Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner has been at the top of my potential candidates to replace Bruce Arians as the offensive coordinator since it was announced that Arians would not return in 2012. The reasons are obvious as he already has a good grasp of the talent on the Steelers roster, he has a good relationship with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and he has had an association with head coach Mike Tomlin dating back to 1998 when they both were on the Arkansas State coaching staff. Tomlin in fact hired Fichtner to his staff when he was hired back in 2007. Fichtner also runs a spread attack and has proven his offensive mind while at Arkansas State and Memphis as an offensive coordinator.
While college football stats are no true indicator of how successful a coach will be in the NFL as an offensive coordinator, they can give you a small glimpse statistically at what was accomplished and with what type of quality players it was accomplished with. Once again, hardly a true indicator, but fun to look at nonetheless. I pulled the offensive stats from 2001-2006 Memphis Tigers, which you can look at below, and researched those seasons that Fichtner was the offensive coordinator there. Here is a little synopsis and the numbers certainly do not tell the whole story as I dug deeper.
The year before Fichtner arrived back at Memphis, the Tigers averaged 16.0 points a game, had a 2.6 yards per rush and a 4.9 yards per attempt. Fichtner turned that around quickly in his first season as offensive coordinator, and did so mostly by using quarterback Danny Wimprine, a 2000 red-shirted freshman. The Tigers offense increased over 10 points per game to 26.7 in 2001. Three quarterbacks on that team combined to put up a more respectable 6.6 yards per attempt and they were intercepted just 6 times on the season. The Tigers running game increased a full yard per carry to 3.6 as well. Wimprine ended up setting the Memphis record for passing yards by a freshman (1,329) and for the number of touchdown passes thrown (14) by a first-year player as well. The run/pass balance breaks down to 55%/45% in 2001 and I must warn you that the 3 quarterbacks combined for 166 of the 418 rushes that season and 531 of the 1,507 rushing yards. How many of those were designed runs and how many were scrambles I just can\’t tell you and that could severely shift the run/pass ratio numbers as a result. The leading running back that season was Dante Brown. Remember him? He was later signed by the Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 2003 and spent a lot of time on the practice squad.
In 2002 the Tigers had Wimprine firmly planted as the starter and a highly touted freshman running back on the team by the name of DeAngelo Williams. Ever heard of him? Brown was back as well and he and Williams nearly split the bulk of the carries that season with Brown carrying the ball 133 times and Williams carrying it 103 times. The Tigers once again rushed for 3.6 yards per carry and I must point out that Wimprine had 98 of the 390 rushes that season. Keep that in mind when looking at the run/pass ratio below of 45%/55%. Once again we do not know how many were designed runs and how many were scrambles. The Tigers offense saw their points per game number dip just a point and a half to 25.2, but the passing yardage rose nearly 800 yards. The interceptions did as well as they jumped from 6 to 20, with 18 of them coming from Wimprine. Wimprine did set 13 passing and total offense records during the 2002 season and completed 235-of-435 pass attempts for 2,820 yards and 23 touchdowns, all of which were school records. He finished the 2002 season ranked second in Conference USA in passing yards per game (235.0).
2003 saw the Tigers offense really make a jump as they averaged 30.2 points per game and rushed for 4.5 yards per carry with Williams carrying the ball 243 times for 1430 yards and a stellar 5.9 yards per carry. Wimprine rushed just 40 times in 2003 and completed 246 passes for 3174 yards and 22 touchdown passes. Overall passing stats for the Tigers in 2003 show a 7.3 yards per attempt to go along with a 13.2 yards per catch number. The 3rd conversion percentage jumped up to 40% and the run/pass ratio, although not 100% accurate was 51%/49%. Basically the offense was very balanced and very effective. Wimprine became the first Tiger quarterback to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a single season in 2003, his second full season as a starter. The Tigers went 9-4 that season and Wimprine was named the MVP of the 2003 New Orleans Bowl.
2004 saw another jump for the Tigers offense as they increased their points per game average to 35.8. The running game averaged 5.1 yards per carry and the passing game yards per attempt and yards per catch were nearly the same as they were the year before. Williams rushed for 1948 yards on 313 carries for an amazing 6.2 yards per carry average and Wimprine threw for 2892 yards and 22 touchdowns. Looking again at our make-shift run/pass ratio, once again not 100% accurate, it shows a 52%/48% mix. Pretty damn balanced. The offense finished 2004 ranked ninth nationally in total offense, and 10th in the nation in scoring. Williams finished his junior season ranked third nationally in rushing, second in the country in all-purpose yards and scoring, and was considered a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate heading into 2005.
In 2005 Fichtner really was tested as the offensive coordinator. He lost his two starting quarterbacks by the third game of the season and was forced to use a true freshman, Billy Barefield, and a leading receiver, Maurice Avery, at quarterback the rest of the way. The offense leaned heavily on Williams at running back and the offense ran 597 times compared to just 239 passes that season. Williams rushed for 1964 yards on 310 carries and the run heavy offense managed to still average 27.2 points per game and a 7-5 record. They also won the Motor City Bowl that season. Despite the injuries at quarterback, the limited pass attempts still equated to a 6.5 yards per attempt and an 11.6 yards per catch. Not great, but not awful considering the circumstances.
In 2006, his final year at Memphis, Fichtner had Martin Hankins, a Southeastern Louisiana transfer who was forced to sit out 2005, as his quarterback and the backfield was minus the great DeAngelo, as he was off to the NFL. The offense shifted focus back to the passing game and Hankins threw for 2550 yards on 377 attempts. The rushing game of course dipped back down to 3.6 yards per carry without their lead horse Williams and the points per game average fell to 23.4, the lowest since Fitchner took over in 2001. The Tigers finished with a very disappointing 2-10 record and the Steelers hired Fitchner away to become the wide receivers coach during the offseason.
While the numbers do not tell the whole story below, Fichtner seemed to like to run a very balanced offense while at Memphis, that is when he had all of the parts to do it with. What he managed to do in 2005 was pretty incredible even though he had Williams at his disposal. He has shown he has a penchant for the passing game and making quarterbacks better. Roethlisberger certainly has benefited overall from his time with the Steelers. I will be scouring the little bit of game tape I have been able to muster up from the 2003 and 2004 seasons as I am willing to bet that will give the best view of the type of offense he really likes to run. Of course he has evolved some while in the NFL, but I still have him as the odds on favorite to take over at offensive coordinator for the Steelers in 2012. We shall see if I am correct pretty soon I imagine.
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