Thursday, July 28, 2011

random thoughts: the Saban era and second-half letdowns

People associate Nick Saban, the football coach, with a number of different words. Like finish. And process. And discipline. And so forth.
In fact, Saban hits all those high points in his talk to football campers last month.

To be honest I wanted a reason to post that. "Hey coach ... um, can I go to the bathroom?"

To go back and watch many of the highlight videos early in the Saban era — particularly from the 2008 season, when the program began to really take its shape — one of the words you'll hear Coach throwing around repeatedly is identity. He wanted his players to take pride in crafting a reputation for themselves: a physically and mentally tough football team that kept coming and coming, until the other guy wilts. In truth, it's the identity Alabama fans have wanted for their team since the Bryant days: not the biggest, not the fastest and not the prettiest ... but always the team that won the fourth quarter.

Here's why I'm bringing this up: For a program that prides itself on finishing strong, Nick Saban's Alabama seems better when it starts fast, then hangs on at the end.
Don't believe me? Here are a few examples.

Alabama 41, Arkansas 38 (2007). Bama staked itself to a 21-0 first-quarter lead, and led 31-10 in the third, only to see Arkansas score 28 unanswered to lead 38-31 in the fourth. The Tide didn't go quietly, with a field goal and a defensive stop to set up this.

We were all so excited about the drive that won the game, the fact that we let a 21-point lead slip away was forgotten.
Alabama 30, Colorado 24 (2007 Independence Bowl). This time Bama led 27-0 in the second quarter, with the Buffaloes scoring twice before the half, then pretty much dominating the second half*. In fact, the only two things that saved us that night were a) an interception by Darren Mustin that set up a field goal, and b) a clock-killing drive that ate up the rest of the time.
* — Joe Posnanski-like footnote: Honesty compels me to report that the 2007 team really was not very good, particularly on defense, and the fact was that they needed to take those early leads to have a chance to win, since they sure as hell weren't going to beat anybody from behind..

Alabama 41, Georgia 30 (2008). Everyone remembers this game as the breakout for the program as a whole, particularly that beautiful bomb to Julio that made it 31-0 before halftime. Do you remember having to sweat out 17 unanswered from the Bulldogs, before two offensive drives put the game away?

You can excuse the last 2 TDs, since Alabama was playing the "we don't care and we're trying to run out the clock" coverage scheme. Still, the offense pretty much went limp in the second half.
Alabama 24, Ole Miss 20. One of the forgotten games of that season, a beautifully quirky thing that embodies everything you love about the Houston Nutt era: Alabama forced three turnovers, held Ole Miss on a fourth down attempt, built a 24-3 lead in the first half ... and nearly lost every bit of in the second half, with 2 turnovers and missed field goal. The Rebs were actually on Alabama's side of the field on their last drive, before running out of downs.

Alabama 37, Texas 21 (2010 BCS National Championship Game). Out of all the games on the list, this one mystifies me the most. Not only did Alabama lead 24-6 at halftime, not only did the No. 1 defense in the land play on our side ... Texas was missing its best player (Heisman finalist Colt McCoy, injured on the first drive). That game should've been in the bag. Instead, the Horns scored twice and locked down a sedentary Tide offense, and had the ball back poised to win the game.

OK, so it worked out.

Auburn 28, Alabama 27. We don't really need to go there again, do we?

Is there a common thread here? It's tempting to blame it all on defensive letdowns, or something mythical like "a loss of intensity" or something. There's another culprit, though. In Gregg Easterbrook's — usually insufferable — Tuesday Morning Quarterback column, he's fond of saying that offense starts comebacks, but defense sustains them. Alabama's troubles in these games started with a defensive letdown, but were exacerbated by the offense's inability to put a stamp on the game.
Compare the games above to the biggest win of the Saban era to date: the 2009 SEC Championship Game vs. Florida. Many pundits (erroneously) gave Saban and Kirby Smart all the credit for that game afterwards for "shutting down" Tim Tebow and the Florida offense. But Florida gained 335 yards of total offense that day, and its per-play average for the game was nearly 7 yards. The gaping differential in that game — and I'm not sure "gaping" is a strong enough term — was that Alabama's offense monopolized the football: 490 total yards (6.9 yards per play), 71 total plays (to Florida's 49) and nearly 40 minutes in time of possession. Specifically, in the second half, Alabama sustained drives of 2:48 (TD), 8:47 (TD), 2:09 (punt) and 6:51 (end of game). The Gator offense never sustained a comeback, simply, because Alabama did not give it a chance to do so.

