Behind new coordinators, Falcons hoping to get over playoff hump
One day after another Falcons' ignominious exit from the playoffs a year ago, a 24-2 loss to the Giants in an NFC wild-card game, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder resigned to take the same job with the University of Auburn. Two days later, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey left to become head coach of the Jaguars.
Suddenly, coach Mike Smith had vacancies at the two most important positions on his staff -- neither of which were of his own volition.
"We understand that when your team has success that people on your staff may be in demand, and that was the case with Mike and Brian," Smith said. "I was very happy for both Mike and Brian, and they were both deserving of the opportunities they received."
Nevertheless, Smith had to replace his aids-de-camp. So he turned to two men he knew well and had worked with previously: Dirk Koetter, who had been the Jaguars' offensive coordinator for the previous five seasons, and Mike Nolan, who had a long NFL resume as a defensive coordinator, most recently in Miami, and also had been a head coach in San Francisco.
Neither Koetter nor Nolan came to Atlanta with a this-is-my-way-chip on his shoulder. They didn't burn the playbook. Instead, they took the best of what the team was doing already, added some of their own nuances, and came up with systems that helped the Falcons compile an NFC-best 13-3 record and capture the division's No. 1 seed in the playoffs. After a bye last week, Atlanta will host the upstart Seahawks in a divisional round game on Sunday.
Koetter, whose football instincts were formed early -- he grew up as the son of a football coach -- brought some of his own ideas to the offense but kept the same verbiage and calls that the Falcons had used under Mularkey. Instead of making the players learn new terminology, Koetter absorbed what already was in place. The teacher became the student.
"We didn't have to learn a whole new offensive system; he did," center Todd McClure said. "I think that was a great decision on his part."
Under Koetter's direction, the Falcons finished in the top 10 in the league in several categories, including overall yards (eighth), passing yards (sixth), points (seventh), first downs (sixth) and third-down efficiency (sixth). Quarterback Matt Ryan was the NFL's fifth-highest rated passer as he completed 68.6 percent of his passes for a career-high 4,719 yards, with 32 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Tight end Tony Gonzalez finished ninth in receptions (93 for 930 yards and eight touchdowns) and wide receiver Roddy White was tied for 10th (92 for 1,351 yards and seven TDs).
Koetter resurrected the screen game, which had become somewhat dormant under Mularkey. According to Koetter's calculations, Ryan completed 60 of 67 screen passes for 483 yards and six touchdowns. They weren't just standard swing passes to backs; Ryan threw a lot of quick bubble screens to receivers.
"The screen game has clicked for us -- that just happens to be something I believe in -- but the players do the work on that, and it has been successful for us," Koetter said. "There are only 64 plays in an NFL game. You can't be good at everything. We're a better screen team than they were in the past, but we're also not as good in some areas as they were in the past."
For example, the Falcons dropped from 17th in the league in rushing in 2011 to 29th this season. Michael Turner, who finished third in rushing last year with 1,340 yards on 301 carries, had 800 yards on only 222 attempts this season.
Asked how he has made the Atlanta offense better, Koetter hesitated to take credit.
"I think my main contribution in Atlanta is making sure everybody's on the same page, and taking a combination of all the good stuff they were doing and just getting us all focused on the same page on game day," he said. "And trying to get the ball in our playmakers' hands and making sure that Matt was on the same page as his receivers."
Koetter credits his dad, Jim Koetter, who was the head coach at Highland High School in Pocatello, Idaho, and later at Idaho State, for having the biggest influence on his football philosophy. Dirk played quarterback for his dad in high school before moving on to Idaho State, where he played four years (1978-81) and led the Bengals to a Division I-AA national championship after the '81 season.
Koetter's reputation is spreading around the NFL, and it won't be a surprise if he becomes a head coach one day. He met with the Chiefs on Jan. 2 to talk about the open job eventually filled by Andy Reid, and also had interviews scheduled with the Browns and Eagles. Then he signed a contract extension with the Falcons.
In addition to his philosophy and strategy, Koetter's demeanor also makes him a good coordinator.
"We talk about it all the time in the locker room -- Dirk's attitude," McClure said. "Sometimes, you have guys whose personalities are real big. Dirk is a humble guy. He realizes you aren't going to have success on every play. He makes you relaxed. You're not stressed out when you come into meetings; you're not stressed out when you're out there on the field. You know he has our back, and he's going to do what's best for us on offense."
That doesn't mean Koetter, who turns 54 on Feb. 5, two days after the Super Bowl, won't bring down the hammer. After a particularly bad practice one day this season, he addressed the offense in a meeting room with a sobering message. "There's only four guys in this room who can flip the switch and turn it on on game day," Koetter said. "And I can name them if you want me to."
The identity of those four players has remained Koetter's secret, but the offense received the message. Since that day, practices have been practically perfect.
Nolan, 47, has spent a quarter of a century in the NFL as a coach, including 15 years as a defensive coordinator, which has helped make him flexible to new ideas. Like Koetter, he took input from the players and coaches in establishing his defensive scheme in Atlanta.
"They adapted to what we already had in place and added some of their own ideas as well," Smith said of his new coordinators. "I think that the continuity, mixed with some new philosophies, really energized the players, coaches and even me as the head coach. There was just enough new stuff to keep you on your toes, and I thought that everyone responded well to that."
Nolan stayed with a 4-3 defense, but he added enough wrinkles -- mixed fronts, disguised coverages -- to hold the players' interest and keep them entertained.
"If you don't give them something new a little bit, then they are going to wonder why there was change," Nolan said. "There's got to be some things that generate enthusiasm by the players."
"We've had fun with it this year," outside linebacker Sean Witherspoon said. "He'll have all of us do different things. Any guy on our defense can have the same responsibility and the same blitz. Just because you play defensive end doesn't mean you won't close the middle of the field sometimes."
Although the Falcons fell from 13th in overall defense in 2011 to 24th this season (they also dropped from sixth to 21st against the rush and from 20th to 23rd vs. the pass), those rankings are determined by yards allowed. And they often can paint a misleading picture about a defense.
The 2010 Dolphins, for example, finished sixth in overall defense (seventh against the run, eighth against the pass) but were minus-13 in turnovers. That team went 7-9 and missed the playoffs.
"We couldn't steal a takeaway to save our life," Nolan said. "And it showed as far as winning and losing."
Nolan has a longtime list of 15 key statistical categories that he believes ultimately defines a defense's success -- and Atlanta finished among the top five teams in the league in four of Nolan's first five: points allowed (18.7 per game); takeaways (plus-13); opposing quarterback rating (77.1) and red zone efficiency (opponents scored touchdowns in 19 of 42 possessions inside the Atlanta 20). The Falcons finished only 23rd in stopping opponents on third down, which is Nolan's fifth-most important stat. Individually, end John Abraham had 10 sacks and defensive backs Thomas DeCoud and Asante Samuel combined for 11 interceptions.
One thing the defense needs to do in the postseason is eliminate explosive plays by the opponent. During the regular season, the Falcons allowed 49 runs of 10 or more yards and 53 passes of 20 or more yards.
"We've been able to overcome it by getting another chance in the red zone and stopping people," Nolan said. "But you can't keep putting yourself in harm's way."
This will be the Falcons' fourth trip to the playoffs in five seasons under Smith. In each of their previous three times, they went one and done. They lost, 30-24, to Arizona in a wild-card game in 2008, 48-21 to Green Bay in a divisional game in 2010, and 24-2 to the Giants a year ago.
It's time for the Falcons to change their postseason pattern. Perhaps the new coordinator collegiality of Koetter and Nolan will help them do that.