ATLANTA -- The success of the Atlanta Falcons this season has been, to say the least, unexpected, especially with first-time leadership charged with fixing a franchise mired in on- and off-field ruin.
But it's even more remarkable when you consider that rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, free-agent tailback Michael Turner, emerging star wide receiver Roddy White and a hodgepodge of characters on the offensive line were turned over to a new offensive coaching staff that managed a combined eight NFL victories with their respective teams in 2007.
On top of that, Mike Mularkey, who lost his play-calling duties as offensive coordinator in Miami and was re-assigned to be the woeful Dolphins' tight ends coach last season, was named offensive coordinator in Atlanta, hired to design the scheme that would be the foundation for years. In addition, the only coach on the Falcons' staff that Mularkey had ever worked with before was wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie, who was with him in Miami.
"I guess you can say things are going pretty good," Mularkey, 46, said.
The one-time offensive guru who had helped turn Kordell Stewart into a Pro Bowl quarterback, who revitalized the career of journeyman quarterback Tommy Maddox in Pittsburgh, who spent two unsuccessful seasons as the Buffalo Bills head coach, who was Miami's offensive coordinator under Nick Saban in 2006, and who was Cam Cameron's tight ends coach with the Dolphins in 2007, got his groove back.
Through 10 weeks, Mularkey's offense in Atlanta ranks second in rushing and sixth overall.
"My experience in Miami, I'm not going to say it was bad, but I was attempting to call and run other people's offenses that I didn't have familiarity with," Mularkey explained. "This (in Atlanta) is the one I used in Pittsburgh and Buffalo. It's nice to have some common things back. The coaching staff picked right up on it, which was the biggest thing.
"I went to Miami (in 2006) thinking I was expected to run (former Dolphins offensive coordinator) Scott Linehan's offense, use the same terminology and succeed. I've seen other coaches try to do that and fail. I said I would not fail, and I did. It's hard to explain to people. As hard as you want to try, if it's not your philosophy, you can't just call a game."
With a cerebral quarterback in Ryan and a group of intelligent, if not overly physical offensive linemen, Mularkey has been able to call plays that he could not do with Daunte Culpepper, Joey Harrington, Drew Bledsoe, J.P. Losman or Kelly Holcomb -- or even Stewart, for that matter. The recognition ability of Ryan is off the charts, which is why the third overall draft pick has been so effective so early into his career.
In Atlanta's 34-20 victory over the Saints on Sunday, the Falcons drove to the New Orleans 34-yard line in the second quarter using a no-huddle set. Slot receiver Harry Douglas went in motion, from left to right, and a defensive back went with him, signaling man coverage. Ryan, in shotgun formation, changed the play and threw a deep lob down the left sideline to Michael Jenkins, who was matched up in man coverage on Aaron Glenn. Jenkins caught it and was brought down at the 2. Less-cerebral quarterbacks wouldn't have been able to make that read, and Mularkey wouldn't have put many in the position to make that decision.
The offense is a personnel-based scheme, where Mularkey and his staff tailor plays and play calls to the abilities of the talent. It's a system Mularkey devised as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator in 2001 with fellow offensive assistants Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt, currently the assistant head coach and head coach, respectively, with the Arizona Cardinals, who, like the Falcons, boast a 6-3 record.
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"It started with us meeting and evaluating our personnel, and in reality, this system started with Kordell and worked its way down from there," Mularkey said. "We saw what we had offensively, player-wise, and said, 'Let's fit what we have here. Tinker some things -- don't even install things -- that we know our left tackle can't do. Even though it looks good or another team is successful with it, let's not put any player in a position where he is uncertain if he can do it.'
"You want your quarterback to have success, but if one guy isn't put in the position to be successful, you can't run that play."
The only real constants through the years in Mularkey's system have been blocking tight ends and tough tailbacks. The quarterbacks and offensive lines have had a variety of skill sets, so Mularkey has had a variety of ideas, sets and schemes.
Veteran offensive tackle Wayne Gandy was with Mularkey in Pittsburgh and now is a reserve with the Falcons. Before getting cut last spring and re-signed two weeks ago, Gandy predicted Mularkey would run a semi-pedestrian, mistake-free offense based on the team's personnel. The mistake-free part was dead on but Mularkey's offense has hardly been vanilla.
"Mike likes to change stuff up, and with Matt and the offensive line, which is very heady, that allows Mike to change this and that weekly," Gandy said. "This system is about allowing the quarterback to play, to make throws or runs or do things he can do. It's about moving the chains. If it's second-and-2 you go get the first down. Not, 'Oh, it's second-and-2, let's go long.' It's a very efficient offense. It's about constantly keeping the pressure on the defense and using the talent. He's not trying to make Jerious Norwood into Jerome Bettis or make Michael Turner try things he's not comfortable with."
As well as things have run over nine games, Mularkey isn't looking to acquit himself for his past failures, including his 14-18 mark as head coach of the Bills. He's also not angling for another head-coaching job.
"I have coaching aspirations," said Mularkey, clearly leaving "head coaching" out of his answer. "l love coaching. I don't have to be anything more than I am. If it's less, I'll be happy. I enjoy coaching. I'm not doing this for any other reason. I'm enjoying this job. I enjoyed coaching tight ends last year.
"People say, 'You went from head coach to a tight ends coach. How do you feel about that?' I looked at it as a privilege and I had fun being in the classroom again. I don't have to be any more than I already am to be happy. If it happens, great; if not, that's fine. I'm not reaching out for it."
Mularkey's trek in coaching is very much in the now. He's only had Ryan for nine games, which is hardly enough time to get everything right. With seven regular-season games left, there's also plenty of time to mess things up.
What has helped the Falcons offense more than anything is that it's getting off to quick starts and being able to dictate the tempo. Falling behind and putting more pressure on players who aren't quite equipped -- as was the case in losses to Tampa Bay and Carolina -- makes the good work he and his staff have managed thus far look very ordinary.
"This is a work in progress," Mularkey said. "We've got a long way to go. We've come a long way. It's been a long time since I've seen a whole group work like this -- especially with the situations we've all come from."