I don't have a good answer for how this will play out in the 2011 campaign. This defense has the opportunity to be the best of the Saban tenure. But it will need an offense to sustain four quarters in big games, if a championship is to be won.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

back on the "shameless" promotion with a Potter-related column

This week's column from the St. Clair Times was about "Harry Potter." It's not quite the rant I went on a few months ago, but I got to have some fun with it, anyway.
Harry, Ron and the neverending story

The only thing I’ve wasted more hours thinking about over the past few years than my alma mater’s football team is the “Harry Potter” franchise. And that’s not even a joke.

(OK, it’s a little bit of a joke.)

It would probably be better for me to tell you I’ve spent the last few years reading about the worldwide economic crises, or the ongoing deterioration of political discourse in America, or maybe even the embarrassing (and simultaneously hilarious) bingo trial taking place in our own state.

Nope. I’ve spent time arguing, reading and writing about a fictional wizarding world that exists entirely in the mind of a British woman. I’m not proud of this, but there it is.

Statistics will indicate I’m not alone. An entire generation of people across the world have grown up along with the characters in J.K. Rowling’s unending fantasy series; when the final chapter of “The Deathly Hallows” opens (today!!), they’ll flood theaters everywhere to put a cap on things once and for all (at least until they come back to watch it another 47 times).

At least I hope it puts a cap on things. The other day my wife and I — yes, she’s a part of this as well — were having a protracted argument about the merits of Hogwarts education, and I had a moment of clarity.

“You realize we’re arguing about a series of movies that involves flying broomsticks and a talking hat, right?” I asked her.

“Yeah … just forget it,” she said.

It’s a tribute to the author, really, that a series based on such a bizarre premise, which takes its characters on so many hole-filled journeys they leak water prodigiously, still keeps drawing us back again and again.

As for the movies, none of them are Oscar material, but they’ve been faithful to their source, and they keep drawing in crowds (even if those crowds are composed largely of nerds like the one writing this column). And to their credit, the core group of actors have all been a revelation as well; none of them has done anything particularly scandalous, and all acquit themselves nicely even as they’ve grown old together.

In a way, the finality of the series feels like graduation for the characters and the fans. And not just because the fans themselves are all now preparing to graduate from high school.

As for me, hopefully this is the end of my own run with bizarre fantasy literature. One can only obsess so much about hobbits and wizards and magical disappearing tropical islands.

(And no, I refuse to do “Twilight.” Seriously. That’s where I’m drawing the line.)

Monday, July 11, 2011

thoughts on love

Editor's Note: I'm fully aware of my blog shortcomings of late. I suppose I could apologize, but it's the summer and frankly there's just not a whole lot that's capturing much of my interest (really, the Women's World Cup? I'm supposed to get excited about that?). I was gone all last week to camp anyway, and it's that week that's inspired me to pen what you're about to read (it wouldn't have really worked as a column). Feel free to skip to something else.

There's no such thing as a closing speech for Music & Arts Week, and if there was I'm certainly not the person who would deliver it. This was the fifth time I've been a part of the camp, and it's something that words won't truly capture. It seems like they would ... but somehow they keep falling short.

The theme this time around was a gem: "The Story of Love." Each day's theme touched on an element of story — setting, characters, conflict (things got a tad confusing for a simple mind like mine) — but the overriding theme was love. And that's what made it so great, because, as Christians — whether they be children, teenagers or adults — there's simply nothing we can do that's more important ... than love.

For me, the week was important because it gave me the opportunity to share Christ's love, to the best of my ability. It's very easy to feel unloved in this world; in fact, lots of pretty awful things happen, pretty much daily, that make you wonder whether love even still exists.

And the truth of the matter is, the longer you live, the more of those things you'll see. You'll lose friends, either because of some sort of conflict, or just because they move away. You'll try very hard to reach a goal you really deserve, and fail. And people you love will get sick and die, and that will hurt very much.

I wish I could tell those kids these things won't happen to them. But they will; for some, they probably already have, to some degree.

Which is why love is so important. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that no matter what spiritual gifts a person could receive, none of them mattered without love (1 Corinthians 13). Love, he said, was even greater than faith, or hope (13:13). Jesus Himself told his disciples that, above all else, they would make themselves known as Christians by the way they loved (John 13:34). More than miracles or prophecy, the great love of Christ would mark them to everyone.

And sure, loving people is not easy; I wish I could tell the kids it gets easier as you get older, but that would be the opposite of the truth. In fact, there are multiple people in my own life who have caused me anguish, and only because I've had to search long and hard for a reason to love them.

Which is why Christ's love is so great: He has no reason to love us, and yet, he does just the same. The story of Jesus is not about humanity receiving what it deserved. It's about how the love of God shined in the darkness ... and the darkness did not comprehend it (John 1:5). If none of the kids who showed up at Music & Arts Week learned anything else, I hope they were reminded about that love, and how awesome it is.

At least, that's what it did for me.