Atlanta Falcon’s Mike Mularkey is in his third stint as an offensive coordinator (he was also the Buffalo Bills head coach from 2004-2005), and there are some alarming trends that Falcons’ fans may want to know about.
Judging from his past stints, you shouldn’t look for Atlanta’s offense to improve.
Mularkey has usually done a good job at improving a team’s offense the first year he is with a team, but for reasons not always under his control, his teams usually rank a little lower his second year there.
The only time he was around for a third year (as Pittsburgh‘s offensive coordinator), the Steelers’ offense dropped into the bottom of the league.
When looking at the 2008 Falcons offense, you can see a lot of similarities to the 2001 Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense that Mularkey coached.
Pittsburgh’s offense ranked third in the league that year, after having ranked 18th the year before. The Falcons offense made a similar jump from 23rd in 2007 to sixth last year.
After taking over Pittsburgh’s offense, the Steelers went from 9-7 in 2000 to 13-3 and the AFC championship game in 2001.
Mularkey helped Atlanta make an even bigger jump, going from 4-12 in 2007 to 11-5 and a playoff birth last year.
But Pittsburgh’s offense would drop from third to fifth behind injuries to their starting quarterback (anybody remember Kordell Stewart?) and running back (Jerome “The Bus” Bettis).
Their offense would then drop all the way to 22nd in Mularkey’s third season.
I also noticed something about Mularkey's offenses that struck me as kind of odd.
Although Mularkey is a former tight end, tight ends aren’t usually very productive in Mularkey’s system.
Out of the seven years that Mularkey has been either an offensive coordinator or a head coach, only once has a tight end has caught more than 19 passes.
When he was offensive coordinator in Miami, TE Randy McMichael caught 62 passes that year, but was coming off seasons where he had caught 73 and 60 passes respectively.
Tight end Justin Peele caught 15 passes for Atlanta last year—after having 29 catches the previous year with Miami.
No tight end in Pittsburgh caught more than 13 passes when Mularkey was there.
Looking at Mularkey's playing career, it’s not surprising that tight ends don’t contribute much to the passing game in his system.
As a player, the most passes Mularkey ever caught in a season was 32.
In his nine-year career he caught 20 or more passes only twice, so how he uses tight ends reflects how he was mostly utilized as a player—as blockers in both the run and pass game.
This season will represent a big adjustment for Mularkey in trying accommodate a tight end like Tony Gonzalez, who is coming off back-to-back 90-catch seasons.
Even though tight ends aren’t usually that productive, wide receivers seem to thrive in this offense.
Wide receiver Hines Ward went to his first Pro Bowl in this system, and went every year Mularkey was offensive coordinator.
Last year, wide receiver Roddy White followed suit by being selected for his first Pro Bowl in Mularkey’s initial season in Atlanta.
What allows these receivers to have such outstanding seasons is the emphasis placed on the running game.
Mularkey’s offenses have consistently produced 1,000-yard rushers like Bettis, Willis McGhee (Buffalo), Ronnie Brown (Miami), and Atlanta’s Michael Turner.
Look for Turner to play well again this year barring injury.
Turner carried the ball 376 times last year because the Falcons were able to play with a lead in most games.
Atlanta made little improvement during the offseason though, so don’t look for Turner to repeat the 1,699-yard season he had last year.
One last similarity that may scare Falcons’ fans: for all the hoopla about Matt Ryan being the long term answer at QB, his stats last year were eerily similar to Kordell Stewart’s 2001 numbers.
ATT/COMP YRDS COMP% TD INT SACKS RATING
2008 434/265 3440yds 61.1% 16 11 17 87.7
2001 442/266 3109yds 60.2% 14 11 29 81.7
Ryan’s numbers weren’t that bad for a rookie QB. What’s troubling is the fact that Mularkey hasn’t had much success developing quarterbacks in this system.
Head coach Mike Smith has to hope that quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave will help Ryan improve.
During his NFL coaching career, Musgrave has been successful helping other quarterbacks elevate their games.
But if things stay true to form, you can expect Atlanta’s offense to drop a few notches.
If that is the case, then let’s hope that Smith can improve Atlanta’s defense the way he did Jacksonville’s because their offense won't be able to carry them this year.