Friday, November 23, 2007

Keeping Your Enemies Closer: a Q n' A with RollBamaRoll

Out-of-date, yes, but this is the "cooler" one if you ask me, not that it's cool or anything.

You may have heard from some of your Auburn friends that Alabama fans are all worm-eating Neanderthals without the slightest shred of intelligence and are incapable of making meaningful contributions to civilized society. Not true! Many of them can, with time, learn to walk upright, speak English, and even eat soup at high-society functions in a hilariously awkward manner.

I turns out a few of them can also write one of the SEC's and college football's flagship blogs, the indispensable RollBamaRoll. RBR is essential daily reading and the JCCW owes them a great big whopping debt for their consistent support of this site from damn near its get-go.

So it was the proverbial honor and privilege to exchange Q's and A's this week with RBR's Todd and OTS. Here's their Q's to my A's with my A's to their Q's coming later today over there. Enjoy.

1. Last year, as he carved up more than a few good defenses, I was genuinely frightened of what John Parker Wilson might become. Now, um, I think its the fans on your side who he's frightening (to say the least). Who or what do you blame for the regression? Coaching staff? Wilson himself? Voodoo curse? El Nino?

Todd: I'm sure it's a combination of the new staff, the new schemes, the notoriously mental nature of QBs, and a talented yet underachieving receiving corp not helping him with that last bit. Yeah, he looked good last year, but those schemes were idiot simple and all he had to do was go out there and run the play that was called by Shula. Now, with the new staff and new offense, he has a lot more responsibility. He's looked good in at times, and after his pretty good performance against Ole Miss and then the UT domination Applewhite made the comment that he had finally turned a corner in regards to understanding the offense and what they were doing with it.

Of course, he hasn't looked good since so, and I'm just guessing here, they probably put in more of the offense than they have before after the UT game thinking he could handle it, and he hasn't been able to really get it yet and either is too afraid to say so or the staff is willing to sink or swim believing he'll finally get it over the course of last few games.


The regression, I hypothesize, is largely the result of two factors: (1) Wilson wasn't that good to begin with, and (2) the current offense is much more complicated than the scheme used by Shula and company. To expound upon that, Wilson got a lot of talk as being a "record-breaker" and while he was playing well in that sense -- throwing for a lot of yards, touchdowns, etc. -- it was because he was throwing a ton of passes (he shattered the Alabama single-season record for passes in 2006) and not necessarily because he was playing particularly well. Even though he was breaking records, he was still near the bottom in the SEC in terms of passer efficiency statistics, and that essentially tells the tale in that regard. The second part is that the current offense we have is much more complicated than the one from a year ago. In the Applewhite scheme, quarterbacks have much greater pre-snap responsibilities, and that is something Wilson has obviously struggled with. A year ago under Shula, Wilson did little more than run the play that was called, and those plays generally came out of run-heavy formations. This year we're spreading the field a lot more, giving him more pre-snap reads, making him responsible for audibles at the line of scrimmage, etc. The increased responsibilities has made his life much tougher.

2. Which of the 37 different tailbacks used by the Tide this season do you see getting the lion's share of carries Saturday? Which one would you personally prefer to get the most?

Todd: At this point, there's just no way to tell. Glen Coffee comes back from suspension, and he's a much better interior runner than either Grant or Lowe (Upchuch is injured, and Johns made an appearance against ULM, only to put the ball on the ground and end a promising scoring drive). Plus, he's a bigger, more physical back and therefor a better pass blocker, so he'll probably see more snaps than the others, though that's not to say the carries won't be a little more evenly split. It all really will come down to the game plan the staff has for the game, really. We haven't seen a lot of outside runs/tosses since the opener, and that's the kind of thing that both Grant and Lowe can excel at. They're both small, shifty guys, and running between the tackles just isn't something they can do, so if they want to get them outside or run more screens, then they're the guys. But since we're also getting a couple of good linemen back to aid in the power run game, they might just keep pounding the ball and in that case, Coffee is the man.


I suppose I would go with Coffee simply because he gives you more of an inside presence than Grant or Lowe, but honestly it's hard to say. None of the tailbacks are particularly special, and honestly they are all pretty similar players. Again, I would go with Coffee, but really it's a difficult choice and there is no clear-cut favorite.

3. A freak Ouija board accident ends with you channeling the spirit of Daniel Moore for a few days. What Alabama play/scene/whatever do you choose to illustrate? (Preferably something he hasn't illustrated already, though I know that limits your choices severely.) And why?

