Monday, January 22, 2018


The following is what started as a short email to the Commissioner and a couple of regular Correspondents.  It got a little long (you aren't surprised to hear that).  The Commish encouraged me to follow up here.  So I did.

I keep running across that video clip of the final play of the game.  I watch it every single time.  All the way to the part where Irv Smith, Jr. plows over that hapless cameraman. Just sitting there last night doing that again, it occurred to me why I’m fascinated with it.

This play was different.  It went for long yards.  It was definitively final.  There was no video review, no one more possession for Georgia, no seconds to run off the clock, no need to kick the PAT, no kickoff to hold my breath through, no watching for agonizing seconds as the ball cleared the crossbar between the uprights, no defense on the field one more time, no victory formation.  It was, well, not anything at all like an Alabama ending.

Looking back, I really did expect us to score on that drive, and probably a touchdown.  Georgia was doubting.  Their defense was tired.  Our passing game had finally loosened things up for the running game.  I just didn’t expect us to score like that.  I was expecting a sequence more like a short pass on first down, a run wide on second down, hopefully resulting in third and short that we muscled to a first down between the 15 and the 10.  From there I guess I was expecting a quarterback keeper, maybe a bootleg, with a run/pass option.  Then maybe a solid Harris run to near the goal line garnering a first down.  Then, maybe on second down, a massive push all across the offensive line with a running back carry that you really couldn’t see, signaled as a touchdown, and maybe an interminable wait for video review.

Instead, short of a turnover, about the worst possible thing that could happen did happen on first down.  (To the credit of my imaginary overtime series, I do think that play call was a screen pass to Harris, but UGA spied him and when that wasn’t there the rush was so aggressive on the screen that it was a disaster).  On second down, I couldn’t honestly tell you what I expected.  More disaster, I guess.  I was yelling at the TV, despite the fact that they never acknowledge me, for Tua to pass it to Damien.  I could see him open and I really liked our chances with him against UGA’s dime package in the open field.  He had run over their secondary before.  We had blockers down field.  It would have worked again.  Tua was looking right at him.  It seemed natural -- not a score, maybe not even a first down, but at least maybe third-and-reasonable with a more makeable field goal for poor Andy.

Instead IT happened.  Tua looked back left.  He already knew what he was going to see.  On the replay you can see Smith give him a little hand signal before that snap and Tua give him a low thumbs up.  No hesitation.  No pump fake.  He just threw it.  I thought the trajectory was too flat -- overthrown.  I’m badly conditioned.  I expected to see the ball sail just past Smith’s fingertips.  I expected to see it bouncing around the end zone.  I could already hear a groan from the Alabama side and a collective sigh of relief from the Georgia side.

It took about three beats for me to process what had happened.  The throw wasn’t too long.  It didn't drop harmlessly into the end zone.  The pass was dead perfect.  Smith caught it so effortlessly and coolly that it looked like the lead photo in the chapter called “The Over the Shoulder Catch” in The Great Big Illustrated Handbook of How to Play Wide Receiver.  There were no flags.  He didn’t bobble it.  He didn’t have to struggle to drag a foot in bounds.  No one was around to try to swat it out of his hands.  Just a young guy catching the ball and curling across the back of the end zone to hug his teammates. That was it.  Nothing to review. Just like that. On second down. The play was over.  The game was over.  The season was over. The 2017 Alabama Crimson Tide football team would never play another down of football.  It was all over.  But the National Championship had been won.  By a team that did not lead for a single second of the Championship game.

And that, I realized this week, was why I was and am so fascinated.  That touchdown catch from so far away on the field in such an unexpected fashion and after so very much disappointment on the evening was so startling that I just couldn’t quite comprehend it in real time, even with a hoarse Chris Fowler yelling “touchdown”.

That probably explains why I’ve watched it probably at least 100 times.  I think I’m still trying to process that he threw it, that he caught it, that we scored, and that we won.  All of it.  How many more times will I watch that play?  I don’t know.  Because I don’t know how long I’ll live.  However, I can’t think of any set of circumstances where I would see the snap and not watch the catch. Ever.  

