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Examining Dirk Koetter’s history as an offensive coordinator

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When Koetter has called plays, the results have been positive with some significant caveats.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the names that could’ve come up for the Falcons’ offensive coordinator search, Dirk Koetter was perhaps the most surprising for me. There are many, many reasons for that, but here’s a handful of them:

· Koetter was already the offensive coordinator from 2012-2014, when he presided over one terrific offense and two solid ones;

· Koetter just finished up a stint in Tampa Bay where Todd Monken handily outshone him as an offensive mastermind, with Koetter embarrassing himself when he took over the reins and his team did nothing on offense;

· Koetter’s history as an offensive coordinator is a genuine mixed bag, and his fortunes are heavily dependent on the personnel he inherits, as you might imagine.

I know that Matt Ryan’s attachment to Koetter and the estimation for the man from, I’m guessing, Arthur Blank and Thomas Dimitroff play a role here. I also know that Koetter’s the likely choice for Atlanta, and while he was not my top choice, I’m sure he’ll better than Steve Sarkisian in some fashion. Today, I want to focus on whether Koetter actually has a track record to justify his hiring as the coordinator for one of the most high-powered offenses in the NFL, or if this would be a mistake in the making when the team could look at assistants from better teams and/or a splashier hire who might have gotten a more ringing endorsement than “probably better than Sark.”

Let’s dive in.

Dirk Koetter

Year Team Yards Points Passing Yards Passing TDs Rushing Yards Rushing TDs
Year Team Yards Points Passing Yards Passing TDs Rushing Yards Rushing TDs
2007 Jacksonville 7 6 17 9 2 4
2008 Jacksonville 20 24 15 24 18 10
2009 Jacksonville 18 24 19 27 10 6
2010 Jacksonville 15 18 27 11 3 9
2011 Jacksonville 32 28 32 31 12 23
2012 Atlanta 8 7 6 5 29 13
2013 Atlanta 14 20 7 11 32 21
2014 Atlanta 8 12 5 11 24 17
2015 Tampa Bay 5 20 17 22 5 15
2016 Tampa Bay 18 18 16 8 24 29
2017 Tampa Bay 9 18 4 10 27 25

The Jaguar years

Mike Smith’s fondness for the Jaguars is extremely well-established, and the pipeline between those two teams was justifiably the butt of many jokes over the years. Mike Mularkey went directly to the Jaguars as an ill-fated head coach after the Falcons all but fired him, the team imported players frequently from Jacksonville, and that is of course where they got Koetter from.

Koetter spent five years calling plays in Jacksonville, from 2007-2011, and presided over one very good offense, one decent one, two mediocre ones and one abysmal one, with the last ironically coming in 2011 just before the Falcons brought him aboard. His best year was his first one in 2007, when the team had Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew at the height of their powers and David Garrard quietly doing good things for 12 games at quarterback. His worst was in 2011, when Blaine Gabbert was his quarterback and was awful.

What’s most noteworthy about his time in Jacksonville is that it was the one epoch of his coaching career where he consistently had an effective rushing attack at his disposal, which proves he’s at least capable of calling one when he has the personnel. If the Falcons want to have one under Koetter in 2019, they’re gonna need to get Devonta Freeman healthy and upgrade that offensive line.

Falcons years

Throw Jacksonville out for a moment, and you’re left with the suspicion that Koetter’s relationship with Matt Ryan and potentially this front office are the major factor here. That 2012 was a fine year, and Ryan’s development unquestionably accelerated under Koetter.

Koetter spent three seasons in Atlanta, during those ill-fated 2012-2014 seasons when the Falcons had nothing good at running back. The net result of those years were one very good offense and two so-so ones, but crucially, three top ten passing attacks. That 2012 offense took full advantage of the team’s absurdly effective trio of receiving options and were able to mask holes on the offensive line and at running back, and that’s sort of what Koetter is going to be asked to do if the Falcons don’t nail this offseason.

In Koetter’s defense, the 2013 and 2014 squads were dealing with huge limitations in offensive talent that probably would’ve dragged down just about anybody at the helm. The offensive line was putrid in 2013 and particularly 2014, and if the Falcons play their cards right he’ll be working with much more talent in 2019 on that front. Combine his work with terrific running back talent in Jacksonville with his work with terrific passing game talent in Atlanta and you don’t have to squint all that hard to see his appeal to this Falcons team. It’s just not an obvious, slam dunk sort of appeal.

Buccaneers years

Here’s the last piece of the puzzle. Koetter surrendered play calling duties in 2018 to Todd Monken—with a couple of exceptions—but was the offensive coordinator in 2015 and the head coach with play calling duties in 2016 and 2017. We’ll throw 2018 and its lousy Koetter-led performances out aside from this note and a mention later, but how did his offenses look in Tampa Bay?

Pretty good, with caveats. His first year, the Bucs were a top-tier rushing attack and a middling passing attack. Things swung over the next two seasons, with Tampa Bay largely losing any semblance of an effective ground attack and transitioning to an aerial assault with Jameis Winston in the fold. In all three seasons, Koetter had a top 12 or so passing attack or rushing attack, and he did so with a real mixed bag, personnel-wise.

