Following a disappointing 2018 season — one marred by key injuries, particularly on defense — Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn fired offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and defensive playcaller Marquand Manuel after two seasons.
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Kirk Koetter was recently rehired to replace Sarkisian, whereas the Quinn will call the plays on defense. Koetter was the Falcons OC from 2012-14. It remains to be seen if someone will be hired in name only to serve as the defensive coordinator. Quinn made a name for himself, and ultimately was hired by Atlanta, for calling plays during Seattle’s Super Bowl runs.
Injuries to starting running back Devonta Freeman, left guard Andy Levitre, right guard Brandon Fusco, strong safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones did a number on both sides of the ball. Levitre has injured his triceps in consecutive seasons; he’ll be 33 in May and an unrestricted free agent in March. Free agency shouldn’t impact any of the other starters on offense, although Freeman’s backfield partner, Tevin Coleman, is poised to find a new home on the open market.
What does Koetter bring to the offense? He’s a pass-first playcaller, even though some of it has been by necessity. Tampa Bay has struggled to field a competent backfield in several years. The Bucs passed the third most times in 2017 and were No. 6 last year. The 2016 Buccaneers ran 43.9 percent of the time, or the 10th most in the league. In 2015, Koetter was the Tampa offensive coordinator under Lovie Smith. His offense threw it 56.1 percent of the time, which ranked 11th lowest. In Koetter’s three seasons as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, he ran the ball among the fewest times of all teams each year. In 2012, the offense finished with the seventh-lowest percentage of rushing plays. It only became worse from there, ranking dead last in 2013 and third-to-last in ’14.
So what? He’s a pass-first playcaller in a pass-heavy NFL on a team with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley … big deal. While many people may agree with those sentiments, Quinn certainly does not and wants to return to a run-centric approach. It stands to reason the offense can be more balanced but still throw it with the best of them. A practical target is to avoid falling in the bottom third of the league in imbalance. After all, with Coleman on the way out, Freeman coming off consecutive injury-shortened years, and Ito Smith being a mostly uninspiring rookie in 2018, the backfield simply isn’t constructed for a hefty share of the touches.
Ryan has grown considerably as a quarterback in the past few years, and 2018 was his finest for fantasy purposes. Looking back at his time with Koetter may not be particularly pertinent these days, but it would but silly to glance over their three years together.
Here’s the thing … the raw stats and ratios look like improvements for Ryan without Koetter, but volume differences show he was virtually the same quarterback on a per-game basis. What can’t be ignored: Ryan’s two best seasons came without Koetter steering the ship.
In a nutshell, the data says Ryan averaged only 2.5 fewer passing completions and attempted almost four fewer passes a game. The accuracy went down negligibly, while his yardage efficiency improved. Ryan averaged 1.8 touchdowns a game under Koetter and without, throwing 0.3 fewer picks per game.
This is more pronounced when looked at it in its entirety. Ryan threw a pick once every 42.1 throws under Koetter and once every 54.4 in the four years since Koetter left. That is a combination of maturation and the offense not being quite as aggressive. Fewer interceptions coincided with fewer attempts. Finally, Ryan averaged 0.1 fantasy points per game more without Koetter.
Fantasy football takeaway
This offense obviously goes as Ryan does, as we saw in 2017 when he fell off of the map following an MVP season. It took two years to master Kyle Shanahan’s system and as much time to do the same under Steve Sarkisian. While it has been four seasons since Ryan and Koetter worked together, it shouldn’t take more than a few weeks to get back in sync. That leaves the summer to figure out what works and discuss preferences developed by either party since they last partnered. Ryan was so good last year he probably will regress a touch, especially if the offense follows through with becoming more balanced. Consider his three rushing touchdowns a nice bonus and expect anything in this column to be a gift. Nevertheless, he remains a strong QB1.
Freeman, provided his health doesn’t fail him once again, is capable of low-end RB1 numbers. However, fantasy gamers would be ludicrous to draft him has anything better than a weak RB2. He will share carries with either Smith or another addition from the draft and/or free agency. There will be plenty of stop-gap running backs available on the market this spring.
There is no reason to get away from Julio in the twilight of his prime. He still hasn’t figured out how to score TDs with the rest of the league’s elite receivers, but his yardage and receptions make Jones a surefire WR1 in all formats.
It will be exciting to see how fantasy gamers value Ridley in 2019 drafts. He admittedly ran into the rookie wall last year and failed to produce with consistency after taking the league by storm in the first month of the 2018 season. Ridley has WR2 potential and should be no better than a third option in any format. His value comes via touchdowns with all of the attention paid to Jones. The second-year pro doesn’t figure to be a volume guy as long as Jones is healthy.
Koetter’s offense has been favorable to tight ends in Tampa Bay. It worked well with Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard over the past few years. Going back to his first stint in Atlanta, Koetter had the luxury of Tony Gonzalez for two years. Current Falcons starting tight end Austin Hooper proved useful at times in fantasy in what was his best statistical season as a third-year pro.
The reality is Koetter has a lot of film on his coaching style. He is unlikely at 59 years old to reinvent his vertical-leaning, screen-laden game plan. The veteran coach is not going to surprise defenses too often, yet he manages to get the most out of his entire cast. The offensive line will have to address the guard spots, at least the depth, and an upgrade at right tackle would be a wise addition. All things considered, this isn’t a massive step backward for the offense and its fantasy assets.