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What can we learn from Dirk Koetter’s 2012 season?

Not much, given personnel changes, but enough to feel good about the passing game and concerned about the ground game.

Atlanta Falcons Photo by NFL via Getty Images

To say 2012 was Dirk Koetter’s finest year in Atlanta is much the same as saying you and I need to breathe oxygen. It’s so obvious that it barely bears repeating.

That’s partly because the talent level took a hit in 2013 and 2014, a problem that came from a mix of injury (Julio Jones missing most of 2013 broke the offense) and sheer ineptitude (the offensive line and running back picture were largely brutal). Figuring out how Koetter is going to fare in 2019, seasons upon seasons removed from his last stop in Atlanta, feels like a vigorous exercise in projection.

That said, it’s worth understanding how this offense functioned under Koetter way back when to understand how it might function again. Matt Ryan still runs the offense, Julio Jones is still terrorizing defenses, and there was at least slight overlap with the likes of Jake Matthews and Devonta Freeman.

So let’s see what, if anything, we can learn from 2012.

Baseline stats

Team Stats

Points: 419 (7th)

Yards: 5,906 (8th)

Turnovers: 18 (7th)

Passing Yards: 4,509 (6th)

Passing TDs: 32 (5th)

Interceptions: 14 (12th)

Rushing Yards: 1,397 (29th)

Rushing TDs: 12 (13th)

Overall, this was a top ten offense chiefly bogged down by the unproductivity of its rushing game. This was Michael Turner’s final, painful season in Atlanta, when the blocking was still pretty solid but the Burner’s insane 2008-2011 workload had taken a legitimate toll. It’s hard to hang too much of that on Koetter, though there’s an asterisk there we’ll dive into for the next section.

The passing game still thrived. This was the best season of Matt Ryan’s career to this point, and is still probably one of his four or so best years. Koetter did a nice job of giving Ryan’s target group opportunities to get open and give Ryan a chance to strike downfield, and it was the first time it really felt like Julio, Roddy, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez were all used effectively at once. Given that Koetter is arguably working with even better talent—heck, it’s not really that arguable—2012 is a strong argument for the idea that the Falcons are about to enjoy a successful passing season.

The volume is key here. The Falcons gave Gonzo (93), Roddy (92), and Julio (79) over 75 catches apiece and got 103 receptions into the hands of Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling and Turner combined, meaning the offense can support pass catching backs and at least three big-time receivers. Koetter’s love of tight ends should be good news for Hooper, while Douglas’ 38 receptions sounds a note of caution for Mohamed Sanu in 2019.

Again, though, it’s difficult to know how Koetter will impact this passing attack’s numbers given that the team is coming off of a Sark-led year where Ryan and company put up better passing in a year where the offensive coordinator got fired than they did at Koetter’s 2012 peak. The game has changed a lot in those passing years and the offense is absurdly talented now in a way they weren’t even in 2012, but I’d stop short of saying there’s some grand evidence that Koetter is going to improve on Sark. He should, given the advantages in front of him, at least coax similar performances out of the passing attack, but that would certainly raise questions about the move in the first place.

A word of caution

The first thing to acknowledge is that Koetter’s 2012 tendencies when it came to the run are concerning for anyone who went bonkers when Steve Sarkisian leaned into obvious, unproductive first and second down runs. At the time the team was a bit hamstrung with an aging Michael Turner and a lack of a clear complementary back, but...well, take a look.

1st down: 220 attempts, 733 yards, 5 TDs

2nd down: 122 attempts, 582 yards, 5 TDs

3rd down: 35 attempts, 82 yards, 3 TDs

4th down: 1 attempt, 0 yards

As you might imagine, the fact that the team wasn’t even going to pretend to try to run on third down had repercussions for the team’s passing. Here are the splits for those same downs through the air:

1st down: 166/237, 1,892 yards, 11 TDs/5 INTs, 7 sacks

2nd down: 146/212, 1,492 yards, 13 TDs/3 INTs, 11 sacks

3rd down: 108/160, 1,138 yards, 7 TDs/5 INTs, 9 sacks

4th down: 2/6, -2 yards, 1 TD/1 INT, 1 sack

This team was brutally inefficient on third downs, by and large, which is a big red flag with Koetter coming to town. If this was a one year aberration it would not really be worth noting, but this has been a persistent trend line across Koetter offenses throughout much of his career as a play caller. He simply does not like to run on third down, and his rushing offenses generally only fare well on first down.

It’s very true that the Falcons never had a truly capable rushing attack with Koetter at the helm last time around, and their offensive line and running back situation is much improved this time around, to say nothing of Ryan’s maturation as a QB. Still, the numbers were so much better last year under Sark even without Freeman that it’s hard to even compare them, with the team enjoying stellar third down efficiency running and passing.

No one is going to reasonably suggest that Koetter is going to be a bad thing for the offense, and almost everyone expects that the talent level (which is mostly better than it was in 2012) will lead to good results. But it’s worth noting that the questions we first raised when Koetter got here are sustained by his best year in Atlanta, and we are really banking on the talent of Devonta Freeman saving the day here.