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The Falcons are once again falling short in scoring under Dirk Koetter

Despite putting up gaudy yardage numbers and boasting one of the most talented offenses in the NFL, the Falcons are once again falling short in the most important stat of all: scoring. It’s become an unfortunate trend under Dirk Koetter.

Denver Broncos v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Anyone who knows me well, as I assume most readers of the site and listeners to our shows and podcasts do, will know that I’m one of Dirk Koetter’s biggest critics. I constantly complain about the issues I see with his offensive system, his playcalling, and his apparent ignorance of analytics. These issues are incredibly frustrating for me, and I’m sure they are for many other fans as well.

I’ve discussed some of these issues in previous articles. Koetter’s insistence on running the ball on 2nd and long. The schematic decision to play for 3rd-and-short. An inability to close out games and poor gameplanning and playcalling regarding the rushing attack. Now, past the midway point of the 2020 season, we finally have enough data to begin to draw meaningful conclusions from the offensive statistics.

There has been a tendency with Dirk Koetter’s offenses that has continued to rear it’s ugly head in 2020—now Koetter’s fifth season coordinating in Atlanta. While Koetter is adept at generating a ton of yardage and has generally been solid in overall scoring efficiency—or how many offensive drives end in points (including FGs and TDs)—he’s lagged well behind in overall scoring, yards per play, and especially red zone efficiency (how many red zone trips result in TDs).

In fact, the resemblance between his offenses year-to-year is kind of astounding. Take a look at the 5 offenses Koetter has coordinated for the Falcons and you’ll notice the similarities immediately.

Dirk Koetter Offenses

Year Scoring (PPG) Total Yardage Yards per play Scoring Efficiency Red Zone Efficiency
Year Scoring (PPG) Total Yardage Yards per play Scoring Efficiency Red Zone Efficiency
2020 27.0 (13th) 396.8 (5th) 5.7 (13th) 48.0% (5th) 52.9% (27th)
2019 23.8 (13th) 379.7 (5th) 5.5 (15th) 40.8% (7th) 51.7% (25th)
2014 23.8 (T-12th) 378.2 (8th) 5.8 (8th) 38.9% (10th) 61.4% (5th)
2013 22.1 (20th) 343.1 (14th) 5.4 (13th) 34.1% (16th) 51.9% (22nd)
2012 26.2 (7th) 369.1 (8th) 5.8 (6th) 44.0% (2nd) 58.7% (8th)

That’s right: 2020 and 2019 are near mirror-images of each other in terms of season-long ranking, and 2014 is fairly similar as well. While the raw numbers look a lot better for Koetter in 2020—and would likely result in his best ever season if they hold over the final 7 games—it’s important to keep in mind that scoring and other offensive statistics have been drastically higher this season than ever before. To keep things in context, I’d advise putting more stock in the league rankings.

With all that being said, a clear pattern emerges.

Koetter’s offenses are clearly adept at putting up yardage. He’s never finished worse than 14th with the Falcons, including a disastrous 2013 season. However, his offenses have rarely been particularly efficient. Outside of a strong 2012 season, in which Koetter had perhaps the most talented offense in the NFL, his offenses have consistently lagged behind in yards per play relative to their total yardage numbers.

Despite all that yardage, however inefficient it may be, Koetter’s offenses have also struggled to put up points at a high level. In 5 seasons with Atlanta, Koetter has managed a top-10 scoring offense just once: 2012, where the team finished 7th despite the aforementioned talent level. The reason for this? Problems scoring TDs in the red zone.

I should note that Koetter did manage two seasons of quite good red zone efficiency: 2012 (8th) and, somewhat surprisingly, 2014 (5th). Outside of those two years, the Falcons languished in the mid-to-late 20s, including an unacceptably low 25th in 2019 and 27th thus far in 2020. Atlanta can move the ball effectively—if somewhat inefficiently—under Koetter, but they can’t consistently score TDs and too often settle for FGs.

That last statistic is driven home by the team’s pretty good overall scoring efficiency—which includes FGs and TDs. Atlanta has been top-10 in this stat every year under Koetter outside of an aberrant 2013, and has been top-5 twice (2012 and through 9 games in 2020). But FGs are a shoddy substitute for TDs, and that has led to the Falcons consistently falling short in the scoring department relative to their other offensive numbers.

In the grand scheme of things, though, Koetter still gives the Falcons an above-average offense every year. To get a real picture of how much better Atlanta could potentially do, let’s compare Koetter to the team’s other recent OCs during the Matt Ryan era: Steve Sarkisian, Kyle Shanahan, and Mike Mularkey. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll compare the best season from each coordinator to Koetter’s numbers.

