Offensive Coordinator Changes and the Fantasy Football Impact

Here's a rundown of the nine new NFL offensive coordinators for the upcoming season and how these changes impact your fantasy football rankings heading into 2012.

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ATLANTA FALCONS

After failing to score a single offensive point in their playoff loss to the Giants the Falcons were hardly disappointed to send former OC Mike Mularkey off to Jacksonville, where he takes over as head coach. On the surface, however, replacing him with the man who directed the Jaguars to the worst offense in the league last year hardly seems like an upgrade.

And yet the arrival of Dirk Koetter in Atlanta is for the most part being met with optimism. Koetter’s primary area of expertise is the vertical passing game, and in Atlanta he’ll be working with Matt Ryan, Roddy White, and Julio Jones instead of Blaine Gabbert, Mike Thomas, and Jason Hill. Koetter has talked about generating big plays and using the four verticals concept to stretch the field; he’s also used plenty of slants and screens to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers—a scheme that plays directly into the strengths of White, Jones, and Jacquizz Rodgers.

Despite the recent struggles in Jacksonville, Koetter seems well suited for jump-starting the talented Falcons attack. He has familiarity with a bell cow back, having ridden Maurice Jones-Drew to a rushing title last season, so Michael Turner will get his fair share of carries. But Koetter has already identified Rodgers as a player who’ll see an uptick in touches based on what this offense wants to accomplish. Building on the past success of the ground game and the play-action passing game Ryan deftly operated last season, Koetter can take advantage of his quarterback’s accuracy and receivers’ athleticism to hit targets on the move and create the big plays he’s looking for.

And after four seasons of Mularkey, both Falcons fans and fantasy owners can’t help but be excited.

CHICAGO BEARS

The Mike Martz era never took off in the Windy City, so the Bears jettisoned Martz and promoted offensive line coach Mike Tice to the OC role. The change in Mikes will be marked by a change in scheme, but more importantly the Bears’ offense will focus more on putting existing personnel in position to succeed rather than forcing players into Martz’s system despite obvious deficiencies in key areas such as wide receiver and offensive line.

First, don’t assume that just because Tice is an o-line guy that the Bears will become a grind-it-out run offense; his track record in Minnesota was decidedly pass-heavy, including the famous “Randy Ratio” which dictated that superstar wideout Randy Moss touch the ball a significant portion of the time. Tice has indicated his game plan is to be flexible: to run when the Bears have a numbers advantage in the box, and to throw when they don’t.

That also speaks to Tice’s plan for keeping Jay Cutler upright despite the Bears’ much-maligned offensive line. While many of Chicago’s linemen were overmatched with no back or tight end help on seven-step drops, Tice said most of Cutler’s drops will be of the three- (and occasionally five-) step variety. In addition, Tice plans to roll the mobile Cutler out of the pocket and use the no-huddle offense to make it more difficult for defenses to throw exotic blitzes at the Bears’ line.

The addition of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey also allows the Bears to put their wideouts in roles more befitting their skills. No longer miscast as a WR1, Devin Hester can work out of the slot; Earl Bennett can be a possession receiver instead of Cutler’s only go-to guy. And tight end Kellen Davis, begrudgingly incorporated into Martz’s system, no plays for an ex-tight end of a coach who directed Jermaine Wiggins to 139 catches over two seasons in Minnesota.

Finally, the addition of Michael Bush to the Bears’ backfield may be more than just Matt Forte injury/holdout insurance. In the four years Tice called the shots in Minnesota, primary runner Michael Bennett was usurped at the stripe by Moe Williams (who led the team’s running backs in rushing touchdowns thrice, including 11 TDs on just 84 carries in 2002) and Ciatric Fason (four rushing TDs on 32 carries in 2005, tops among Vikings RBs). The goal line role is a great fit for Bush with or without Forte, and Tice’s tendencies suggest he’s more than just a fantasy handcuff in TD-heavy scoring systems.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Pat Shurmur will continue to call the plays in Cleveland, but Brad Childress has been added to the mix as the Browns’ offensive coordinator. Childress, who held a similar role with the Eagles while Andy Reid called the plays, has indicated he’ll be up in the booth instead of on the sidelines. Childress is well-versed in the West Coast offense, so he and Shurmur are on the same page schematically, and having another experienced voice in the mix should help the Browns avoid some of the game-management issues that plagued Shurmur in his first season at the helm.

