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Dirk Koetter’s offenses have historically failed to improve after the 1st year

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The Falcons offense has to get better in 2020 if they’re going to be an elite team. Will it under Koetter?

Los Angeles Rams v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Dirk Koetter is here for 2020. We’ve been pretty clear about how we feel about that, but feelings and opinions are just that. Most of the knocks on our coverage of retaining him to this point have come from the thought that of course this offense can improve in his second year, offenses usually pick up in the second year under a new coordinator, and who’s to say that won’t be true about him?

In the interest of fairness and to see if my instincts about Koetter’s NFL success were accurate, I went back and broke down each of his NFL seasons by the basics. I was looking to find out whether Koetter’s offenses have ever been truly elite, and perhaps more importantly, whether they’ve tended to improve after his first year at a given stop, considering he’s heading into Year 2 with Atlanta. After this, I promise to write more sparingly about Koetter and his fortunes, especially since I’m going to be as invested in his success as anyone else.

Join me on a journey through Koetters past.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Dirk Koetter Jacksonville Jaguars

Year Total Yards Total Scoring Giveaways Passing Yards Passing TDs Rushing Yards Rushing TDs
Year Total Yards Total Scoring Giveaways Passing Yards Passing TDs Rushing Yards Rushing TDs
2007 7 6 4 17 9 2 4
2008 20 24 13 15 24 18 10
2009 18 24 7 19 27 19 6
2010 15 18 26 27 11 3 9
2011 32 28 11 32 31 12 23

The Jaguars were a top-tier offense in Koetter’s first year. David Garrard was terrific in 12 games, Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew were a monster 1-2 punch on the ground, and he worked around weak receiving options to put together one of the league’s top ten or so units. When people talk about Dirk Koetter being a good offensive coordinator, they are thinking specifically of this year, one he’s been feasting off of for well over a decade.

From there, things went downhill rather rapidly. Garrard regressed, Taylor was aging, and the Jaguars continued to assemble a receiving corps littered with men who would soon be considered draft busts. The team would never again get back to being even a league average offense—the closest they came was in 2010, when they were right on the cusp—and in his brutal final year in 2011 with Blaine Gabbert things had gone spectacularly off the rails. The only thing the Jaguars did consistently decently under Koetter was run the football, and a lot of that can be attributed to a solid offensive line and the superb play of Maurice Jones-Drew. The personnel continually got weaker during Koetter’s years with the team, but it’s also true that he never seemed able to squeeze more out of what he had.

It’s very odd to look back at Koetter’s hiring by the Falcons the first time around in the context of what he did in Jacksonville. At the time we were all so sick of Mike Mularkey that hiring a guy who was looking to implement more of a vertical passing game was welcome, even if his offenses hadn’t been great with the Jaguars. Mike Smith’s stated rationale was a combination of that vertical passing and Koetter’s commitment to the run, with the latter seeming particularly ominous in hindsight.

Ultimately, it’s fair to say his offenses did not improve after his first year.

Atlanta Falcons

Dirk Koetter Atlanta Falcons

Year Total Yards Total Scoring Giveaways Passing Yards Passing TDs Rushing Yards Rushing TDs
Year Total Yards Total Scoring Giveaways Passing Yards Passing TDs Rushing Yards Rushing TDs
2012 8 7 7 6 5 29 13
2013 14 20 21 7 11 32 21
2014 8 12 13 5 11 24 6
2019 5 13 23 3 8 30 24

This is the most relevant table for our purposes, because it directly involves our team. Koetter came to Atlanta and did, to his credit, install a more vertical passing attack that immediately improved Matt Ryan’s fortunes and Julio Jones’ outlook, and that offense helped carry the Falcons to the NFC Conference Championship in 2012. Had Harry Douglas not tripped and had the defense held up their end of the bargain, the Falcons might have been Super Bowl bound in Koetter’s first year, and I don’t want to diminish the fine work he did that year in any way. That year should be remembered fondly.

For reasons both well within his control and well outside of it, things got immediately worse after that year. The team made a series of ill-advised personnel moves, cutting ties with Todd McClure, drafting Lamar Holmes and Peter Konz, and generally weakening the offense in the name of getting younger. They then confusingly signed Steven Jackson, who was at the tail end of his career and needed powerful, beefy linemen in front of him to thrive. Then they lost Julio Jones five games into the season, and injuries and ineffectiveness had them starting some of the worst offensive linemen in recent memory.

