When most fans heard that Dirk Koetter would be Mike Mularkey's successor as offensive play-caller in Atlanta, there weren't many shouts of joy. Reactions have ranged from outrage to controlled optimism. You won't be surprised to learn that I'm among the latter.
Why? On the surface the Koetter hiring may sound terrible. He certainly wasn't the sexiest name on the market. In 2011, the Jaguars passing offense ranked dead last in the NFL in terms of passing yards (136.2 yds/game). That's pretty abysmal when you think about it.
There's also the case of Maurice Jones-Drew, whom Koetter practically ran into the ground by giving him a league-high 343 carries. Doesn't this sound exactly what the Falcons wanted to get away from with Mularkey? Doesn't this seem just like the basic, bland running attack that has already failed the Falcons three times in the playoffs?
Well rest assured, because it's not.
Dirk Koetter Is Not Mike Mularkey
First off, consider what Koetter had to work with during the season. Blaine Gabbert? About as far from polished as you can get. Jacksonville's wide receivers? Non-existent. By the end of the season, the Jags were down to guys like Chastin West and Jarrett Dillard. I'd hardly call guys like Mike Thomas and Marcedes Lewis grade-A weapons, either.
And all those carries given to MJD? Well, it's also worth considering that Rashad Jennings, the team's No. 2 back for the past couple of seasons, was put on IR during preseason. We've even heard confirmation from Mike Smith that Michael Turner will be play a lessened role next season.
The players at Koetter's disposal in Atlanta are some of the best skill players around. Michael Turner, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers. Throw in a couple new offensive linemen and I think you have a top-tier offense.
Koetter himself said "the offense is always going to be dictated by your personnel." Well, relatively speaking the Falcons' personnel - the raw material for building his offense - will be much, much better.
Consider Koetter's Track Record
We know Jacksonville isn't exactly a hotbed of football talent, but he's still made do. Back in 2007, a year the team made the playoffs largely on the back of Smitty's defense, Koetter managed to get an impressive season out of David Garrard (18 TD, 3 INT, 64.0 comp%), another guy who is far from top-tier QB material.
Before that, he was the head man at Arizona State, where he was known for running an offensive scheme heavily centered around the vertical passing game. Much like the Saints' Sean Payton, he made heavy use of the run and then play action to turn in big plays down the field. At ASU, Koetter was able to make it work with guys like Ryan Torain and Derek Hagan at his disposal.
Koetter has always commanded an offense that excels at running the ball, but he also has placed an emphasis on "crazy" things like screens and deep routes. You know, fun stuff.
So will Koetter still commit to the run with Turner? At times, sure. But relative to Mularkey, his time during Jacksonville doesn't seem to suggest any over-reliance on the running game.
Consider The Offensive Line
One thing folks seem to forget regarding Mularkey's offense is that basically all of the starting five linemen from last season (during his entire tenure, in fact) were far better at run blocking than protecting against a pass rush like that of the Giants.
Sam Baker, Joe Hawley, and Tyson Clabo are not great pass-blockers. There is no Jahri Evans or Ryan Clady on this team at the moment. As much as we like to dump on Mularkey, we must remember that most of these linemen were the starters in 2008 when the offense was "The Turner Show" and Ryan was just a supporting character.
The Offense Will Change To A Degree, And It Won't Be A Hard Act To Follow
Will the Falcons be running a Saints/Packers-style offense next season? No, nor should they. For one, they don't have the speed or personnel for that at this point. Secondly: why does every offense need to be a fireworks show?
Remind me: which teams are competing for a Superbowl berth next weekend? Well, the Ravens and the 49ers are two of them, and I don't see them running a five-wide offense. They run the football and win playoff games. Don't drink the Kool-Aid ESPN sets out for you, because by their count only about five teams and 10 players even matter anyways.
As for what will actually become of the Falcons offense, don't expect an overhaul. Relatively speaking, I really don't think Koetter will have to do a whole lot to impress Falcons fans because Mularkey's play-calling was so dreadfully vanilla.
We know he'll keep the no-huddle, something Ryan can do exceptionally well. We know he's going to try and incorporate his vertical passing attack, part of which will be the four-vertical concept. We'll probably see Ryan throw the ball deep a bit more often, we'll see some more screen passes, and we'll probably see Jacquizz Rodgers get a significant increase in playing time.
You know what: that's okay. Koetter's probably no offensive genius, but relative to Mularkey he very well may be. If he can maximize Ryan's talents, do with him what Mularkey simply could not figure out, and actually use all of these great weapons Thomas Dimitroff has procured then I'll be a happy man next season.
Bottom line: it could be far worse.