When Kyle Shanahan came to town, he had seven seasons of experience calling plays at the NFL level and four top ten offenses. When Steve Sarkisian came to town, he had zero years of experience calling an offense at the NFL level. Shanahan was also known, depending on your perspective, as an offensive genius or a very creative coordinator with bad habits. Sark was known as a solid-to-smart play caller at the college level.
In the end, the Falcons decided that experience and familiarity were the keys for this team going forward, and the lesson they learned from the Sark hire was not to take a risk on a relative unknown at the NFL level. That’s why they hired Dirk Koetter as their once-again offensive coordinator and Mike Mularkey as their tight ends coach.
No matter what Dan Quinn, Thomas Dimitroff and Arthur Blank say in the days ahead, this was a decision that Matt Ryan was either heavily involved in or the spark for, given that he knew and liked both men a great deal from previously working with them. Atlanta is betting that their offense is so talented—and their offseason so fruitful at re-making a shaky offensive line—that a steady, well-known hand at the tiller is the move that will ensure this offense rises up and so forth in 2019.
The question is: Will it?
What we can assume about the hire
Let’s start with the things that are either known or can be reasonably assumed about these hires, with a particular focus on Koetter:
- Dirk Koetter has been a successful offensive coordinator at three stops, in that he has boasted a top ten offense at two stops (Jacksonville and Atlanta) and came close to one at his last stop (Tampa Bay), and has generally had solid offenses all along the way. He’s a mortal lock to do as well as Sark has done in Atlanta, given the talent on hand, and given expected improvements and his own long experience, it will not be a surprise at all if the offense is in fact better.
- Koetter’s experience is valuable to all the key people in Flowery Branch: Matt Ryan, his former quarterback who achieved top ten results in all three seasons while he was there; Thomas Dimitroff, the once and future GM who got to know Koetter during those three seasons; and Arthur Blank, the owner whose invisible hand and desire for immediate success is definitely present here. Then there’s Dan Quinn, whose defenses have struggled against Koetter’s offenses in recent years and who needs an offensive coordinator who is, again, a strong bet to keep the offense humming this year, even if improvement over Sark is modest.
- Koetter was hired because he is a much more experienced and (frankly) qualified offensive coordinator than Steve Sarkisian was, and the lesson the Falcons got out of Sark (and to a lesser extent, Marquand Manuel) is that inexperience is costly and problematic for a team that just needs competence at the helm. Koetter also clearly blew the doors off the Falcons in his interview, as they said they were going to wait to interview some playoff candidates and not rush their search, and instead hired Koetter a little over a week after their season ended.
- Finally, this offense won’t look quite the same as it once did under Sark. Whatever the Falcons have said and whatever stipulations are in his contract, Dirk Koetter does not run the exact scheme that Sark was rolling out, and we’ll likely see some tweaks to the offensive line and some more four verticals.
- Then there’s Mike Mularkey. The hire here is all about getting the most out of Austin Hooper, Eric Saubert, and whoever else joins them on the roster this year. Mularkey is a former NFL tight end with a ton of coaching experience and the Falcons wanted a fresh voice instead of Wade Harman. Mularkey’s also likely to be involved in the ground game, which is his specialty.
What we can’t assume about the hire
- That Dirk Koetter was Atlanta’s top candidate heading into the offseason. The Falcons are one of the more opaque organizations in the NFL, which is nice because the infighting that spills over into the public view with other teams isn’t present here. But we know that either Atlanta was flooding the streets with misinformation, because good reporters like Jason Butt and Vaughn McClure assumed there were other, more attractive candidates, or they actually preferred Gary Kubiak or Adam Gase but felt they couldn’t wait and/or get a reasonable shot at either. We can’t know where Koetter was on the organization’s wishlist, in other words, but he must have been one of the top candidates because he’s here today.
- That Koetter was hired because of a desire to transform or truly elevate the offense. It will be presented that way, of course, because that’s what fans want to hear and that’s what the Falcons paid lip service to in their end-of-year press conference. But given the apparent disconnect between what the Falcons said about their OC search and their final decision, it would also be reasonable to assume the Falcons are looking to present a slightly different look and just plug in a guy less likely to somehow pilot a terrific offense to, say, less than 20 points against quality opponents. The real drastic target for improvement is going to be the defense, and the offense just has to be as good as its personnel suggests it can be.
- That Koetter is not the team’s backup option in case Dan Quinn falters, given that reports indicate that he’ll be very highly paid and on a three year deal with Atlanta, despite Quinn coming off a year where he was moved/forced to fire all three of his coordinators. The hiring and security afforded to Koetter either indicates a great comfort level with Quinn and Koetter working together or a hedge against Quinn faltering in 2019, and I’m genuinely unsure which one it will prove to be.
So what do we have here? At the end of the day, there’s no doubt that Koetter is a solid hire (especially in a vacuum), and an offensive coordinator with the experience both in and outside Atlanta to serve as a capable steward of a terrific personnel grouping. No one should be surprised if the offense improves under Koetter, especially if the offensive line actually improves too.
I still don’t know to what extent the scheme will be tailored to Koetter’s long-standing preferences, but Koetter’s not going to come in here and screw things up for a team keen to avoid any pullback from an offense that was top ten but still weirdly disappointing. That was more or less the impetus behind the hiring, and given that the defense is justifiably the major focus of the offseason, it’s a sensible enough one. The Koetter enthusiasts, in my opinion, lend far too much credence to the idea that he was destroyed by personnel in his last stint in Atlanta, as his track record suggests he’s never been a coach who squeezes every last drop out of the talent on hand. The Koetter naysayers, on the other hand, have to remember that he has coached top rushing attacks when he’s had the personnel (Jacksonville, Tampa Bay) and managed to to pull together some of the league’s stronger passing attacks in Atlanta with a demonstrably worse offensive line and lesser weapons in 2013-2014. He is, as I’ve suggested multiple times, a fine hire, but strong feelings about the decision are more sensible than strong feelings about Koetter and his track record.
So yes, the decision. I have argued that the wrong lesson to learn from the team’s mixed track record under Steve Sarkisian is that experience matters more than fresh ideas and savvy ways to use the team’s best players, and hires like Koetter and Darrell Bevell were exactly what I was alluding to. The Falcons are rejecting that thinking out of hand, and banking on Koetter’s NFL and Atlanta experience translating into a more effective offense in 2019 and beyond. Even if the improvement is ultimately modest, they’re betting that and real defensive improvement will be enough to get them far, far away from the disappointment we had to embrace in 2018.
I don’t love being wrong, but I definitely hope they’re right.