Other Falcons Offenses

Year Scoring (PPG) Total Yardage Yards per play Scoring Efficiency Red Zone Efficiency
Year Scoring (PPG) Total Yardage Yards per play Scoring Efficiency Red Zone Efficiency
2018 (Sarkisian) 25.9 (10th) 389.1 (6th) 6.2 (5th) 42.9% (4th) 64.0% (11th)
2016 (Shanahan) 33.8 (1st) 415.8 (2nd) 6.7 (1st) 52.6% (1st) 61.9% (9th)
2010 (Mularkey) 25.9 (5th) 341.1 (16th) 5.0 (T-25th) 39.3% (6th) 60.3% (7th)

Let’s start with the most recent example, the offensive coordinator who was fired to make way for Koetter’s return: Steve Sarkisian. After a disappointing season as a rookie OC in 2017, Sarkisian improved markedly in 2018 and led the Falcons to a top-10 offensive season despite a devastating run of injuries.

At a glance, Sarkisian’s 2018 season is clearly better than all of Dirk Koetter’s seasons with the Falcons except for 2012. Given the talent Sark had to work with and the injury situation, I’d still argue that 2018 was the more impressive year overall. Notably, Sarkisian drastically improved his red zone efficiency—where he was downright awful in 2017—in his second year, and coordinated a significantly more efficient offense overall than Koetter has ever managed in his career in Atlanta.

The next coordinator to compare to is Kyle Shanahan, and this one is pretty easy. Shanahan’s 2016 season was legendary and may never be topped again in Falcons’ history. Atlanta averaged nearly 34 points per game, was 2nd in overall yardage, 1st in yards per play, and 1st in scoring efficiency. Interestingly, Shanahan actually underperformed a bit in the red zone—Atlanta was just 9th overall in red zone efficiency. The rest of the offense was so darn good, however, that it didn’t affect their overall scoring.

Finally, we move on to Mike Mularkey, a run-first OC who actually led the Falcons to some pretty good seasons in 2008, 2010, and 2011. Looking back, 2010 was clearly Mularkey’s best year, and he provides an interesting comparison to Koetter. Based on the statistics, Mularkey pretty clearly overperformed in scoring relative to the team’s yardage numbers—the opposite of what Koetter has done. Atlanta managed to finish 5th in scoring despite finishing 16th in yardage and a very poor T-25th in yards per play.

Mularkey accomplished this by scoring efficiently, both in general and in the red zone. His offense was 6th in overall scoring efficiency and 7th in red zone efficiency, which translated to more points than you’d expect given the team’s mediocre yardage. This comparison is notable because Mularkey’s scheme is very different from the pass-first attack of Koetter and the West Coast offenses of Shanahan and Sarkisian. On the whole, however, I’d say Mularkey was pretty clearly a better OC in terms of scoring efficiency compared to Koetter.

After looking at Koetter compared to the other three most recent Falcons’ offensive coordinators, things become pretty clear: he’s arguably the worst of the bunch in terms of scoring efficiency and hasn’t been overly impressive in his tenure. That makes it all the more frustrating when you consider that Atlanta fired an improving Steve Sarkisian—blowing up the “continuity” the team raved about between 2019 and 2020—to go back to Koetter.

Perhaps the most striking detail of all is how little Koetter’s offenses change, statistically speaking, over the years. Sure, you’ve got a very strong 2012 and a surprisingly good 2014, but the other 3 seasons are almost identical in league rankings. At the end of the day, Koetter is probably best described as a rather average NFL offensive coordinator who is good at generating lots of yardage but struggles to put up points.

Take his 2020 numbers. The Falcons are currently a top-5 offense in total yardage and scoring efficiency, and are 2nd in passing yardage. However, the team is just 13th in yards per play and a disastrous 27th in red zone efficiency. Atlanta possesses one of the NFL’s best WR corps, an above-average OL and TE, a top-10 QB in Matt Ryan, and one of the most effective goal-line RBs in the NFL in Todd Gurley. There’s no other place to point the finger for the team’s poor red zone performance: it’s Dirk Koetter.

Koetter clearly deserves a job somewhere and has demonstrated he’s more than good enough to succeed at the NFL level. But he’s actively holding back this Falcons offense with his tendencies and apparent inability or unwillingness to adapt his scheme. Maybe he can make the necessary changes to improve the team’s red zone efficiency over the final 7 games of the season. Some of them aren’t exactly hard to implement.

History tells us that is very unlikely to happen.