Todd: I'll limit myself to this season, and considering there haven't been a whole lot of highlights, I'll go with Matt Caddell's game winning TD catch against Arkansas. I'm sure he'll beat me to it, though.


I would paint one of the scenes from the early Rose Bowls. That would be very unique and something quite different from what you usually get. Don't get me wrong, I love Daniel Moore but he gets a bit repetitive at times, and that would certainly fix that problem. If not that, I would love to see something that -- somehow, and I don't know how -- would capture the history of Legion Field.

4. Lost in the offense's Keystone Cops routine is that the Tide's defense has seemed to play over its head in several games this season. Give us Auburn fans a couple of unsung guys who are playing well on that side of the ball Borges will need to keep his eye on.

Todd: I was thinking about this the other day, about how the D seems to have really bought into Saban and the new staff's philosophy and played way above the level we thought they would while the offense, which we all expected to be explosive, has floundered, and I think it does come down to the idea that our players just don't have the kind of character it takes to do what they are supposed to every day, be it going to class and practicing hard, or playing every down like it's the game on the line no matter what the situation. Of course, the defensive players were almost exclusively the province of Joe Kines last year, and they understandably loved and respected him, while the offensive players were noticeably disrespectful and disdainful of Shula as the season wore on. That being said, I think anyone on the defense is someone that is capable of making a play and Borges needs to be aware of the group as a whole. They do play above where they should, and even though there have been some serious lapses over the course of the season, mostly those are due to the complexity of the defense and not guys taking plays off. If you press me for a name, though, I'd say Ali Sharrief, who moved to DB from RB this season and has seen a lot of time as a nickelback. He's athletic, runs to the ball, and he can tackle.

OTS:I'm not sure we really have any "unsung" guys per se, simply because we don't have that many great players on the defensive side of the ball. Zeke Knight and Wallace Gilberry have played very well this year, but no one is surprised by them any more, and the same thing largely goes for Rashad Johnson. It's a tough question because anyone truly that good is not usually unsung, but if I were pressed I would likely say Kareem Jackson. He was a lightly recruited military school graduate who has really came in and played great football all year long. The truth of the matter is that Jackson is the best cornerback we have on the entire roster -- sorry, Simeon, it's true -- and you should keep your eye on him. He just doesn't get much attention because he was lightly recruited and because he is a true freshman.

5. The effect of the U-LM loss on the Tide has been sort of indirectly debated amongst Auburn bloggers this week. (I don't see it making any difference, the only potential exception being in the event the Tide fall behind big and decide they're best off letting the season die a natural death.) What sort of impact, if any, do you see it having on the team's preparation and performance Saturday?

Todd: You know, I just couldn't say right now. I want to believe that this is the kind of humiliation and kick in the pants these guys needed and it will turn things around enough for them to go out and play like they can, but on the other hand, the issue of character has really raised it's ugly head and this game is kind of a referendum on what kind of kids we have at Alabama.

OTS:This is, of course, the $64,000 question, and I'm not even going to feign that I have a legitimate answer to it. Logically speaking, of course, the ULM loss should piss off our guys to no end, and they should show up ready to play and earn some redemption. That said, the harsh truth is that we have a lot of guys on our team that, being quite frank, don't seem to care and aren't apparently willing to put in the work needed to win. So, I think, valid arguments can be made either way that we will pack it in or that we will come out fired up and ready to play. One way or the other, we just don't know. We can debate this one until we're blue in the face, but until the ball is put into play on Saturday night, you just don't know.

6. Do you see any huge go-for-broke surprises from Saban and Co. this game? He doesn't seem the type to bank on trick punts and flea flickers or, I don't know, coming out the locker room with white helmets with crimson numbers or something, but this would seem to be the time.

Todd: I highly doubt it. If the staff sees something in the film of Auburn that they can take advantage of like the onside kick against UT, then they'll try it, but as for crazy new formations we haven't seen before and trick plays, that's just not Saban's personality. He's the type of guy that wants to line up and beat you with fundamentals and conditioning, and the idea of resorting to "trickery" to win ball games probably rankles the man's nose.

OTS:You may see something, but I doubt it. As you correctly observed, trick plays are not generally something Saban uses, though he has used it at times in the past. I say you see a conventional attack from us, no tricks up our sleeves for the most part. I know it's the Iron Bowl and we need a win, but that doesn't mean you change your preferred method of attack just to mix things up.

