FLOWERY BRANCH — Mike Mularkey has found some comfort with the Atlanta Falcons.
Not many assistant coaches can say as much about their recent tenures in Atlanta, but Mularkey doesn’t care.
The Falcons’ new coach, Mike Smith, hired Mularkey with the understanding that he will design game plans and call plays.
Over the last two years in Miami, Mularkey endured ridicule in his adaptations to offenses overseen by former Dolphins coaches Cam Cameron and Nick Saban.
In Atlanta, Smith will maintain veto power in crucial situations. But Mularkey, just as he did as Buffalo head coach from 2004-05 and as a longtime assistant and coordinator under Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh, has nearly full control of the Falcons’ offense.
"I’m not going to show our hand of what we’re made of, but really the philosophy behind it is we’re not going to try to trick people," Mularkey said this week. "Our No. 1 objective in games is to be physical, but with some deception. There will be some special plays in there to attack certain weaknesses, but that’s not how we’re going to win games."
Entering offseason conditioning in March 2007, the Falcons’ offense was stacked with identity, but the imprisonment of quarterback Michael Vick and the sudden departure of coach Bobby Petrino, who resigned after just 13 games, changed the landscape.
Now running back Warrick Dunn has returned to Tampa Bay, and tight end Alge Crumpler plays for Tennessee.
Roddy White still starts at receiver, but other than longtime center Todd McClure, everything else is in flux. The Falcons hope rookie Matt Ryan, the NFL’s No. 3 overall pick, emerges as a franchise quarterback. Running back Michael Turner was signed as a free agent to replace Dunn and better complement fast tailback Jerious Norwood.
Atlanta had to make changes, particularly with Vick’s dogfighting sentence lasting 23 months. Petrino’s offense never meshed with the Falcons, who tried Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich at quarterback before finally settling on journeyman Chris Redman.
Entering Week 17, Atlanta’s offense had the NFL’s lowest scoring average.
"This is their third offense in three years," Mularkey said. "Third terminology. Some of it does sound the same but means something different. I realize what these guys have done, and that’s what so amazing to me about these guys is how well they’ve adapted. They’re probably further ahead than we anticipated."
For Mularkey, the chance to bring back his playbook made for an ideal situation. His tenure in Buffalo lasted just two years. He resigned with a 14-18 record after owner Ralph Wilson fired general manager Tom Donohoe in January 2006.
Mularkey considered an offer to join Atlanta’s staff to oversee quarterbacks for head coach Jim Mora and coordinator Greg Knapp, but he signed as coordinator in Miami.
When Saban resigned 18 months ago and left for Alabama, the Dolphins brought in Cam Cameron as head coach. Mularkey, whose decisions had already been questioned, remained as the Dolphins’ tight ends coach.
Miami then sank to a a 1-15 record that caused Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga to bring in Bill Parcells to oversee football operations and essentially clean out the staff.
"People look at last year, when I got demoted, they like to say, to tight ends coach," Mularkey said. "I actually asked for that job. I was sitting in a meeting, and Cam said, ‘If you’re going to be here, I’m going to create a title for you.’ And I said, ‘Cam, I don’t take this personal. I don’t take it as a demotion, but I don’t want to have a title and do nothing."
Mularkey called plays late last season after Cameron gave up those duties, but there wasn’t much creative initiative.
"I’ll admit it myself," Mularkey said. "I struggled calling the games. When you don’t have your bread-and-butter plays, and I learned it like I invented it, but I really didn’t call it like I invented it. Let’s say I struggled more than I thought I would, because I have that much confidence in myself with play calling. But I think I could’ve done a better job now that I look back."
Mularkey’s time with the Falcons will be judged, ultimately, by Ryan’s success.
"Coach Mularkey has gone out of his way, just everyone else on this staff, to give us the tools and ideas we need to win games," Ryan said. "I don’t put expectations on him or anyone else out here to make sure I’m a success. That responsibility falls on me, but I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have a coordinator like coach Mularkey."
As for a chance that he one day might become a head coach again, Mularkey is noncommittal.
"I had a goal to do it and I set a plan to get to be one," Mularkey said. "But is that really what I work for? Not really. I enjoy the business."