Obviously it was jarring to see the Bucs fare even better with Todd Monken at the helm, and equally jarring to watch the Bucs offense fall apart with Koetter weirdly taking back play calling at one point in the season. That one game shouldn’t be held against him, but it should give us a little bit of pause that it took another coordinator to elevate this Bucs offense even further. It should give us pause that Koetter basically never elevated his talent anywhere he went, either.

Positives

Koetter has presided over a top offense in terms of yardage five times, including four in the last six seasons he’s been a coordinator. He’s presided over a top ten scoring attack twice in that time, and he’s shown he can work with the personnel he’s given, posting top ten rushing attack three times and passing attacks four times in that span. He’s had a bottom quarter of the league offense in either points or scoring just once, during that disastrous Gabbert-led 2011 in Jacksonville, and generally has presided over units that are competent at worst. That’s not a ringing endorsement, really, but when you’re dealing with this kind of talent the Falcnos chiefly want to know they have someone who can keep the good times rolling. Kyle Shanahan this isn’t, but Steve Sarkisian it is also not.

Then there’s the not insignificant familiarity with the existing power structure and the franchise quarterback. Matt Ryan enjoyed one of his better seasons under Koetter in 2012 and aired it out in 2013 and 2014, and Julio Jones basically developed into the receiver he is today over Koetter’s three seasons in Atlanta. He won’t be stepping in cold, installing an entirely new offense, and getting to know players, because he already has those key relationships in place. He’s going to need to tailor his preferred offense a bit, but Dan Quinn has made it clear that’s part of accepting the job.

Finally, Koetter’s enjoyed a solid-to-good career as a play caller despite never having all the talent in one place that the Falcons will in 2019. They need to invest in the trenches, but the 2012 Falcons were a top ten unit with a fading Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers at running back, a second-year Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez serving as a tremendous trio with just Harry Douglas behind them, and an offensive line with real strengths but also Sam Baker and Peter Konz. The receiving talent is close, obviously, but the Falcons have much more at running back and could boast a better line with key investments, if you trust them to do so. Virtually no one thought Sark was more than a competent option at best in Atlanta, and Koetter ought to be an upgrade, however slight.

Negatives

There’s nothing in Koetter’s history to suggest that he’s capable of elevating a great offense into the stratosphere, to put it mildly. Koetter’s very best offenses have never finished higher than fifth in the NFL in yards and sixth in scoring, and even his great passing attacks never got to the very top of the league. Koetter’s been known over the years for his stubborn adherence to running on early downs, something that drove Falcons fans crazy under Steve Sarkisian, too. Finally, Koetter loves screens to an extent that is probably overblown but got a little cartoonish in Atlanta at times.

More concerning is Koetter’s career-long habit of boasting offenses that rank better in piling up yards than they do in scoring. Koetter’s offenses have been ranked better in scoring than yardage just twice, with the 2007 and 2012 teams he called plays for. Otherwise, his offenses have varied from mildly being unable to close things out (2014 in Atlanta, 2010 in Jacksonville) to conspicuously bad at it (2015 and 2017, 2009 as well). To be fair to Koetter, that was largely true of Kyle Shanahan as well before his run in Atlanta, but it’s still something to note.

Koetter’s playoff results are mixed, too. His 2007 Jaguars squad managed 31 points against the Steelers (on just 239 yards) and 20 points against the Patriots (on 350 yards), while his 2012 Falcons squad put up 30 and 417 in a win against Seattle and (tragically) 24 and 477 yards in a losing effort against the 49ers.

The biggest negative for Koetter, really, is that he’s a re-tread. The Falcons already had three years with Koetter at the helm, and he’s by and large turned in slightly above average results overall in three stops along his NFL coaching career. It’s difficult to see what Koetter offers in terms of creativity or eye-popping results that would justify bringing him aboard to replace Steve Sarkisian, who despite his obvious struggles with predictability and getting the team going against quality defenses still piloted this offense to a top ten finish. The gains here feel like they’ll be incremental, in other words, and this is a team with top five offensive talent. Unless Koetter’s offenses have a gear we haven’t seen, this feels like an entirely too safe hire for a team that didn’t need one.

Outlook

I’ve been lukewarm on the Koetter hire and I remain so, but spending some time going through his history as a coordinator makes it perfectly clear why the Falcons are interested given their stated desire for continuity and improvement of some kind. Koetter’s gotten strong results when the personnel provided to him have been strong, by and large, and has presided over both effective rushing attacks and effective passing attacks over the years. Matt Ryan will love having him back, the offense should be at least a bit better with him at the helm, and his commitment to the run will never be questioned, as Dan Quinn has mandated.

The big question is whether Koetter will prove to be a major upgrade on Steve Sarkisian if the Falcons hire him, and the jury’s a bit out on that. If he’s even a modest one and this team starts showing up in force against their quality opponents, you won’t hear many complaints, but it’ll still be fair to wonder why the Falcons didn’t try something new and fresh. If this team chooses experience over exciting ideas with Koetter, the net result will likely be a positive, but they may not reach the tantalizing heights their talent suggests they can.