Sports writers covering the SEC and Alabama devote countless hours to the art of deconstructing the words of Nick Saban.
But it’s a little odd when the decorated head coach (five national titles since 2003; four with Alabama) gets tasked with parsing the words of others — including those who may not exist.
Take the recent, but not necessarily new criticism of how Alabama apparently wears out its players at the college level, subjecting them to long and grueling practices during the season. By extension, this narrative creates the perception — real or imagined, misguided or not — of Crimson Tide stars entering the NFL with less-than-fresh bodies.
Before we hear Saban’s thoughts on the subject, let’s clarify something: If the reputable Pro Football Talk blog opts to run this story, and if sports-radio hosts are discussing the matter leading up to a Saban interview, then this movement isn’t being driven by media sources.
Instead, it’s likely the work of a gossip-fueled NFL scout, personnel director, general manager or coach who likes to stir things up.
Or maybe he/she doesn’t like Saban.
Or maybe they were hoping a certain Heisman Trophy-winning running back from Alabama — rhymes with “Schmerick Schmenry” — would fall to that franchise sometime in Round 2 of the draft.
Whatever the case, Saban’s response to this matter — without knowing who’s actually behind the criticisms — was equal parts insightful and prickly.
“When you talk to NFL teams, none of them ever say that to me,” said Saban this week on the Seattle airwaves, according to NFL.com and ProFootballTalk.com. “I don’t know where that came from. (Green Bay’s) Eddie Lacy comes out and is rookie of the year as a running back. Where’s the wear and tear?
“We had 45 guys on NFL rosters last year, which is more than any other college team, so where’s the wear and tear? I don’t see it. Dr. (Lyle) Cain and Dr. (James) Andrews are our team doctors who deal with a lot of NFL players. They monitor what we do with our players. I don’t think this is factual at all, and I resent the fact that anybody in the NFL, with the access we give them, the things we do to try to help them … that anyone would make a statement like that and hurt our program, if it were true.
“I don’t get that. I have heard people in the media say that before, but I haven’t heard anybody in the NFL actually say that.”
This narrative begs a handful of questions:
**Does Alabama have extra-long and physically draining practices?
**How many other SEC schools regularly implement full-contact practices during the season?
**For other powerhouse programs throughout the nation, is this simply the price of doing business in today’s college football?
**And finally … should anyone really care?
Look, I’m all about coaches and trainers providing a safe and positive work environment for the student-athletes, while endlessly promoting the merits of good nutrition and strong fundamentals (in their locker room, the Detroit Lions conservatively have 150 safety posters reading, “You can’t tackle what you can’t see”).
But tackle football is a grueling sport to teach/coach at the college and pro levels, no matter the safety measures. Plus, we’ve long graduated from that “Junction Boys” era of college football, when coaches callously withheld water from players and treated them like rented mules.
Bottom line: You cannot have a defense full of productive tacklers … unless they routinely practice the fundamentals of tackling. And you cannot demand physical toughness in the trenches … unless your offensive/defensive linemen are well-versed in the football equivalent of “hand-to-hand combat.”
For me, the heart of all Saban jabs, relative to the NFL draft, has much to do with upside.
Pro personnel directors already know that defensive tackles A’Shawn Robinson (Round 2 pick — Lions) and Jarran Reed (Round 2 selection — Seattle Seahawks) are highly skilled at stopping the run. But they also crave projectability with their high-end Alabama draftees, meaning they don’t want their rookies to be fully formed or finished products shortly after draft day.
Which brings us to the Tennessee Titans: They’re obviously thrilled to land Derrick Henry (45th overall) at tailback, knowing he’ll immediately bolster Tennessee’s success in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
They might also be happy with Henry’s upside in the passing game, knowing his athletic gifts (great size, good speed and agility) far exceed that of a player who caught only 17 balls in college.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.