The Falcons’ past could enhance the Bucs’ future

The threesome of Mike Smith, Dirk Koetter and Matt Ryan came within 10 yards of lifting the Falcons to the Super Bowl in January 2013. Two of those now work for Tampa Bay, which will serve as the Falcons’ opponent Sunday in the Dome.

The Buccaneers have won 23 games over five seasons and are on their fifth head coach since 2008. The Falcons have won 18 games over three seasons, the first two of those under Smith, who was fired Dec. 29, 2014. Today he’s the defensive coordinator for a head coach who was once his offensive coordinator. The Bucs fired Lovie Smith and bumped up Koetter from OC, largely in the expectation that he’ll get the most from Jameis Winston, about to begin Year 2 as an NFL quarterback.

As building blocks go, those three – Koetter, who’ll still call plays and run the offense; Smith, who’ll oversee the defense, and Winston – aren’t bad. At the moment, the Falcons, who are coming off an 8-8 season to the Bucs’ 6-10, seem to have the better roster. (Even though Tampa Bay swept the Birds last season.) Going forward, though, would you rather have Koetter-Smith-Jameis or their Falcon counterparts?

Dan Quinn was hired to replace Smith. His first team started 5-0 but missed the playoffs. The defense improved over the final days of Smitty, when it sank to the league bottom. Technically, the Falcons’ defensive coordinator is Richard (no relation) Smith, but the feeling persists that this is Quinn’s defense, same as New England’s is Belichick’s.

The Falcons won only two of their final nine games because their offense came undone. Ryan had the second-worst season of his career. His stats weren’t far from those he’d posted in the three years he worked with Koetter, but the Falcons’ offense – which included an 1,800-yard receiver in Julio Jones and a 1,000-yard rusher in Devonta Freeman – stopped scoring touchdowns.

For the first time as a professional, Ryan appeared unsure of himself. Many if not most observers believed this revealed a disconnect with Kyle Shanahan, the new offensive coordinator. If we go by the numbers, Shanahan looks fine: His offenses with Houston and Washington ranked in the top 10 in total yards, as did last year’s Falcons. But Job 1 for any OC here is to maximize Ryan. Koetter understand that. So did Mike Mularkey.

With Ryan and Jones and Freeman and an actually forceful offensive line, this team should score lots of touchdowns. But the collapse of last season makes us wonder if Shanahan’s scheme fits his personnel, mostly meaning Ryan, who at 31 knows what he likes and wants.

As a head coach, Quinn will go only as far as Ryan takes him. If that’s not to the playoffs, Quinn won’t be a head coach for long. (Arthur Blank fired both Jim Mora and Smith two years after they took the Falcons to the NFC title game.)

The intent here isn’t to revisit the Smitty Era in detail. Short version: He’s the best coach the Falcons have ever had, but he’d sailed past the point of diminishing returns. They needed a new start. So did he. Until the Falcons came calling in January 2008, he might have been content to be a DC the rest of his working life. He’s good at it. He should do well in Tampa.

Yes, Koetter is a rookie NFL head coach – though he was the head coach who put Boise State on the map way, and he served six not-awful years at Arizona State – but I really like the makeup of that Bucs’ triumvirate. (Note that Famous Jameis is 22.) I wish I felt as confident about the Falcons’ three, but I have real doubts about Shanahan and therefore Ryan.

If I had to choose a threesome over the next five years, I’d take Tampa Bay’s. I know that sounds weird — picking two men from the Falcons’ recent past to lead another NFC South entity boldly into the future — but there it is.

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