What do we really know about coaches? How much of an impact can new Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter really have?
This will be an odd opening sentence for someone who spent the hours after the Falcons' playoff elimination venting out a column entitled ¡Mike Mularkey Fuera!, but I am having a hard time mustering much of an opinion about the local pro football collective's moves to replace Mularkey and Brian VanGorder with Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan. I'm probably jaded after reading the following passage in the chapter of Soccer Men about current England manager Fabio Capello:
Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist at Cass Business School in London, has calculated that only about ten percent of managers consistently perform better than their clubs' wage bill would predict. Usually, in soccer, the club with the biggest salaries finishes at the top of the league, and the club that pays the least finishes at the bottom. Only a few outstanding managers, like Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson, have much of an effect on results. Capello heads the small elite.
While the NFL is not the same as European club soccer because the former has a hard salary cap, while the latter is a vestige of unrestrained capitalism (or at least it will be until UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations kick in and actually turn out to be more than Manchester City's accountants can evade), the point about coaches translates well. Football coaching is probably best understood as being on a bell curve. There are a few Bill Belichicks on the right side of the curve, a few Rich Kotites on the left side, and then the vast majority of coaches in the middle.* Fighting over where our new coordinators fall might be an argument over nothing.
* - Think about the shifting views of Les Miles as an example of "what do we really know about coaches?" When he started 34-6 at LSU with a national title in his first three seasons, he looked like one of the best coaches in the conference. When he went 17-9 over the next two years, he was on the hot seat because he apparently only won with Saban's players. When he was making ballsy decisions late in games in 2007, he was a cagey gambler. When he was butchering the clock at the end of the 2009 Ole Miss game, he was a buffoon. The last two years, he has gone 24-3 and threw off Saban's shadow with two wins over Alabama ... until January 9. Now, LSU fans are openly speculating that he completely lost his team in the lead-up to the national title game, whereas if Oklahoma State would have survived overtime in Ames, Miles probably has a second national title. So, in the end, what's the consensus on Miles as a good coach? And how long before that consensus moves 180 degrees?
Take Dirk Koetter as an example. What do we really know about him based on his resume? When he was at Boise State, he was instrumental in that program's emergence from I-AA to becoming a non-BCS conference power. He went 20-5 in his last two years there, which landed him the head coaching job at Arizona State. With the Sun Devils, he went 40-34. His offenses were all over the map, averaging 34, 32, 25, 30, 37, and 27 points per game from 2001 to 2006. He also had the misfortune of coaching when Pete Carroll's USC was at its absolute apex: 2001-06. What coach was going to succeed against Carroll in the first half of the Aughts, especially when that coach not only had to go up against Carroll on the field, but also had to vie for talent in Southern California against a recruiting dynamo? Taking his college record as a whole, did he forget how to coach when he moved from Idaho to Arizona? Or is there something about Boise State that allows its coaches to win and then those coaches cannot replicate that success elsewhere? (Dan Hawkins is currently nodding furiously.) A regression analysis of the Broncos' rise to prominence would not identify head coaches as a driving factor, but I digress.
Koetter then proceeded to Jacksonville, where his first offense was excellent - sixth in scoring and seventh in yards - and then his next three were mediocre before the bottom fell out this year with a rookie quarterback and receivers so bad that Dunta Robinson was moved to mock them. Was Koetter a good coach in 2007 and then had a lobotomy before the 2008 season? Or was he a lifeboat on the heavy seas that were David Garrard playing the season of his life in 2007 before a six-year, $60M contract destroyed his motivation?
So what do we really know about Koetter? If he were a great coach, then his offenses would have been consistently excellent and he probably would have stuck in Tempe. If he were a bad coach, then he would be selling insurance right now (although given the list of retreads that have been hired by college and pro teams this offseason, competence is apparently optional for a head coaching position).
All we know is that his style is somewhat different than that of Mularkey. Mularkey, coming from the Steelers school of offense, favors a power running game with passes flowing off of the run. That approach made sense in 2008 when the Falcons started a rookie quarterback and had Michael Turner at his apex. It did not make sense in 2011 and going forward with Matt Ryan as an upper-echelon quarterback, three above-average receiving targets, and Turner on the downward slope after three years of overuse. Based mainly on his experience in college, Koetter appears to favor a vertical passing game. That makes more sense with the current composition of the Falcons' roster.
In short, the Falcons probably didn't replace Mularkey with a better coach, but they probably did replace him with a better fit. In light of the fungibility of most coaches, that's all we can say.