Falcons owner Arthur Blank promised a fresh set of ideas among the coaching staff and it seems that is what the Falcons are getting.
Originally, when Blank made those comments during a season-ending press conference with head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff three days after the season ended, Blank was talking about the coordinator positions, as both were vacant at the time.
However, after an evaluation period, it seems the Falcons have sought to sprinkle that fresh-idea infusion down towards the lower levels of the coaching staff, especially on those areas of the team that were deemed the weakest: the offensive line and the defensive backfield.
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On Saturday, the Falcons announced the hiring of former Fresno State head coach Pat Hill as the offensive line coach, a move that would seem to have Dimitroff’s finger prints on it. (They have yet to hire a defensive backs coach, who would seem to remain subordinate to secondary coach Tim Lewis.)
When Smith took over the Falcons in 2008 after serving as Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator, even the offensive side of the ball had his imprint. Running backs coach Gerald Brown worked with Smith for all but one of his 11 seasons at Tennessee Tech. Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau worked with him at Jacksonville.
But Hill’s background shows connections to Dimitroff and not to Smith. Hill was Bill Belichick’s offensive line coach with Cleveland from 1992 to 1995 when Belichick coached the Browns. Dimitroff, of course, came up through New England’s front office and maintains close ties to Belichick. It would not at all be surprising if Dimitroff placed a call to his former mentor to pick his brain for potential candidates and Hill’s name came up.
At that season-ending press conference, Dimitroff addressed the subject of the offensive line, which became something of a scapegoat following the season. He said that after some early flux, the Falcons ended up finishing sixth in the NFL in terms of the least sacks allowed, but added that, “That being said, there’s no question in my mind we didn’t get the push — a strong, aggressive push — off our offensive line to gain six inches or six yards,” an allusion to the team’s failure to convert two fourth-and-1s against the New York Giants in the team’s 24-2 loss in their NFC Wildcard game.
Blank was even more explicit in his criticism. He added that the sacks-allowed statistic did not mean much to him, as statistics can be manipulated. He said it just meant that quarterback Matt Ryan was forced to get rid of the ball early and that against the Giants, “Matt was rushed the entire day,” which was why he could not complete downfield passes to wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White.
In a video posted to the Falcons’ official Web site on Tuesday, Smith discussed some of the coaching changes. He said that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was getting to work on a new playbook that would emphasize the vertical passing game in a way “that will be a little bit different than what we had the first four years.” Smith also addressed the staff turnover by saying that, “just as important as consistency is getting new ideas and new thoughts and having some new people in the room and in the building.” Smith also said new coaches would better help to evaluate personnel.
(FoxSportsSouth.com made a request to speak to Dimitroff or Smith about some of the recent hires. Dimitroff is on vacation while Smith was not made available.)
Hill’s new ideas had better be able to make Ryan stand upright if the Falcons go to more of a vertical passing game. When the Falcons experimented with more of a vertical attack early in 2011, he was sacked 13 times in the first three games. After some schematic changes, the Falcons limited that to 13 sacks over the final 13 games.
At the root of the offensive line coach change would seem to be that the former one, Boudreau, did not sufficiently develop the players Dimitroff picked. Left tackle Sam Baker, a first-round pick in 2008, lost his job midway through the ’11 season. Garrett Reynolds, a fifth-round pick in 2009, won the job at right guard out of camp, started the first eight games, but then lost his job.
Nonetheless, Boudreau’s approach was old-school but effective. In addition to limiting sacks, Falcons running back Michael Turner finished third in the NFL in rushing yards. Right tackle Tyson Clabo, who became a Pro-Bowler in 2010 under Boudreau, once affectionately referred to his former position coach as a “just a salty, mean old man.”
Dimitroff is decidedly new school. He picks players for their brains as much as their brawn. In Hill, he has someone who, as a college coach, was successful in raising his team’s academic profile – and did so at an institution that would not seemingly have the academic focus of a Duke, Stanford or Vanderbilt.
After departing the school following 15 seasons with a 112-80 record, he said at a December press conference, “I can say now and it’s documented that graduation rates, the last two that have been counted in Pat Hill’s era are 85 and 89 percent. That’s up from 22.”
In the NFL, the only rates that will matter will be Ryan’s completion rate, his efficiency rate and the rate at which Hill’s linemen grade out. The new line coach has high expectations to meet – from his general manager and from his owner. He had best not disappoint.