7. My brilliant--brilliant!--insight tells me this game hinges on which team can get the run established and keep from having to lean on their "quarterback" to complete their "passes." Quickly size up which side is more likely to move the ball on the ground consistently.

Todd: I think both teams are going to have a hard time in this game. We don't move the ball well against good d-lines (though with Glenn Coffee returning and the return of a couple of starting o-linemen we might change that), and we've got both speed and size in the linebacking corp to stop Auburn's rushing attack. This could very well be the sloppiest, boringest Iron Bowl we'll all ever witness (No way it's worse than the 9-0 slog in 2000, please pretty please?--Ed.), but I do imagine that Brad Lester will probably come out pretty well in this one.

OTS: Auburn is traditionally a very good running team under Tuberville, but they haven't been all of that great this year, and the talent level seems to have dropped off both up front in the big uglies and in the backs as well. On the other hand, Alabama counters with a very stiff run defense -- largely in part to the smallest linebacker being around 240 pounds -- and only Darren McFadden has been able to have success running the ball on us this year. On the other hand, Alabama doesn't have great tailbacks and has struggled to run the ball as of late, but we do get two starting linemen back and the team's best interior runner, so that should help things. Of course, though, Auburn counters with a very stout run defense that will make life difficult for my beloved Tide. In all honesty, I see both teams struggling to run the football, and weird as it may be -- and the weather may change this -- I think it may come down to which quarterback can most efficiently throw the football.

8. How much does both a) you b) your average rational Tide fan really want this one? I realize it's been a rough couple of weeks and a win would help immensely, but given that tons of Shula's guys clearly aren't getting on board with Saban, the recruiting class he's got coming in, the Vols' pelts already on the wall, and that the Music City is the best possible bowl scenario, I have to think the focus is somewhat already on next season. Then again, it's Auburn.

Todd: Yeah, sadly we're all looking forward to next season already (God I can't wait 'til that changes), but it is the Iron Bowl, and we want a win. We want to see if these kids took a lesson from ULM, we want to solidify a bowl bid, and for God's sake we want a year of blessed peace from our Auburn fan friends and neighbors.

OTS:You definitely want to win for a variety of reasons, but I'm not going to freak out if we lose. As you correctly pointed out, we have a lot of the Club Shula guys not buying in, and it will take time to sort those out. This is Saban's first year, and if we go 6-6 then so be it. I definitely want to win, of course, but it's ridiculous to let some first-year losses cloud the picture for what undoubtedly seems to be an extremely bright future under Saban, as you yourself admitted. I just hope we can win and hopefully we can get some momentum going into the 2008 season. But if not, oh well, we all knew it was going to be a long rebuilding process. I think after the Arkansas and Tennessee wins that some people felt that was less true, but it's going to be a long, hard road.

9. At least with Cox's struggles we can console ourselves with the fact that Rod Smith and Robert Dunn, while solid guys, aren't All-American receivers who Cox is hanging out to dry. (In fact, they could have done more this year to help him.) On the other hand, supposedly the understandable frustration between the Tide's clearly excellent receiving crew and Wilson isn't helping team chemistry right now. Any truth to that and do you blame Hall and Brown if that's the case?

Todd: You know, right now I'm not feeling all that sorry for DJ. This is a kid with all kinds of talent, but he's had off the field issues (suspended for the Cotton Bowl, last year's opener, a couple of times this year), has clearly given up on routes and taken plays off when he thought the ball wasn't coming his way, and has really let the team down when we needed his leadership on the field. As for the rest of the bunch, they've made some great plays, and I can understand their frustration at Wilson when they are wide open and he's throwing into triple coverage, but at the same time, they aren't perfect, and they haven't been as reliable as Hall in making great catches and generally being playmakers. So it's a two way street, really. Yeah, Wilson hasn't gotten the ball to guys he should have, but at the same time when he has gone their way they haven't been reliable about making those plays.

OTS:I doubt there is a whole lot of truth to that, honestly. The receiving corps, while very talented, has had some problems with suspensions and lack of effort, and it's not like Wilson has been the poster child for the ideal football player either. At this point, I think everyone is just frustrated that the production hasn't been there since the end of the Tennessee game. No one is perfect, and on the other hand no is completely innocent either. Wilson has been the major problem the overwhelming majority of time, but at times the receiving corps certainly hasn't helped.