Maybe that’s just me.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Tire Store Report National Championship

As we all expected, an epic set of The Grades for an epic season.  Thank you, Commissioner.  In this case, the classics were sort of upside down, in that the great battle came after the end of a season-long odyssey, rather than the other way around.  Nonetheless, the warriors in Crimson persevered to the journey’s end, victorious.

Flowery language aside, that was certainly far from a classic display of football.  On the whole, though, we cannot exactly remember a game that was more exciting and certainly not one for the National Championship (butt-ugly trophy and all).  Alabama seemed to lose this one four or five times before it won it.

There were historic things that went on in this game -- big and small -- that may never be repeated.  The TD pass to win the game was apparently the longest scoring play from scrimmage under the current overtime rules at 41 yards. (Of course, you are supposed to start at the 25, so that’s odd in and of itself).  Alabama led for exactly 0 seconds of this game.  Georgia, one of the Lug Nut Crew pointed out, managed to lose four coin tosses in one championship series.  That doesn’t seem likely to be repeated.  The talking heads said that you needed “regional diversity” in the championship.  That’s code for “no one will watch two SEC teams play again”. Except they did – the overnight television ratings made this the second-most watched playoff game since the CFP started. The odds of a quarterback with a 25-2 record being pulled from the game in favor of a true freshman who had never played in a game that was within three scores, well, maybe that’s enough of that. 

[Note: As we were finalizing this edition of the TSR, we got word that the great Keith Jackson had passed away.  Mr. Jackson was the definitive play-by-play television voice for many classic Alabama games, including the Penn State Sugar Bowl victory and Van Tiffin’s 52-yarder to beat Auburn. We spent a few nostalgic minutes listening to him over on You Tube. He was one of a kind.  May he rest in peace.]

We have read a decent amount of writing about where this game fits in the history of Alabama football.  As regular readers know, down here at the Tire Store we are not big believers in comparing different eras.  I mean, the average speed at the first Daytona 500 in the 1950s was only about 135 mph. It was a while before those boys got things going to where the treads started pulling off the casings but that didn’t make it any less exciting.  In fact, it took three days of reviewing photos before they announced the winner of the 1959 race.  So we’d at least like to give it a while before trying to rank Monday’s game in a spot in history.  That said, we think if you are making up a ballot of the most important or exciting plays and games, probably starting with Pooely Hubert’s 30-yard touchdown pass to Johnny Mack Brown to stretch the lead to 20-12 in the 1926 Rose Bowl, we expect Monday night’s game would be on most everyone’s ballot.  How it ranks against games that have been reduced to two or three words – the Goal Line Stand, The Kick, The Run in the Mud, The Strip, well, we’ll leave that to people smarter than we are.

On to more specific thoughts about the game itself.

Defense:  Re-watching the game and reviewing the stats shows that the Defense played a lot better than it seemed in real time.  Particularly in the second half.  Time and again the stop troops came up big, perhaps at no point bigger than inducing a turnover just after Tagovailoa had tossed an interception on a play where the rest of the offense believed a running play had been called (which it had).  The fourth quarter plus overtime was a classic case of a defense giving the offense a chance to win the game.  Georgia, which had the most prolific rushing attack in all of college football this season, was stopped at least three times on third and short by a defense that had played a lot of downs.  Unlike last season, when a stop was needed this year, it was obtained.  We have very little to add to your excellent analysis, Commissioner.  This wasn’t Alabama’s best defense in history, but when it counted they need acknowledge no betters.

Offense:  The offense seemed completely out of synch after Hurts and Ridley failed to connect on Alabama’s first offensive possession for what looked like an easy touchdown.  Really, the next solid effort didn’t seem to come until the second drive of the second half (and that we bring Tagovailoa in and then ask him to RUN it on first down is a bit mind-boggling).  We were very excited about how many freshmen were contributing in this game.  In addition to the obvious game-winning connection, Najee Harris ran the ball hard for tough and important yardage.  Jerry Jeudy bailed out Tagovailoa on a pass that looked ten feet over his head and going into the stands. Ruggs had a touchdown. Maybe the announcers were right; maybe this group was so young it didn’t really comprehend the gravity of the historical moment (though we object to the use of the word “dumb”).

