Falcons, Ryan embrace the familiar with latest offensive coordinator

On his return to the Falcons for a second deployment as offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter packed a new appreciation for his quarterback's aim. For the OC seeking a tonic, throws that regularly hit their intended target sure beats fish oil.

“I think the thing I took for granted when I was away was his accuracy,” Koetter said in a reflective moment this week, on the topic of Matt Ryan.

And there was more: “Matt also now is a coach on the field. He knows this system like the back of his hand. He’s out there directing traffic. When he has young guys out there, he knows exactly what he wants them to do and what it should look like. And he’s good at expressing it.”

Last season, head coaching the Tampa Bay Bucs, two of Koetter’s quarterbacks — Ryan Fitzpatrick (at 4.9 percent) and Jameis Winston (3.7 percent) — were among the top three in the league in interception percentage. Ryan lagged way behind in the stat where lagging is a good thing — with a 1.2 percent interception rate.

Welcome back, Koetter, to a place where sanity and constancy live behind center. Take a deep breath and embrace the Zen.

Koetter was fired after the Bucs finished a second consecutive 5-11 season, following a 2018 marked by wild extremes at quarterback. Winston was suspended for off-field behavior. Fitzpatrick was fantastic and then fizzled. Winston, who Koetter was supposed to fix when the Bucs hired him as offensive coordinator in 2015 (and promoted to head coach the following season), continued to stoke a great debate around Tampa Bay about his fitness as a franchise lynchpin.

Trading all that for Matt Ryan is like putting down a gory graphic novel to spend some quality time reading the Congressional Record. Where’s the drama?

What Ryan and the Falcons' offense are looking to get out of the deal — after Koetter was hired to replace Steve Sarkisian as OC — also is a sense of stability.

Sure, this will be Ryan’s fifth time entering a season with a new offensive coordinator. Not the recommended way to build an offense year over year. In seasons past the concern has been over how Ryan and the new coordinator will mesh. This time, though, they’re stressing the familiar as the team hits the field for some voluntary offseason training and tinkering.

On staff now are Ryan’s first offensive coordinator with the Falcons — Mike Mularkey (also a three-time head coach in the NFL) was hired in the offseason as perhaps the world’s most over-qualified tight ends coach. And his second, Koetter, who oversaw Ryan from 2012-14. Throw in second-year quarterback coach Greg Knapp, and Ryan hardly suffers for a lack of trusted advisers. He practically has his own cabinet.

Rather than facing a season of uncertainty with the offensive plan and its planner, Ryan looks around him and sees in Mularkey a coach he describes as one of the major influences in his career. “If there were two coaches who shaped the way I view things in the NFL it would be Mike Mularkey and (former head coach) Mike Smith – those were the first guys I had an opportunity to work with,” Ryan said.

As for Koetter, Ryan is reunited with a coordinator who helped get him to two of his four Pro Bowls, and was there in 2012 when Ryan led the league in completion percentage (68.6). Over three seasons with Koetter as OC, Ryan averaged 4,643 yards, 29 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and 67 percent completions.

The Falcons also went 4-12 and 6-10 in the final two seasons of Koetter’s first stay, the worst span of Ryan’s career.

“I’m excited to work with Dirk again,” Ryan said. “I learned so much from him the first time around. He’s kind of picked up a few things along the way, too, come up with some really good stuff. It’s been a lot of fun the last couple months of getting back to work with Dirk.”

He learned what, exactly, from Koetter that first time around?

“I learned a lot in the passing game,” Ryan said, “a lot about how to process information at the quarterback position in the passing game from him. How to eliminate certain things early, pre-snap. I felt like I made a big jump during those years in terms of learning keys and really understanding about eliminating certain parts of progression to make you play faster to make you play more clear-headed.”

In Koetter, Ryans also sees a play-caller who, “does a great job of adjusting to the personnel that he has on his team; he was one of the best I’ve been around in doing that during our time together.”

And Ryan will get a smiling confirmation on that point from running back Devonta Freeman who on Wednesday was telling how he and Koetter enjoy reminiscing about his first professional touchdown – not on a run, but rather a screen pass. Yes, please, more of that.

“Dirk understands us,” Freeman said. “He understands what we’re trying to do. Time to put together all the pieces of the puzzle and get busy.”

At this stage, with Ryan entering his 12th season and with the Falcons trying to stay with much of the same, if slightly simplified, offensive terminology, there’s a question here of exactly who is instructing whom.

"Right now, Matt knows this system better than I do. I'm playing catch-up with him," Koetter said. "Matt's teaching me a lot right now. It's a work in progress right now, and that will continue right up to when we start playing for real."
"I know more of the terminology just because I've been around it the last four years," Ryan responded.

“(Koetter’s) a really smart coach. Having played against us a bunch as a head coach he’s well versed in what we do, too. It might take him a second to recall what we call certain things, but he knows exactly what they are.”

The big hope around Flowery Branch is that, because of their ties, the quarterback and the coordinator can avoid that first-date kind of awkwardness here early and get right to the business of unleashing the varied talents on this offense. There is no time for getting acquainted.

They all are looking for that sweet spot of 2016, when Ryan was the MVP and the Falcons scored at will on the way to Super Bowl devastation. That was with yet another coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, setting a bar almost farcically high.

“I don’t think of it like that, even though that is a very high standard to play up to,” Koetter said. “That was a terrific offense. I think as a coach, you want your side of the ball, your players, to achieve as close to their talent level as they can. And I think we’re really talented.”

This job, he knows, comes with the perk of a quarterback who doesn’t need to be fixed, just fine-tuned.