Pause for the guffaws from Vikings fans to subside, as crediting Mr. “12th Man In The Huddle” with a game-management upgrade seems laughable. But truth be told, Childress is a respected Xs-and-Os guy who—from the safety of the booth—can help keep Cleveland’s offense on track.

Of course, working with Brandon Weeden and Greg Little rather than Brett Favre and Percy Harvin or Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens makes a significant difference. But Childress will have an Adrian Peterson-like running back at his disposal in first-round pick Trent Richardson, and it was Childress calling the shots when AP rolled up 1,609 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns during his first NFL campaign. Shurmur won’t need much convincing to give Richardson more than the 18 touches per game Peterson averaged as a rookie—but if he does, Childress is there to help.

DALLAS COWBOYS

Jason Garrett will still call the plays in Dallas, but the title of offensive coordinator now belongs to Bill Callahan, the former Raiders head man who spent the last four seasons coaching the Jets’ offensive line. Like Childress in Cleveland, Callahan will leave the play-calling to the head coach but provide support specifically in the area of game and clock management.

Callahan also replaces the legendary Hudson Houck as the Cowboys’ offensive line coach, and he’ll be charged with reminding Garrett that Dallas needs to occasionally run the ball from time to time as well. His previous work with the Jets indicates mixed results; Gang Green ranked ninth, first, and fourth in the league in rushing yardage before falling off to 22nd last year. The Jets also ran the ball an average of five times per game more than the Cowboys over that span, so in addition to retooling the Dallas offensive line Callahan can be a bug in Garrett’s ear: “Hey! Don’t forget to give the ball to Demarco Murray every once in a while!”

GREEN BAY PACKERS

With Joe Philbin taking his talents to South Beach, the Packers promoted Tom Clements to the position of offensive coordinator. Clements has spent the past six seasons coaching Green Bay’s quarterbacks, so he knows the system and the personnel. And with head coach Mike McCarthy maintaining play-calling duties, there’s very little to worry about with this transition. When you consider that Clements coached Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers to consecutive 4,000-yard seasons, developed Matt Flynn into a record-setting quarterback (if only for one game), and created an offense where Kelly Holcomb could break Jim Kelly’s completion percentage mark in Buffalo... yeah, the Packers will be just fine.   

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

After stints as head coach in Denver and offensive coordinator in St. Louis, Josh McDaniels returns to the franchise where he served as offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2008—a stretch that included setting the NFL record for points in 2007.

Both the Patriots and McDaniels have evolved over their seasons apart; the Patriots have developed a mismatch-creating pair of tight ends, while McDaniels has had the opportunity to tweak his approach without direct involvement from his mentor Bill Belichick. Early reports are that McDaniels has simplified the offense, adjusting to the personnel at hand. This iteration of the New England attack will likely run the ball more, and they’ll definitely involve tight ends more than McDaniels has at any of his previous stops.

One constant as far as McDaniels is concerned is the presence of Brandon Lloyd, who resurrected his career under McDaniels in Denver before following him to St. Louis and now to New England. Lloyd won’t put up Randy Moss numbers, but he—along with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez—will continue to take bites out of Wes Welker’s formerly gaudy numbers.

Ultimately this offense still has Tom Brady at the wheel so they’ll continue to put up fantasy numbers; despite their divergent paths, Brady has indicated he still feels a comfort level with McDaniels’ play calling. The personnel is different than the record-setting 2007 cast, but with the loads of offensive talent at McDaniels’ disposal there’s no reason to expect a significant drop-off from their consistent level of productivity.

