Flowery Branch – No, it doesn’t look so good: An offense that couldn’t manage a point in losing its playoff game has been handed to a man whose most recent unit finished last in the NFL. Why not hire Darrell Royal and have him install the Wishbone?
But here’s where we take a deep breath and say: Dirk Koetter isn’t as bad as all that. For what the Atlanta Falcons need in the year 2012, he’ll be better than Mike Mularkey. (Though you know that Jacksonville fans are thinking what we around here were wondering when the Jaguars made Mularkey their head coach: Is that team nuts?) And here’s where we must take a bunny-hop of faith.
At Falcons HQ Monday, Mike Smith stuck his head in the hallway where the media relations staff has its offices and was spotted by this correspondent, who posed three questions.
Is Koetter the guy he wanted? “Yes,” Smith said.
Is the head coach comfortable that Koetter is indeed the right guy? “Yes,” Smith said.
Is the head coach confident this offensive coordinator can lead the Falcons upward? “Absolutely,” Smith said.
And there you have it — yes, yes, absolutely. Skeptics among us will sneer: “So what did you expect him to say? ‘I hired a moron’?’ ” But ultimately every hire in every profession comes down to one thing: Do you trust the guy doing the hiring?
Me, I trust Mike Smith.
He knows Dirk Koetter (pronounced “Cutter”) better than you or I, having worked with him in Jacksonville in 2007. Smitty also knows his personnel better than you or I, having watched every move made in a practice or a game both live and on tape. The latest numbers don’t flatter Koetter, but let’s ask this: After seeing the Jaguars lose 41-14 here in December, where should that offense — with a rookie quarterback and receivers Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson was overheard to call “jokes” — have ranked?
Another stat to consider: The 2010 Jaguars, as coordinated by Koetter and with a quarterback (David Garrard) who would subsequently be cut in training camp, finished 8-8 but outgained — by two yards over 16 games — a Falcons team that finished 13-3 and had Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.
With the Falcons, Koetter will have access to better players than he ever did in Jacksonville, and if he hadn’t managed to articulate a coherent vision regarding those players he wouldn’t have gotten the job. This is the biggest hire Smith has made since he first arrived, much bigger than having to replace Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator. (The defense wasn’t the unit that grossly underperformed in the Meadowlands.) He didn’t hire Koetter because the guy once bought him lunch at Wendy’s. He hired Koetter because he believes this is the man he needs.
Speaking with the Atlanta media via a conference call Monday, Koetter said some of things you hoped he’d say: That he “believe(s) in the vertical [passing] game”; that he was prodded by Smith to make the Falcons “a better screen team” and that he’s “a big believer in the screen game.” He also extolled the virtues of offensive “balance,” which is as sexy as suggesting that veggies are good for you, but he also made a salient point.
“It’s easy to say it’s a passing league and that defense doesn’t matter and running doesn’t matter,” Koetter said, “but look what happened this weekend.”
The Packers and Saints, the NFC teams who sling it best, were undone in the playoffs by more prosaic opponents. Koetter again: “Ask any defensive coordinator, and he’ll say the hardest thing to defend is balance.”
Little about Koetter’s background suggests he’s a stick-in-the-mud. He worked on a three-man staff with Andy Reid, who’s one of the NFL’s better schemers, at San Francisco State. As head coach, Koetter had consecutive 10-win seasons at Boise State before anybody cared about Boise State. He spent six seasons as Arizona State’s head coach, and the Pac-10 was always ahead of the national curve offensively. Also this: He has spent 25 years calling plays.
No, Smitty didn’t hire the mad scientist we around here were hoping he would, and yes, it looks a little funny for a team desperate to win a Super Bowl to turn to a guy whose staff got fired in Jacksonville, but let’s recall: In 2008 Mike Smith hired four assistants — Mularkey, Keith Armstrong, Terry Robiskie and Glenn Pires — who had just overseen a 1-15 season with Miami. That foursome helped the Falcons go 43-21 over the best four-year run in franchise history.
Lest we forget, Smith himself wasn’t the hottest name on the market four Januarys ago, but he has spent four seasons earning the benefit of the doubt. Here’s where we need to extend it.
By Mark Bradley