However, we take a minute to praise Alex Leatherwood. Big strong guys who do the dirty work without getting much notice are a particular favorite down here at the Tire Store -- and especially down in the grease pit. Alabama should have been in serious trouble when Jonah Williams went down.  Not only was he the best lineman on the field for Alabama’s offense, his back up was already playing in big Lester Cotton’s spot on the right side.  Cue Leatherwood.  We think he may have given up one sack and maybe a hurry or so.  However, for a freshman on this stage at the point he entered the game -- probably anticipating just watching all night -- he was as coolly efficient as anyone who touched the football.  Hurrah.

Special Teams:  Too much has been said already.  However, we’ll add a fond and grateful farewell to Andy Pappanastos who lived his boyhood dream of playing for the Crimson Tide and doing a serviceable job.  He was a little wide left of his dream of being a Daniel Moore painting, but remove the two MB stadium outings and his percentages were outstanding.  We will miss J.K. Scott who was just a serious weapon from Day 1.  He had a “bad” punt in this game – it went 40 yards.  Good luck in the NFL, J.K.

Officiating:  D--.  This was a Big 10 crew.  We did not out-and-out fail them, only because we are grading on a huge curve.  Having watched season after season of the lumbering play of Big 10 teams, the speed of this game was probably a challenge for them -- it would have been for anyone.  Regular readers know we don’t think SEC officiating crews would have done any better.  Overall, it reminded us of what a player once said about Vince Lombardi – “the Coach is very fair; he treats us all like dogs.”  Alabama clearly got away with a facemask on Fromm; one of Sports Illustrated’s feature photos shows a Bulldog with a handful of Tagovailoa’s facemask that was also not called.  The illegal procedure/offside/non-blocked punt was a complete mess.  We think the accurate call should have been dead ball, illegal procedure, five yards, and replay the down.  We aren’t sure if the Georgia player was in the neutral zone at the snap or not from the camera angle.  Doesn’t matter, because we think he was induced if he was.  We think Georgia’s receiver was out of bounds on the long touchdown catch.  Wilson should have been called for shoving the quarterback’s head towards the turf after the whistle (though this sort of stuff happens all the time, it was egregious and in a game that was getting pretty chippy).  UGA had Najee Harris in a bear hug on the touchdown pass that Ridley caught and if Irv Smith, Jr. had been wearing one of those nifty tear away jerseys on the same play, the Georgia defender could have taken the whole thing home as a souvenir. Both teams figured out early that holding by offensive linemen was apparently not illegal in the Big 10 Rulebook and so both sides took advantage.  Fans of both teams have started posting photos of bad/no calls on the internet.  We know, perhaps better than any other group of fans out there, how Georgia fans feel; we suggest they’d feel worse if Alabama’s final TD play had involved offensive pass interference.  We continue to call for improvements in officiating all across college football.

Coaching:  We want to give a tip of the cap to Coach Pruitt.  We have seen repeatedly what happens with a coordinator takes a job at another school before the National Championship (speaking of odd records).  Sometimes they stick around and win a championship -- sometimes, not so much.  Coach Pruitt, especially, made adjustments at the half that swung the game in Alabama’s favor as much as the change at quarterback did.  Take out that one long, controversial pass play and Georgia had a miserable second half.  As mentioned, Georgia’s running game was stuffed repeatedly on third and short in critical situations after a first half where just the opposite happened.  All this with the head coach on the other sideline being intimately familiar with our schemes and players.  Not wishing him any luck in the future, you understand, but congrats to Coach Pruitt.

