FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons’ mix of rookies and holdovers were not expected to have success on offense in 2008.
The Falcons, who committed early to rookies Matt Ryan and Sam Baker as their starting quarterback and left tackle, respectively, were widely projected to be a last-place team. Michael Turner was signed to take the lead at running back, but he had never been a full-time starter, and a much-criticized offensive line was not expected to give Turner room to run or Ryan time to pass.
It seems to have been the perfect challenge for Inspector Gadget.
Mike Mularkey, who earned the nickname for his trick plays as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator from 2001-03, is reprising the role in first season running Atlanta’s offense.
“I’ve had a history of trying to keep teams off-balance, but I’m certainly not of the belief you have to trick anybody to beat them,” Mularkey said. “We emphasize the physical part, and if we can keep you off balance for something that may hit you for a big play, we will do that. You need explosive plays to win games and sometimes that takes a different wrinkle for that to happen.”
The combination is working for 4-2 Atlanta.
Ryan is playing with veteran poise thanks in part to strong protection from his line. Turner has 597 yards rushing and six touchdowns in six games. Roddy White already has 35 catches, including three for touchdowns.
The Falcons, who had their bye week after back-to-back wins against Green Bay and Chicago, will visit Philadelphia on Sunday.
First-year coach Mike Smith picked Mularkey to run the offense because they share a belief in a physical, run-first attack. For Mularkey, it has been a return to his days in Pittsburgh, where he also was given freedom to run the offense by another defensive-minded head coach, Bill Cowher.
After a rough two seasons in Miami, including one year as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator, Mularkey says his first few months with the Falcons have been refreshing.
“What was difficult was I was basically a coordinator for somebody else’s offense that didn’t fit my philosophy,” Mularkey said Monday of his time in Miami.
“I did everything in my power to try to make that offense work. It kind of went against some of the things that I believe in as far as my philosophy. It’s kind of hard to stand up and say ‘This is what you believe’ and you don’t call a game that way.
“I struggled with it and we struggled as a team because of it and I don’t blame anybody but me. I knew what I was getting into. I thought I was better than I was and I didn’t do a good job.”
Mularkey, who was 14-18 in two seasons as Buffalo’s head coach in 2004-05, remained for a second season in Miami as the tight ends coach for Cam Cameron last year.
In Atlanta, Smith has veto power, but Mularkey designed the offense and calls the plays for a Falcons attack that ranks second in the NFL with 163 yards rushing per game.
“Nothing gets called, nothing is in the game plan that he is not aware of,” said Mularkey of Smith. “We talk about it. He’s very aware of everything that goes on offensively. I appreciate the input I get from him because he sees things from a different light that I may not see. Coach Cowher was the same as far as seeing things from a different light in the offense.”
Saban, enjoying his own career revival at Alabama, said he’s not surprised to see Mularkey having early success in Atlanta.
“He’s a great person, a fine man and a very, very good coach,” Saban said Monday. Ryan, the No. 3 overall draft pick, says Mularkey has helped make the transition to the NFL seem less complicated.
“He’s put me in good positions,” Ryan said. “He’s a really good teacher.
“Also, he has put us in good positions as a team. He has played to our strengths. That’s one of the best things a coordinator can do, tailor his calls to what we do well, the routes that I throw well and that our guys run well.”
The offensive line has allowed only seven sacks.
Center Todd McClure said Mularkey, a former tight end for the Steelers and Minnesota Vikings, enjoys a natural bond with the line.
“The thing that distinguishes coach Mularkey from other coordinators, he’s a guy that played up front,” McClure said.
“His whole mentality starts with the running game, and that’s what we like up front. We are committed to the run, no matter if it’s not going good. We know we’re going to run the ball.”