Mike Mularkey was the coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanted to replace Paul Hackett as quarterbacks coach. But when Mularkey found a job with the Atlanta Falcons, the Bucs had to go in another direction — Greg Olson.
The former St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator comes to the Buccaneers with just six years of NFL experience. His predecessor, the well-respected Paul Hackett, had more than 20 years of NFL experience as a NFL coordinator and position coach.
So just what are the Bucs getting in Olson? Well, look at the beginning of his career in the NFL, in 2001 with San Francisco, and you'll find a familiar face — Jeff Garcia.
Olson arrived in the Bay area fresh off four years at Purdue University as its quarterbacks coach. His top pupil with the Boilermakers was current New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. In the Boilermakers' spread offense, Brees broke numerous school records. Olson was the one that kept Brees on track and his hard work earned him a spot on Steve Mariucci's staff.
Garcia was entering his third year in the NFL in 2001 and was coming off what remains his best pro season by yardage, a 4,278-yard campaign in 2000. Under Olson Garcia's yardage numbers dipped to 3,538 yards. But his touchdowns (31 in 2000 to 32 in 2001), interceptions (10 in 2000 to 12 in 2001) and passer rating (97.6 in 2000 to 94.8 in 2001) remained steady. The Niners also made the playoffs for the first with Garcia as quarterback. You could say that Olson tutored Garcia's best overall season as a pro.
In just that one season Garcia and Olson forged a strong relationship. Apparently Olson was in Garcia's wedding to his wife, Carmella, last year.
Olson went back to Purdue in 2002, a result of the shakeup caused by Mariucci's firing. Olson re-emerged in the NFL in 2003 as quarterbacks coach for the Chicago Bears.
Olson went to a far different team with a much different offense. He was also challenged by the fact that he tutored three different quarterbacks that season — Kordell Stewart, Chris Chandler and Rex Grossman.
Their combined numbers were nothing to get excited about: 2,905 yards, 12 touchdowns, 20 interceptions, 43 sacks and a 61.0 passer rating. Then-head coach Dick Jauron's offense was run-based, and Anthony Thomas did rush for more than 1,000 yards. But the offense, overall, was truly anemic and that was due to the inconsistency at quarterback. Olson's reputation likely took a hit.
Once again, Olson went looking for work after Jauron was dismissed after the 2003 season. He surfaced northeast of Chicago in Detroit, where he coached quarterbacks — and ran the offense in 2005 — under Mariucci.
This time Olson was asked to work with a significantly younger protégé, Joey Harrington. The former first-round pick of the Lions was in his third season and many expected him to take a step forward under Mariucci and his West Coast offense.
And in 2004, with Olson as the quarterbacks coach, Harrington did make improvement. Look at Harrington's key numbers in 2003 and in 2004:
2003: 2,880 yards, 55.8 completion percentage, 17 touchdowns, 22 interceptions, 63.9 quarterback rating.
2004: 3,047 yards, 56.0 completion percentage, 19 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 77.5 quarterback rating.
Note the drop in interceptions by nearly half. The West Coast offense relies on higher percentage passes and Harrington surely benefited.
The following year Mariucci brought in Garcia, but the reunited trio never clicked, thanks in part of an early-season injury for Garcia. Harrington's growth stunted a bit, though he had the highest completion percentage of his Lions career (57.0 percent) that season. But that rise was by only one percent.
What can we glean from that? I think Olson had an impact on Harrington his first season and gave him a base from which to work with. For whatever reason, however Harrington was unable to sustain that, and judging from Harrington's later work in Miami and Atlanta there appears to be overwhelming momentum to the case that Harrington simply doesn't have what it takes to be a NFL-caliber quarterback. Scout.com's NFL Senior Writer, Adam Caplan, echoed that sentiment.
"QB Joey Harrington never really developed as a passer but most of that goes to his lack of overall talent — not Olson's coaching," Caplan said.
Based on his career to that point, it was surprising that Olson was tapped to be the offensive coordinator in St. Louis in 2006. Or maybe it wasn't. Olson succeeded Linehan as quarterbacks coach at the University of Idaho in 1994.
Olson had never run a pro offense before 2006, but in his first season the Rams ranked sixth in the NFL in total offense (360.4 yards per game), 10th in rushing offense (112.8 ypg), third in passing offense (247.6 ypg). They also scored 273 points in the red zone, second most in the NFL.
The fact is — and Caplan agrees — Linehan and company inherited a fine offense to begin with. Marc Bulger, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Steven Jackson were all skill position holdovers. Orlando Pace was still manning the left tackle position and the offensive line has been one of the most stable lines in the NFL the past few years. Their task was to walk into St. Louis and not break what didn't need to be fixed — and they did that.
"His offense in 2006 was really good but some would say it's more because of the talent he had to work with," Caplan said.
In 2007 they weren't so lucky. Injuries to Pace and the rest of the offensive line, along with Bulger and Bruce, didn't help matters. But the Rams dropped to 24th in the NFL in total offense, averaging 297.5 yards per game.
Olson became the fall guy for the offensive shortcomings, as he was demoted and allowed to look for a new job. Howard Balzer, who runs Scout.com's St Louis Rams site, gridirongateway.com, believes Olson received a bum rap.
"The Rams were 4-2 with him calling the plays in 2006," Balzer said. "He started off calling the plays this past season, but Linehan took it away because the offense wasn't productive. In my mind, it wasn't Olson's fault; it was just a brutal succession of injuries on the offensive line."
So what can one surmise from all of this? Caplan said that Olson's hiring was a "solid" one for the Bucs. I, however, would have to say that the jury is still out on Olson as a pro position coach. He's basically had two great years with two veteran quarterbacks in Garcia (2001) and Bulger (2006) built around talented teams. Yes, Harrington did show some improvement in Detroit under Olson, but not nearly enough to earn him a new contract and some of that has to fall to Olson.
Olson is coming to a Jon Gruden offense that, frankly, is still in the throes of an identity crisis. Is it a pass-friendly West Coast offense or a run-based West Coast offense? That seems to change on a weekly basis at times. Garcia is now 38 and his top weapons, right now, are 35 and 31 years of age. The franchise running back is rehabbing a knee injury and his replacement, Earnest Graham, is a fine back, but not of the franchise variety.
In other words, Olson may not make nearly the impact you may think. He can certainly keep Garcia on the right track fundamentally.
But the rest of it is really out of his hands.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.