As far as the head coach, we think this is likely this season was the best coaching job he has done since arriving in Tuscaloosa.  Before this year, we voted for 2008.  That team didn’t win a championship, of course.  However, what Coach Saban did with a dodgy and uneven lineup was very impressive to see (quick, name three offensive players on that team besides Julio Jones).  This year, everyone knew Alabama had issues at various spots.  No one could have known the degree to which injuries would magnify those issues.  And still, we hoisted the golden beer tap at the end of the season.  Look, you may not think Coach Saban deserves to be called the greatest college football coach of all time. We get it.  As we already admitted we think it impossible to compare between eras of college football.  However, if we are doing the same thing as we did with great historic games and you get to nominate five for the best college football coach of all time, would you even think of leaving him off the ballot?  So, why is it he is regularly ignored for Coach of the Year honors?  Sadly, we couldn’t tell you. Some of it may just be that he’s so good people just expect Alabama to have a great season.  Apparently that award should be called “Coach of the Year Besides Nick Saban” or “Coach of the Team Nobody Thought Would Be Very Good”.  Frankly, we doubt Coach Saban gives a hoot in a tin horn.  Which makes us respect him even more. 

That said, there were lapses in this game.  For example, after the nine-yard completion to Calvin Ridley with over a minute left, the offense basically went into play for a longish field goal mode.  This with a kicker who had already missed a longish field goal and had kicked poorly in this stadium on his previous attempt (though we note Pappanastos was Alabama’s leading scorer in the game).  Anything over extra point distance was going to be choppy.  That acknowledged, for a coach to bench the starter who had led the team to a second consecutive national championship appearance in favor of an untested freshman on the biggest stage that there is? After that decision and bringing the University its 17th National Championship trophy, discussing play calls seems like quibbling.

One final thing.  The man never stops.  In the official post-game press conference he teased Tua about missing the play call on his interception (no one else did) and about taking the sack in overtime.  Humorously, but if you think Saban wasn’t making a point at the same time you haven’t been paying attention.  In his post-game ESPN appearance (at probably about 2 a.m. local) he was still recruiting, reminding Scott Van Pelt that Alabama had probably played as many freshman as any team in the country.  If you don’t think that every other coach in America doesn’t tell recruits that if they go to Alabama they won’t see the field for years no matter how talented they are, you are kidding yourself.  Tua, Najee, Alex, Henry, Daniel, Xavier, Devonta, Jerry, Dylan, Thomas, Jedrick, Brian and some we forget just now all say “do tell”. 

We mentioned a couple of times this season that Coach Saban just seemed to like this team.  He liked coaching them.  We can understand why.  The players seemed to like and support one another.  We have seen the video of Hurts rushing onto the field to congratulate Tagovailoa on his success, a smile of simple joy on his face. Then we watched him endure as lousy and insensitive a post-game interview as we can recall with dignity and class. We have seen the video of the gallant Anfernee Jennings being rolled down the sidelines in a wheelchair to the trophy stand.  We’ve seen the tape of Tagovailoa racing to the corner of the stands to hug his dad and mom.  We saw the cell phone video of the team’s musically-horrid yet soul-stirring rendition of the fight song in the locker room….  Seems our allergies start acting up every time.

So, it is a little bittersweet to come to the end of this season.  Sweet, because the ultimate goal was achieved and in thrilling fashion.  Bitter, because this particular team will not assemble on the gridiron again and some of our favorites have played their final down for the Crimson Tide.  And because there are an awful lot of fixed flats, rotations, and balances between now and when we get to see Alabama kick off the football again.

As always, we thank the Commissioner for graciously allowing us space on his fancy blog to spout off about football.  Thanks to the Comptroller for sitting patiently on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights while we do this instead of doing chores around the house  Most of all, thanks to all of you who take the time to write, or say hello, or meet us at the games because you’ve read something in the Tire Store Report.  We are honored you take time from your busy lives to visit here.  Most of all, thanks for sharing with us another remarkable season of Alabama football.  We’ve shared good and we’ve shared some not-so-good times over the years.  Don’t let anyone tell you differently -- these are the good old days.

Lord willing, we’ll see you all in the sweltering heat of late summer when another Odyssey of a college football season begins afresh – a time when we can “watch men skilled in all ways of contending.” Till then, we are going to count on the memories of this season and especially last Monday night to keep us warm through the winter. 

The University of Alabama.  College Football’s Reigning Champions.  We just never get tired of saying it.  Roll Tide, everyone.  Beat Louisville.