NEW YORK JETS

The Jets weren’t satisfied with their run-oriented offense under Brian Schottenheimer, so they changed things up in the offseason and brought in… run-oriented offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. Sparano’s first crack at NFL play-calling came with the 2006 Cowboys, where he directed a balanced offense that ran the ball effectively with Julius Jones and Marion Barber. From there he went to Miami, where as head coach his offenses again balanced the run and the pass and used a committee approach in the backfield; during each of his four seasons at the helm multiple backs carried the ball 147 or more times.

Having seen the Jets on a regular basis as an AFC East foe, Sparano should be familiar with the personnel he inherits. Reports out of OTAs have Sparano simplifying the offense, getting less cerebral and more physical; rather than changing the play, Sparano is asking his players to simply win their individual battles to make the play succeed. The Jets will need improved play from their offensive line to accomplish this task on a regular basis, but Sparano’s experience in that area should help the running game return to its previous levels of success—or at least from last season’s No. 22 ranking.

And as for the Jets’ high-profile backup quarterback, it’s logical that the coach who unleashed the Wildcat on the league will take advantage of Tim Tebow. Sparano has said the Jets’ playbook will feature an extensive Wildcat package, and the plan is to use Tebow on up to 20 snaps a game. While that may bode well for the overall Jets attack, it’s bound to take fantasy points off the plates of Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Despite Ben Roethlisberger lobbying to keep Bruce Arians, the Steelers chose not to renew their long-time offensive coordinator’s contract following the 2011 season. Initially the official statement was that Arians “retired”, but he soon resurfaced in Indianapolis. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh brought back former Steeler ball boy Todd Haley, who has added a little more to his resume since shagging balls while his dad ran the team’s personnel office. Haley directed the Arizona offense for two seasons before taking the head coaching job in Kansas City in 2009.

The Chiefs gig didn’t end well, but Haley is still held in high regard as a bright offensive mind; let’s just hope it’s not too much for Big Ben, who referred to Haley’s new playbook as “this Rosetta Stone that sits in front of me” earlier this offseason.

There are also concerns that Haley might be more run-based than his predecessor based on how the Kansas City offense ran the ball. Looking at the current make-up of the Steelers, a bit more smash mouth might not be a bad thing but there’s too much talent in the passing game for Pittsburgh to suddenly become three yards and a cloud of dust. Haley can play that game, too; you may remember his work with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin on the Cardinals’ 2008 Super Bowl team. In fact, Steve Breaston joined Fitz and Boldin in the 1,000-yard club that season and the Steelers are similarly loaded at receiver with Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders.

Bottom line, the Steelers had become predictable under Arians and whether he was ready to retire or not Pittsburgh needed a change. Roethlisberger will get his head wrapped around the new playbook, and Haley knows what to do with a talented receiving corps. Add in some physical upgrades on the offensive line and this offense may more closely resemble the early 00’s Steelers offenses under Mike Mularkey, which were known for a punishing ground game mixed with shots down the field in the passing game. That scheme certainly fits the personnel, giving Haley’s homecoming a high probability of success.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

The Chargers promoted Hal Hunter from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator, replacing Clarence Shelmon. The obvious question to both of those names is, who? There’s no question this offense still belongs to Norv Turner, so any changes will be subtle and based more on the personnel on the field than they guy wearing the headset.

However, Hunter can point to a ground game track record that has the Bolts averaging more than 1,900 rushing yards and almost 20 rushing TDs per season. And with Ryan Mathews taking over the vast majority of the touches since Mike Tolbert left town, it’s understandable why there’s such optimism surrounding Mathews’ fantasy potential. Don’t look for any radical changes in the San Diego offense; more of the same from Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, and the rest of the crew is still music to fantasy owners’ ears.