Some parents keep finger paintings from when their children were young. Some keep report cards or little league trophies. The Koetters of Pocatello, Idaho, kept a scrap of paper with an offensive formation that little Dirk scribbled when he was 8 years old.
“He has all the players lined up right and everything,” Jim Koetter said by phone. “They’re all going in the right direction. It’s hanging on the wall in the basement.”
The Falcons are 7-0 in this season. Dirk Koetter is one reason why. The team’s new offensive coordinator is doing imaginative things with the same players that Mike Mularkey too often hit a wall with. As it turns out, it pays not to be predictable. Go figure.
In last week’s win at Philadelphia, a fake screen to Julio Jones suckered in the defense and left Drew Davis wide open for a touchdown pass (leaving only one unanswered question: Who’s Drew Davis?). On the next possession, also a touchdown, Koetter called a little slip screen over the middle to Jason Snelling, the only receiver the Eagles had not accounted for near the goal line. The first six Falcons’ drives resulted in scores.
These aren’t new plays. “They’ve been in our playbook for five years,” offensive tackle Tyson Clabo said. But the plays either never left the binder or they were used once, failed and forever buried.
Koetter’s unpredictability is one reason why Mike Smith thought he could help Matt Ryan and the offense. He sat next to him in press boxes when both were assistants in Jacksonville. He saw how he related to players. He was confident the struggles the Jaguars had last season — they ranked 32nd in offense – had little to do with the play-caller.
“I knew when we first got him everybody was looking at his numbers wondering, ‘What the hell is this guy doing?’” Smith said.
Jacksonville was a mess. Koetter spent five seasons there as offensive coordinator. But personnel eroded, head coach Jack Del Rio was fired with five games left in the season and the team was sold.
“That’s as tough as it gets, to have your coach fired with five weeks left and knowing that you’re out of a job at the end of the year,” Koetter said. “That’s when you have to call on every ounce of professionalism you have to come in and do your best every day. I never even met [new owner] Mr. [Shahid] Khan. Didn’t shake his hand one time. The guy who hired me sold the team. The head coach that hired me was fired. The general manager wasn’t there. It was a difficult time.”
Part of him wondered how much a bad season would hurt his job prospects. “The NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league,” he said.
But he knew he had a solid resume. He coached offenses at UTEP, Missouri, Boston College and Oregon, becoming known as solid tutor of the vertical passing game. He had head coaching jobs at Boise State and Arizona State, before Del Rio brought him to Jacksonville in 2007. In his first season, the Jaguars’ offense ranked seventh in the league.
If X’s and O’s seem to come easy for Koetter, it’s because he has been at this for a while. He was a high school coach in Pocatello at the age of 23. He is the son of a football coach. Jim Koetter coached for 25 years in high school, eight at Idaho State.
Dirk knew he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps since he was 6. Or, “Whenever it is that you get over that, ‘I want to be a fireman’ stage,” he said.
He would go to his father’s practices, shag balls and carry cups of Gatorade. “I got run over a few times on the sideline,” he said. “But I loved it. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
He remembers his father lugging home the 16 mm projector to watch game film. All of the coaches would come over.
“I’d fall asleep on the floor listening to them talk about the game,” Koetter said.
He laughed when asked about those first “plays” he drew up: “They probably didn’t make any sense.”
After playing at Idaho State, his first coaching job came at Highland High School, his alma mater. The running back was Merrill Hoge (later of the Pittsburgh Steelers). The quarterback was Steve Kragthorpe (now an LSU assistant). Not bad.
Koetter has excelled with the Falcons at moving players around, putting them in positions to succeed. He has helped Ryan on where the ball needs to go against certain coverages.
Probably no coincidence: Ryan has the highest completion percentage (68.7) and quarterback rating (103.0) of his career through seven games.
“The NFL is a copycat league — every play out there has been used somewhere by somebody before,” Koetter said. “So when you run a play and it works — yeah, you feel great. But it still all comes down to, did you win the game or not?”
The Falcons are doing the latter in part because Koetter is accomplishing the former.
Just guessing: That play hanging on the wall in Pocatello probably would’ve worked.
By Jeff Schultz