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Should Falcons fans worry about Dirk Koetter’s checkered history with running backs?

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Fact: Dirk Koetter’s light bulbs change themselves

NFL: NOV 20 Buccaneers at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I remember when Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter first joined the Falcons. I remember researching some of the teams he’d coached, and in particular, the pass-happy vertical attack he brought to Arizona State in the early 2000s. But the Falcons aren’t Arizona State, and this isn’t 2001.

After the Falcons re-hired him seven months ago, Koetter made a solemn promise. He promised balance, because the modern game demands it. And he promised to help Dan Quinn’s team get back to running the ball. To be clear, it’s a self-serving promise, because downfield plays are Koetter’s joie de vivre. If Koetter can successfully run the ball on third down, then he can successfully run play-action a few plays later. It’s a means to an end for him.

Do you zealously follow the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? I didn’t think so. So let me catch you up: they haven’t fielded a respectable rushing attack since Enron went on trial. I can’t lay all of that at Koetter’s fee. During Koetter’s first year as head coach (2015), the Buccaneers ranked fifth in team rushing. (That was Doug Martin’s last good year, for what that’s worth.) In the years since, they’ve consistently been among the league’s worst in team rushing. Again, how much of that slump is Koetter’s fault is up for debate. But at a minimum, let’s acknowledge that Koetter comes back to Atlanta with work to do.

The wildcard here is, in a word, “talent.” And in that sense, 2019 ought to look a little different than 2012-2014. When healthy, Devonta Freeman can gobble up rushing yards like Pac Man after a one too many Redbulls. Behind him on the depth chart are at least a couple guys Koetter ought to find interesting. What’s more, the Falcons just spent two first round picks on offensive lineman, not to mention the free agent additions of Jamon Brown and James Carpenter. If Koetter can’t find success rushing the ball with this offense, then it is his fault. But that’s not always been the case.

When Koetter came to the Falcons in 2012, they handed him a 30-year-old Michael Turner, still capable of bowling opposing defenders over from time to time but not the same guy that ushered franchise quarterback Matt Ryan into the league. In 2013, because they wanted to get creative, the Falcons once again handed Koetter a 30-year-old running back, this time in the form of a guy that resembled Steven Jackson but hardly played like him. (Then again, with a starting offensive line consisting of Jeremy Trueblood, Garrett Reynolds, Peter Konz, Justin Blalock, and Lamar Holmes, most running backs would struggle.) A year later, the last year of Koetter’s first run as the Falcons offensive coordinator, they gave us a special treat: they let Steven Jackson start fifteen games, while Devonta Freeman rode the pine. (Although, to be frank, some of that was on Koetter.)

So ... should you worry? Yes and no. There’s no denying Koetter’s preference for elite talent. If it’s there, he uses it, but if it isn’t, then he’s falls back on what he knows: throwing the ball. So what opportunities can Koetter create that aren’t singularly dependent on talent? Can Koetter, if he needs to, scheme his way to a better rushing attack? In a best case scenario, the sheer talent of the offensive skill players and offensive line carry Koetter past his own deficiencies. If that doesn’t happen, then Koetter’s ability to establish and maintain a rushing attack will really be put to the test. And those deficiencies? Well, in time they will show themselves, bubbling to the top whether we like it or not.

Your thoughts, Falcoholics?