It seemed like a pipe dream a few weeks ago, but after the Falcons clobbered the Raiders, the path to the playoffs wasn’t as ridiculous as once thought. With a win over the Saints yesterday and a Cardinals loss to the Rams (which happened), Atlanta would have only been one game out of the final playoff spot with four weeks remaining. Unfortunately, a familiar issue that has plagued the Falcons since the beginning of last season was the one glaring takeaway from Sunday’s home matchup with their division rivals.
Atlanta’s offense has been respectable over the last two seasons — thanks in no part to Dirk Koetter. This roster is loaded with talent from top to bottom on paper. Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Russell Gage form one of the league’s most formidable wide receiver duos. Matt Ryan has been a top 10 quarterback in the league for a decade, and Thomas Dimitroff has spent tons of draft capital and money patching up a once horrific offensive line. All the pieces are there for this unit to look like the force that carried the Falcons to the Super Bowl in 2016… except for one — the offensive coordinator.
Koetter’s inept play-calling has left Falcons fans everywhere with their hands on their head, mouthing the words, “What the hell,” at least five times a game. There are the runs up the middle on second and long; the passes five yards short of the yard to gain on the third and long; the three straight passes late in the fourth quarter with the game in hand that fail to burn any clock, but none of it is more frustrating than his blatant incompetence in the Red Zone, where the Falcons have been among the worst in the league, especially recently.
According to Team Rankings, Atlanta ranks as the fourth-worst team when it comes to turning Red Zone opportunities into touchdowns. They have only reached the end zone on 50% of their chances inside the 20-yard line, and that number is down to 40% over their last three games, including 25% yesterday against the Saints. The only teams they are currently better than for the season are the Giants, Jets, and Cowboys. The difference between those offenses and the Falcons, though, is they don’t have a potential Hall-of-Fame QB under center and an All-Star team of weapons surrounding him.
With threats like Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, Koetter should have no problem scheming up favorable matchups in scoring position. There should be plenty of times where we see guys walking into the end zone, just like the Saints did during the few opportunities they had in the Red Zone. Instead, every score around the goal line feels as difficult as trying to break iron with your bare hands.
The Falcons found themselves in the Red Zone four times against the Saints. The first opportunity came late in the second quarter after a 15-yard run by Ito Smith. What ensued was a failed running play, leading to a one-yard loss by Todd Gurley and two straight incomplete passes that never looked like they were going anywhere, setting up Younhoe Koo for his second field goal of the day.
Atlanta’s second Red Zone opportunity came a few minutes later before the end of the first half. You can’t totally put all the blame on Koetter for this one because the Falcons were pressed for time and ended up kicking a field goal on third down, but still, I wouldn’t have bet much on Koetter dialing up something that would have worked had he been given another opportunity.
The Falcons lone successful trip to the Red Zone came in the middle of the fourth quarter when Koetter was finally able to scheme up an open wide receiver, as Russell Gage waltzed into the end zone, cutting the lead to five. However — the next possession — with the game on the line and the Falcons season at stake, Koetter might have called his three worst plays of the year.
Atlanta was set up on the New Orleans 13-yard line, facing a 2nd and 2 coming out of the two-minute warning. With the extra time to prepare, Koetter dialed up two straight running plays. The first led to no-gain, and the second resulted in a seven-yard loss on a half-back delay by Todd Gurley. To Koetter’s credit, that play had worked several times throughout the game; however, good defenses remember, and Koetter went to the well one too many times, setting up the Falcons with a 4th and 9, which they were unable to convert.
Jeff Schlutz recently posted an article on The Athletic, pointing out the deficiencies in Atlanta’s offense ever since Koetter took over in 2019, and I think he summed it up best when he said, “Quinn did a number of things right during his tenure. But hiring Koetter in 2019 will go down as the second-biggest blunder of Quinn’s career, right after not telling Kyle Shanahan to run the ball in the Super Bowl.”
The hiring of Koetter inevitably led to Quinn’s firing. With a competent offensive coordinator, the Falcons could easily be 7-5, or perhaps even better. He has held this offense and team back in every regard, and now he’s on the verge of getting another coach fired. Raheem Morris has done a more than respectable job as the interim head coach, but he had to be nearly perfect to keep his role going into next season. That’s almost impossible to do with an offensive coordinator as incompetent as Koetter calling the plays. Thankfully, these last four games should be the final time we ever have to see him impacting the Falcons organization again.