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The pros and cons of Dirk Koetter returning as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator

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Koetter’s return sparked a massive mixed reaction. It summarized how the surprise hiring should be viewed.

Atlanta Falcons v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

There was plenty of intrigue about who the Falcons were going to bring in as the next offensive coordinator. It was the third time Dan Quinn had to select a new offensive coordinator during his tenure. The decision to hire Kyle Shanahan worked wonders, as the offense produced historical numbers. Taking a gamble on Steve Sarkisian proved to be a largely frustrating two-year experience.

Quinn had seen enough to justify moving on from Sarkisian, which created some buzz around the team. After taking a week to assess the viable options, Dirk Koetter was their choice as the man to get the Falcons back to their potent ways. Is it the right choice? There is reason for optimism to believe so, yet it’s hard to overlook the former head coach’s previous mistakes.

Familiarity with Matt Ryan

Giving Ryan the resources to play at an elite level is obviously a major priority. That starts with making him as comfortable as possible. Although there is plenty of work to do in restructuring the offensive line, the franchise quarterback will be thrilled about Koetter’s return. Ryan spoke highly of his then former offensive coordinator before the 2016 season opener against Tampa Bay. It was essential for him to be confident in how they operate as a unit, and for him to take more authority in what they were running on a weekly basis. Koetter gave him the necessary belief, which was needed after three crushing playoff exits between 2008 and 2011.

One of the biggest criticisms about Sarkisian’s firing was how the Falcons were going to hire a new offensive coordinator for the fourth time since 2012. That isn’t the case with Koetter returning to take over play-calling duties. Ryan won’t need to learn an entirely new playbook. Instead of enduring another potential slow start with a new offensive coordinator, the former MVP is back with someone he had one of his best seasons ever with.

Ryan is comfortable operating in shotgun and running play action in a variety of ways. That should bode well in reinserting himself back into Koetter’s system. The relationship between a quarterback and offensive coordinator can drastically elevate or deteriorate an offense. If the Falcons thrive next season, Ryan and Koetter will be at the forefront of their success.

Tendency to abandon the run

While it’s easy to pinpoint the Falcons’ roster limitations in 2013 and 2014, there was one recurring theme during both seasons. Koetter constantly abandoned the run. That put further pressure on an overmatched offensive line. With instability at the center position and mostly dreadful play at both tackle positions, Ryan took severe punishment. Putting your franchise quarterback’s health at serious risk isn’t acceptable under any circumstances. Despite not having an effective running game, the decision to frequently give up on it and force Ryan to attempt more than 35 passes practically every week made a bad situation even worse.

The Falcons averaged the fewest rushing attempts in 2013 and sixth-fewest in 2014. Don’t expect to see a repeat in 2019, especially after Quinn’s recent comments. His emphasis on increasing rushing attempts means Koetter won’t be solely reliant on Ryan’s arm. Adding Mike Mularkey to the coaching staff will likely enhance their desire to run the ball more. It may take some time for Koetter to move forward with a more balanced attack. His Tampa Bay teams failed to muster up a productive ground game.

Unlike Tampa Bay, the Falcons do possess a star running back in Devonta Freeman, excellent left tackle in Jake Matthews, and former All-Pro center in Alex Mack. Those three assets, along with Quinn’s insistence on running the ball more, should prevent Koetter from reverting to old habits.

Urge to go vertical

The biggest difference in transitioning from Mularkey to Koetter was how aggressive the play-calling became in 2012. By trading a fortune to draft Julio Jones and Michael Turner aging, a pass-first approach was bound to transpire. It was still mesmerizing to see the Falcons attack defenses downfield. They had more than enough talent to punish teams ruthlessly. To have an offensive coordinator capable of knowing how to utilize three stars (Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez) in efficient ways transformed a run-first, conservative offense into an all-out aerial attack.

In Koetter’s three previous seasons as offensive coordinator, the Falcons were top-ten in yards per pass attempt in 2012 and 2014. That shows his intentions of using vertical route concepts to create explosive plays. Considering how stagnant the running game was, they needed those aggressive play designs to remain competitive. It didn’t work in 2013, but Koetter managed to make the most of a highly-flawed offense in 2014. His proactive approach should be more welcoming compared to Sarkisian’s muddled methods.

As much as the former USC head coach wanted to exploit teams through the air, his habit of calling too many three-step drops and other quick-passing plays limited them in several games. Koetter has a clear philosophy, which should be welcoming after two years of mostly incoherent game plans.

Predictable, excessive usage of screens

When the Falcons’ offense suffered an identity crisis in 2011, many analysts pointed out the flaws in Mularkey’s system. Not being able to transition from being a run-first offense to a more aggressive unit ultimately led to his dismissal. Mularkey’s play calling didn’t have much creativity behind it, especially when it came to calling screens. His refusal to call them hampered an inconsistent offense. Once Koetter started implementing them in his weekly game plan, they were starting to pick up easy chunk plays. Who can forget how the Falcons abused the Lions with constant screens during their primetime win back in 2012?

What worked initially doesn’t always translate into sustainable success. Koetter started to call screens far too often, which led to opposing coaches telegraphing them and shutting it down. Whether it was a bubble screen to Douglas or jailbreak screen to Jones, these long-developing plays failed to produce positive yardage. The Falcons didn’t have an athletic (or particularly good) offensive line at the time. Although the current unit will undergo changes, the coaching staff takes pride in having an offensive line capable of moving sideline to sideline. Could a quicker group bode well for Koetter’s incessant screen plays? That may be the case, yet it’s still something that should be avoided. Pinpointing a defense’s main deficiencies and attacking them is how Koetter will be effective rather than resting on old tendencies.

Knack for getting the entire supporting cast involved

Another encouraging aspect about Koetter’s return is his ability to integrate role players into the game plan. Jacquizz Rodgers, Harry Douglas, and Devin Hester all found great success during his tenure. How Rodgers was used on screens and wheel routes should bode well for the promising Ito Smith. Although Douglas’ best season came when Jones and White were sidelined for the majority of the 2013 season, the diminutive wide receiver made key contributions in 2012 and 2014. How he was utilized in the slot gave Koetter different dimensions in how they shredded opposing defenses. Hester was rejuvenated in his lone season under Koetter’s system. Following several frustrating seasons of being limited by Jay Cutler, Ryan and Koetter got the most out of the electrifying playmaker.

It’s no secret that the Falcons have one of the most prolific receiving trios in the league. Jones won’t need much time to acclimate based on his history in the offense. How Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley are featured should be fascinating. Based on their versatility and ability to thrive in different formation alignments, both receivers can greatly benefit from playing for a more forward-thinking offensive coordinator. There is also a chance someone like Marvin Hall or Russell Gage makes a huge impact at some point. Koetter hasn’t been afraid to use lesser-known intriguing talent for a couple of plays per game.

There were some games when Jones would be targeted far too often last season, which led to the offense becoming completely one-dimensional. That won’t transpire under Koetter, who knows how to get his playmakers involved.

Concern of not being able to evolve

One positive that went largely unnoticed during Sarkisian’s tenure was how he tried to integrate league-wide trends into his offense. When numerous offenses started using RPOs, he started calling them a few times per game. Utilizing zone read designs with Sanu running the wildcat proved to be highly effective. To help solve the red-zone woes, he started calling more rub route concepts. Sarkisian even dialed up the “Philly Special” in the final game of the season. While the former embattled offensive coordinator made his fair share of mistakes, nobody could fault him for his effort in trying to take what’s working across the league and use it to help the team win games.

Koetter isn’t known for being overly creative. His stubbornness became well-documented in Tampa Bay. Not being able to play in a consistently efficient manner wasn’t simply due to Jameis Winston’s chaotic play. It was also because of Koetter’s lack of inventiveness. Tampa Bay’s offense didn’t start flourishing until Todd Monken took over play-calling duties. That should draw a red flag when assessing Koetter’s resume. Does Atlanta’s overall talent and offensive stability put less pressure on him to devise brilliantly schemed plays? It does to some extent. There will still be times when an offense needs a well-designed play to scheme a player open.

Those moments usually come against top-tier defenses or in big games. The Falcons’ offense had a poor track record under Sarkisian in big games. They failed to score 20 points or more against the Saints (multiple times in New Orleans), Eagles (multiple times), Vikings, Patriots, Steelers, and Ravens. Koetter must show he can be creative in breaking down the league’s premier defenses and prevailing against rival opposition.

Final Verdict

How the front office rebuilds the offensive line will be integral in how the offense operates next season. Koetter’s preference of using more seven-step drops and taking shots downfield means they must drastic improvement in pass protection. Upgrading at left guard, right guard, and right tackle is an extremely difficult thing to accomplish in one off-season. If they receive competent play from multiple positions and an above-average guard, the offense should be able to flourish.

Only Ryan, Freeman, Jones, Matthews, and Ryan Schraeder remain from the 2014 offense. Schraeder may not remain on the list much longer after a disastrous season. As much as Koetter is familiar with Atlanta, he will have plenty of work to do in gelling with newer and younger talent. It’s an understandable decision to bring back someone who had past success with Ryan. This move does remain a bit underwhelming based on how Tampa Bay capitulated over the past two seasons. How he grows as a play caller, along with helping young players develop, will ultimately decide on whether this is a booming success or something that costs Quinn his job.