even if it’s someone who came with a remarkable recent pedigree like Joe Brady or Ben Johnson, Tide fans will have their eyebrows raised.
That’s the Alabama standard. Either live up to it or step aside for someone who can.
It appears O’Brien did the latter.