10. So I made it pretty clear in a post this week I don't think a lot of Saban as a person--I think he's devoid of personality, not a nice guy, and a symbol of college football's increasing similarity to professional ball--though I should have clarified that I still fully believe he's a terrific college football coach who's going to have 'Bama competing for SEC West titles again soon. Do you care that Saban is, in the words of a Tide fan in that SI cover article, "a son of a bitch"? (Whoops, I relied on my memory of the article and screwed this up a bit. It's the LSU fan who calls him that initially.)Or about the 9-11 and Pearl Harbor references? Feel free to add any other responses to my post (if you feel it's worth responding to, that is).

Todd: You know, I have to object to your characterization of Saban as "devoid of personality." This is the guy that introduced "I don't have time for this shit, a'ight?" into the college football blogger lexicon, after all. I personally think of him as a sort of the loveable curmudgeon, the kind of guy that wants nothing more than to be left alone to coach football and yet there's always a reporter or a booster playing Dennis the Menace to his Mr. Wilson. And I kind of like that. We need a guy like that right now, someone who has a singular focus on building a great football team and program and could care less about what anyone else thinks or says about him. And really, I don't think that makes college football more like the pros. Yeah, his salary is more in line with an NFL coach than a college coach, but in reading interviews with him about why he came back to college, I liked his talk about how, in college ball, you can control your destiny better. If you have needs, you go out and recruit them, and you take those guys and you build them into great players and good people, and then you give them a reason to go out and play their hearts out for you and for their team. In the NFL, everyone's a hired gun and it's far more difficult to motivate players when they know they're going to get their paychecks and can always enter free agency if they don't like the staff. I like that kind of perspective on the differences between the two.

OTS:I didn't read your article, and without trying to be rude, I don't particularly care to do so. I really don't see how you can say that Saban is a bad person, especially considering that no one really knows the guy personally. Sure he's tough on the media, but to be quite frank I feel sorry for anyone who has to deal with reporters on a daily basis, and sports reporters are the worst of the worst. Aside from that, what has the guy done wrong? Sure, there was the whole "I'm not going to be the Alabama coach" thing, but that is something that nearly every major coach in the country has done at one time or another in their career. Fran said he wasn't leaving Alabama, Tuberville said he would only leave Oxford in a pine box, Miles adamantly denied meeting with LSU officials while he was in the middle of, you know, meeting with LSU officials, etc. Hell, Tuberville has again done the same thing for the past six weeks now with his coach-speak non-denials on rumors for the Texas A&M job. So what's wrong with Saban doing the same thing? At worst, he merely did something that happens all the time in the coaching profession, and it's wrong to single him out for criticism. What else is there to complain about? The "coonass" remark or the 9/11 "comparison"? Oh well, so the guy doesn't go nuts over trying to be politically correct, what of it? If being politically incorrect is the worst you can say about somebody, you don't have much bad to say.

The bottom line on Saban is that he is a tough and demanding disciplinarian who is not particularly fond of the ineptitude of reporters. I know we live in an age where everyone falls head over heels in love with the "player" coaches -- i.e. guys who let their players get away with damn near everything -- who constantly line up to kiss the media's butt with a smile, but simply because you do not fit that mold does not make you a bad person. He's tough, demanding, and he can be harsh at times. So be it. That doesn't make you a bad person. Far from it, most of the comments I've ever read from former players and coaches under Saban all say that while he was tough as could be on them, he was nevertheless a positive influence in their life and their career. That doesn't make him a bad person in my book, or anywhere near it.

So, I guess that's a "No?"


Two very quick clarifications I think maybe should be made in this space: First, you can read more of Todd's thoughts on the 9/11 comments in an excellent post here, where my Saban post is described as an Auburn "rallying cry" which, yes, it is. But just for the record, it's not the 9/11 comments themselves that have me fired up; I just see them as the latest evidence Saban lives in a football-shaped bubble he'd like to keep the rest of the world out of. Todd would, evidently, agree with me on that point. To the Alabama blogger, this makes Saban lovable Mr. Wilson; to the Auburn blogger, it makes him an unfeeling coach-bot. Which is understandable and right, right?

Second, in the interest of full disclosure, I do take Saban's treatment of sports reporters seriously in part because, um, my day job is "sports reporter." I do my best to be rational and even-handed, but there's no use pretending that doesn't color my perception of Saban at least a little bit.

So, anyways, massive thanks to Todd and OTS for participating and best of luck to the Tide on Saturday. (By which I mean "May they have the maximum amount of luck necessary to lose by only 70 points," but you knew that.)


Jeremy said...

that was beautiful.
let's war eagle forever.

gorjus said...

From this RBR reader, congratulations on your win, and . . . .we'll see you next year.