- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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He’s heading into his fourth season. Two strong-willed veteran offensive assistants have departed. His team needs to make a leap with several second-year guys in key roles.
So Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, regarded as a creative offensive mind as a head coach at Arizona State and Boise State, is about to show us how clever he is, right?
While the coordinator is aware of the labels he might have carried when he came into the league in 2007, he’s even more aware of the realities of the NFL.
“Shoot, when I was a college coach, I was supposedly one of the most innovative college coaches there was,” Koetter said. “In the NFL, you’re not showing defensive coaches and defensive players something they haven’t seen before. So that whole creativity thing -- it’s not like you’re going to break out the veer and go up to Tennessee and fool Jeff Fisher because he’s never seen it before.
“I think the best teams in the NFL are more about execution than they are about creativity."
Koetter said he never felt overshadowed by the departed assistants. He values the time he gets with good coaches and that he learned a lot from Kennedy Pola, who handled running backs, and Mike Tice, who oversaw tight ends. Their replacements, Earnest Byner and Rob Boras, respectively, won’t rank as weaker members of the offensive staff.
Koetter feels the Jags have a valuable asset in improving execution: experience.
Last season, he had six rookies on the field at once during the team’s 41-0 loss at Seattle .
But now, players like tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton and receivers like Mike Thomas, Jarett Dillard and Tiquan Underwood and tight end Zach Miller all have a better understanding of what they are being asked to do and how the league works.
“Am I saying to Dirk, ‘Hey, let’s put the pedal down, let’s be as good as we can be and be yourself and do things you want to do?’” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “I think he naturally feels a little more free to do that because we had a couple strong coaches, really good coaches, that were here before he got here in Kennedy Pola and Mike Tice and they’re both gone.
“He probably deferred to them a little bit more. Now that they're not here, he’s not going to defer to them. I think he’ll work closely with [offensive line coach] Andy Heck and the rest of the staff and put together a plan. But I think he’ll have a chance to push some of his thoughts to the forefront and I’ve encouraged him to do that.”
Koetter said the Jaguars have two major points of emphasis heading into 2010:
They want to cut the sack total from 44 to something in the high 20s or low 30s and allow far fewer hits on quarterback David Garrard.
They need last season’s red zone touchdown percentage (51.1) to get up into at least the high 50s or low 60s.
“I really think we can be a top 10 NFL offense,” Koetter said.
An affable, approachable coach, Koetter might find players on the post-Pola, post-Tice Jaguars offense more eager to be heard.
“I think it’ll be a change,” Maurice Jones-Drew said. “I think the players will have more of an impact on what we do. We’ll watch tape, see how we feel, tell him how we feel, see if he’ll run it. But it’ll be the same offense.”
There is a constant, circular argument about the guy heading that same offense: Garrard.
He’ll play a lot better if he gets better protection and works with more dangerous weapons, supporters say.
He needs to do more despite protection problems and help make his targets more dangerous with better reads and accuracy, critics say.
Garrard’s excellent at handling the criticism, Koetter said. The quarterback has put in more time this offseason, working more with receivers and coaches, showing great commitment and leadership. Koetter will call more quick developing plays if that’s what needs to happen to limit the hits.
“As we play better around Dave, Dave will look better to his critics,” Koetter said. “We were playing with two rookie tackles last year, two of our top four receivers were rookies, those guys are going to get better.”
Better play from Garrard will help round out the offense, but there is no transformation coming. The Jaguars will look to plow forward with MJD as the first option. They’ll hope an offseason of work on the defense means they’ll see the ball more, and when they get it they’ll expect better protection and more red zone TDs.
This is Koetter’s offense, but not necessarily his system. In 2007 he inherited a team that ran the ball very well. In two years under general manager Gene Smith, the lines have been the biggest focus and Jones-Drew has become the centerpiece player.
Del Rio said he encourages Koetter to open things up and be aggressive, but quickly adds that “you do what you have to do with the people you have.”
Even a good Garrard and blossoming receivers wouldn’t make for a pass-first offense this season. Maybe someday Koetter will be calling plays for a high-flying Jaguars team, but that’s not what he’s got right now.
“I’m looser because I know what we’ve got and I think I have a better idea how we should be using those guys,” Koetter said. “... Jack wasn’t telling me that first year, ‘Hey come in here and do whatever you want.’
“He was saying, ‘Hey, I want you to keep a lot of this stuff exactly how it was.’ He did give me some freedom in certain areas. But I’ve never really been about anything but trying to play to our players.”