Considering all that, 2013 was a disaster not entirely of Koetter’s making, but a familiar pattern evolved. The Falcons were near the bottom of the league in rushing attempts for the second straight year despite Koetter’s supposed commitment to the run, and his unimaginative play calling killed any chance S-Jax had of being successful. The most common run play by a country mile was a 1st and 10 carry up the middle, which Jackson handled on more than half of his 2013 carries. Those 82 totes went for 253 yards, or an average of just 3.1 yards per carry. If this sounds familiar, it’s because about 66% of Devonta Freeman’s 2019 carries were also on 1st and 10, many of them up the middle, and he averaged just 3.5 yards on those.

In 2014 the line play improved somewhat and Julio was back in action, and thankfully the offense did get back on track somewhat as well. The Falcons still didn’t run a whole lot or all that successfully, but they did score more often there. Ryan put up the second-highest number of attempts in his career—all four of his highest totals have come with Koetter at the helm of the offense—and put up a nice volume year. In another ominous sign of things to come, the team drafted Devonta Freeman and proceeded to give him about 40% of his carries on 1st and 10, where he was dismal. Free was a monster on second downs and shorter distances, but in very limited opportunities.

Koetter’s tenure in Atlanta was fine the last time out and a step in the right direction from Mike Mularkey, but after that very good first season, it never really did improve. You can’t hang all of that on Koetter—as in Jacksonville, personnel mishaps and injuries hurt that side of the ball—but despite Smith’s protestations to the contrary, Koetter never made the ground game a priority or got much out of it in Atlanta, and the passing game fell just short of truly elite every year, which eerily echoes 2019.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Dirk Koetter Tampa Bay

Year Total Yards Total Scoring Giveaways Passing Yards Passing TDs Rushing Yards Rushing TDs
Year Total Yards Total Scoring Giveaways Passing Yards Passing TDs Rushing Yards Rushing TDs
2015 5 20 22 17 22 5 15
2016 18 18 24 16 8 24 29
2017 9 18 26 4 10 27 25

Koetter’s offense followed a familiar pattern in Tampa Bay. In year one as the offensive coordinator, he presided over a fairly effective ground attack in Jameis Winston’s rookie season, one that put up gobs of yards but didn’t score a lot. The offense got worse in almost every way in his second season and his first as head coach, but he did get it a bit more on track in year three. Tellingly, though, his offense continued to put up tons of yards and struggle to score.

Note that 2018 is not here. Todd Monken took over play calling duties that year and the Bucs moved from #18 to #12 in points scored ranking, moved the passing offense up to #1 in the league from #4, moved passing touchdowns from #10 to #3, and improved total yards from #9 to #3. That was also the year that Dirk Koetter, deciding that his fast-paced offense needed to focus on time of possession against Washington, took over play calling duties for a single game and took an offense averaging 28.6 points per game, squeezed 501 yards out of them, and scored just three points in a 16-3 loss. Bolded for emphasis, and to help explain why Koetter quietly went back to not calling plays after that.

The offense did get on the path to improvement in Koetter’s third year after a typically successful first year, but it didn’t make the jump to the next level until Todd Monken started calling plays.

Takeaways

In all three of his stops, Koetter’s had a statistically strong first season and never quite reached those heights again. The closest he came was with Tampa Bay, where he re-tooled the offense to go from a top ground pounding unit to a top half of the league passing offense, only to watch Todd Monken do a better job with his personnel than he ever did.

Even more alarming, he’s only twice had a top ten scoring offense, and in eight of his 13 seasons as an offensive coordinator or head coach calling plays, he’s had a bottom half of the NFL scoring offense eight times. He’s had a top ten rushing offense twice in those 13 years, even as teams have continued to hire him while talking about commitment to the run. He is a perfectly legitimate NFL offensive coordinator who generally improves things when he first touches down with a team and usually puts together quality passing attacks, and it should be obvious by the way that Matt Ryan stumped for him that he’s well-liked by players. If your aspirations are competence and you don’t need a strong commitment to the ground game, Koetter will likely do a good job for you for a few years. If your aspirations are an elite offense, he’s not your guy.

I’m sure that the team feels we’ve been a bit unfair to Dirk Koetter in these parts, something Koetter would surely echo if he read any of this. But even these basic numbers tell a pretty compelling story of an offensive coordinator who is fine but also rarely if ever elevates the talent on hand, almost never has a quality ground game without elite personnel, and is able to get offenses moving nicely in the open field but struggles mightily to actually score. The offense will continue to fare fairly well—they’re too talented to do otherwise, and even modest improvements to the offensive line will help a lot—but Koetter is not Kyle Shanahan and expecting him to get even close to the kinds of numbers this team put up under Shanny is a pipe dream. There’s nothing in his history that supports the idea that things are going to improve significantly in year two (or technically, year five) in Atlanta.

The Falcons have placed an awfully big bet on Dirk Koetter and his offense, and for that bet to pay off, he’ll have to evolve in a way he hasn’t at any stop in the past. I am fervently hopeful—but not necessarily optimistic—that he will.