Looking back on the 2019 season for the Atlanta Falcons, there was more on-the-job-training taking place than one might have thought. It wasn't just the new players who were having to learn and adjust to a new scheme; the new offensive coordinator was too.
Despite having 12 years of NFL play-calling experience under his belt, there was a lot of new learning offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter had to do before and during last season.
Before hiring a new offensive coordinator, Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he planned to keep the wide-zone scheme his team has been running since 2015 when Kyle Shanahan arrived, no matter who he brought in to run his offense. This meant Koetter was forced to learn a new system rather than implement his own.
Quinn believed Koetter was the right person to take the reins of the offense that has been the backbone of the franchise's most successful decade. From the day he was hired, Koetter was tasked with learning a new system, evaluating the talent he now had at his disposal and implementing some of his own preferences in the offense.
Koetter had previous experience working with a few players in Atlanta's offense from his first stint as offensive coordinator for the Falcons from 2012-14 but not many. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Jake Matthews were the only three players Koetter had coached and knew personally.
"It was definitely a learning curve for me," Koetter said. "Learning the system that we kept in place that was carried over from when Kyle Shanahan was here. I learned a lot … It's a really good system. It's not the system that I'm used to [running] although we did put some stuff in that are things that I have done in the past, I just feel like I'll be a better coach overall in Year 2 than I was in Year 1 in this system."
Oftentimes the biggest jumps that take place for NFL players occur between the first and second seasons. The same could be said for offensive and defensive coordinators.
Whether it was Shanahan in his second season with the Falcons to Steve Sarkisian, the Falcons' offensive play-caller under Quinn has had better results in his second year. Koetter, Ryan, Quinn and Jones all believe this will be the case in the 2020 season.
"I think him being in this scheme Year 2 and really understanding the differences in terms of our run game and how it matches up with what we do with protections and play-action pass, I think that part of it excites me the most about this upcoming year," Ryan said. "Us both being very much on the same page and him having a really good pulse for guys that we have and the scheme that we have set up."
The biggest challenge for Koetter was learning the new terminology in the Falcons' offensive scheme. And it's not as simple as one might think.
"Football language is pretty common throughout the NFL as far as what terms are used but there are a lot of terms in this system that mean something different," Koetter said. "The same two terms might have two different meanings. I was used to the terminology going back to the days when Mike Mularkey was originally the coordinator here. When I came the first time, we carried over that system, which is the old Pittsburgh Steeler terminology. Now, it's the Shanahan terminology that came here from [Washington] when Kyle came. Just some of the words mean the exact opposite. So, just getting it straight, getting all the words down in your brain that something that you've been calling one way for 12 years means something opposite."
Ryan, who has worked with Koetter for a total of four seasons now, continues to play at a high level and thinks his offense could be even better this year. In 2019, the Falcons' passing offense was one of the league's best under Koetter. The unit ranked No. 13 in points per game (23.8) and No. 3 in passing yards per game (294.6).
Atlanta's struggles on offense came mostly in the run game and pass protection, two areas Koetter identified that must improve. The Falcons finished 30th in the NFL in rushing offense averaging 85.1 yards per game. Ryan was sacked a career-high 48 times and the Falcons gave up a total of 50 sacks, fifth-most in the league. This was following a year in which Ryan was sacked 42 times in 2018 leading to the Falcons drafting guard Chris Lindstrom (No. 14 overall) and Kaleb McGary (No. 31) in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Koetter and Quinn spent the offseason devoted to finding ways to improve in these areas. The Falcons traded for tight end Hayden Hurst and signed running back Todd Gurley in free agency in hopes they'll help in these specific areas.
The Falcons appear to be at their best offensively when there's balance between the run and pass game. That's exactly what they'll try to get back to. Quinn said they were "missed the mark" in the run game last season.
"We've spent a lot of time together in terms of style, vision and where we want to go," Quinn said. "I've really reached in and he's provided a lot of insight on different topics, different things. So, our relationship has grown even stronger going into Year 2. Continuity in all three phases, that's a big deal for us heading in. His ability to attack in-game, that's one that you need with experience and he has it in bunches."
Koetter also said the offense needs to get off to a faster start in 2020. This is especially important on offense so Atlanta doesn't become one-dimensional.
Six of the Falcons' seven wins in 2019 came when they had the lead at the end of the first half. The Falcons were minus-73 in first-half point differential, which was 28th in the league. Eight of the top 11 teams in first-half point differential made the playoffs last season.
When the Falcons went on a 6-2 run to close out the season, Koetter was able to utilize his full playbook because he wasn't having to make up time and points. This directly impacted their ability to run the ball more effectively.
"The first half of the year we were just playing from behind a lot," Koetter said. "Time and score factors into that. If we're a faster starting team and you're playing with a tie score or you're ahead, you're in more situations where you can run the football."
There's no reason not to believe Atlanta's offense won't be better in the upcoming season. Wide receivers Jones and Calvin Ridley are both healthy and will be expected to pick up right where they left off last season. Gurley and Hurst, two former first-round picks, are both internally motivated like none other. And the offensive line's five starters from 2019 return, with the left guard spot still to be decided.
Koetter's open-minded and honest approach will be key in what is a critical year for the Falcons. After back-to-back 7-9 seasons without a trip to the playoffs, the pressure is on the players and coaching staff to get off to a fast start, and the offense needs to do its part to ensure that happens.
And Jones, considered by many to the best wideout in the game today, will tell you why Koetter is the right person to help make that happen.
"First and foremost, I respect Dirk as a man," Jones said. "I respect Dirk as who he is outside of just being a coach. He's going to give you opportunities on the field. You can communicate about anything. He's not just going to be like, 'OK, this is going to be my way because I'm the offensive coordinator.' He wants everybody to have success and listens to everybody."
The wait to see the Falcons at work in the brand new helmets is over. The team debuted the helmets along with new practice jerseys on Thursday during Day 8 of AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp.