For the first time in 17 years on Monday, Nick Saban didn’t provide media with an official depth chart ahead of an Alabama football season because the public dissemination of it puts backup players too much in their feelings. That might be a flippant way of saying it, but it pretty much captures the coach’s explanation. And as explanations go, there’s only one that makes sense for why Saban finds it necessary to withhold this somehow controversial document: a widening generational gap that’s saddening to witness.
Let’s be clear on three things:
1) Inside the Crimson Tide locker room, players know where they stand for playing time. Nothing written on this top-secret piece of paper will come as a complete surprise to any of them.
2) On Saturday, the depth chart will reveal itself in real time when the Crimson Tide opens the season against Middle Tennessee. By the end of the first quarter it will be a finished build, likely complete with specialists and top substitutes, and put on public blast just the same as it would have on Monday.
3) Saban keeps a finger on the pulse of his players more intuitively than just about any coach out there. And for the previous 16 years, he didn’t think withholding a depth chart was necessary. Now he does. Something’s changed, and it’s not the coach.
All that begets a natural line of questioning: why bother sitting on the depth chart until it can’t be sat on any longer, and why now? Why would some players react poorly to the public release of something they’re already familiar with, and that will be on full display in the stadium in five days anyway?
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Saban cited “distractions,” a pretty generic term, leaving us all to guess what those distractions might be. Social media, and the youngest generation’s very obvious addiction to it, is mine. And if you think football locker rooms are insulated from its effects, think again. Even pro locker rooms aren’t immune. Earlier this week, Kelly Stafford, the wife of Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, said on her podcast that her husband, who is only 35 himself, can barely connect with young teammates anymore.
“They get out of practice and meetings during training camp, and they go straight to their phones,” she said. “No one looks up from their phones. Matthew’s like, ‘I don’t know … am I the dad? Do I take their phones? What do I do here?'”
To be sure, social media’s insidious grip on too many kids who engage with it doesn’t suddenly let go because one goes off to college, or plays college football. It trains people to care too much about what others think. And it’s a fine platform for hate and insults, anonymous or otherwise, that have a way of entering headspace and messing with the wiring. A classic example of what Saban would call a distraction.
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It would be easy enough to point out that mentally tough players don’t have this issue, and the rest might be in need of a real-world kick in the butt. While that might be true, it’s just as true that those of us who didn’t grow up with a phone glued to our hand can’t possibly comprehend what it’s like to be 18 in 2023. And if it’s hard for a 52-year-old like myself to comprehend, you can bet Saban, at 71, has wrestled with understanding it, too.
But in the end, he’s concluded this about releasing a depth chart:
“It creates a lot of guys thinking that, well, this guy won the job now and I’m not going to play or whatever,” Saban said. “And quite frankly, we don’t need that.”
Alabama’s initial depth chart had always been softened by the word “or”, listed between two players’ names, to indicate co-starters at multiple positions, and even co-backups. Perhaps that was done as much to assuage angst as it was to define platoons.
On Saturday, however, only 11 can take the field on each side.
And for at least a few hours, no phones.