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Steve Sarkisian: His Battle Against Alcoholism and Running the Falcons Offense

Two games into the 2017 season, the Falcons' high-flying offense hasn't missed a beat after losing its play-caller. That's been due in large part to the work of new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, back in the coaching spotlight after a very public battle with alcoholism

FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. — By the time training camp opened this summer, the Falcons were done talking about 28-3. Nearly in unison, players and coaches declared they had moved on from the Super Bowl LI collapse, declining any request for comment regarding the events of Feb. 5.

Steve Sarkisian wasn’t around for the Super Bowl. He replaced Kyle Shanahan—who will get 28-3 questions for the rest of his life, or at least until he wins a Super Bowl—as offensive coordinator in Atlanta, and therefore never has and never will have to dodge those queries. Instead, Sarkisian gets to discuss his battle with alcoholism, a disease that led to his humiliating ouster at Southern Cal.

When asked about it, Sarkisian can’t—or doesn’t—simply just smile. He doesn’t give an, “Aw shucks, the past is the past and we’re focused on the future.” Unlike so many who have battled addiction, he didn’t get the opportunity to decide whether he’d fight this publicly or privately. That decision was made for him nearly two years ago via his USC firing followed by several leaks.

“There were parts of it that were frustrating. Things get said about you, some true some not true,” Sarkisian told The MMQB during training camp. “The biggest point I got to was, control what you can control. And I can’t control what other people think, say, do. I can control what I do, how I act, the attitude I have every day and how I want to attack and approach each day. Then people’s opinions are up to them after that.

“I feel like at times I’m fortunate that it is public, that I can help other people, that I can offer my story, that I don’t feel like I don’t have to keep it hidden. This is who I am, and we all have things that we go through in life that we grow from. And we either turn those things into a positive or they can continue to get worse. I feel like I’m in a place where I’ve learned from my history and I’m a better person today because of it.”

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Sarkisian’s first NFL job—as Oakland’s quarterbacks coach under Norv Turner in 2004—lasted only one season. His second will be to keep an offense that averaged 33.8 points per game humming.

How can he possibly match Shanahan’s success in Atlanta? First, Sarkisian wisely kept ego out of it and didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken. He didn’t overhaul a successful system in Atlanta. Shanahan’s fingerprints are all over this Falcons’ offense, and Sarkisian doesn’t hide from that.

He consistently refers to it not as Steve Sarkisian’s offense but the Atlanta Falcons’ offense. In Year One of this system, the Falcons led the league in red-zone turnovers. Year Two produced historic offensive results for the franchise. Year Three (Sarkisian’s first) is, so far, undergoing a seamless evolution.

“How do we continue to implement these running backs in the passing game?”​ Sarkisian says. “How do we continue to use multiple personnel to maximize the matchups that we like on the perimeter? There may be shifts and motions and different personnel groupings that we haven’t deployed in the last two seasons. There may be a few new concepts in the run game or pass game, but anything we do we feel comfortable with and we have a belief that it’s going to help us win football games.”

The tweaks have been subtle. Sarkisian shortened some of the terminology, a move more fitting with his college football background but also an effort to help the Falcons be as fast as possible when they want to. Two games into 2017, the Falcons have maintained the same run-pass balance they achieved last season—57.7% of their plays were passes in 2016 and 55.8% of their plays this year have been passes. Most of their plays even look similar, though Sarkisian seems to be utilizing his 11 personnel packages (one running back, one tight end and three receivers) more than his predecessor.

One staple of Shanahan’s offense that we haven’t seen much of are 13 personnel packages (one running back, three tight ends), unique and uniquely effective a year ago (11.1 yards per play and a touchdown every fourth play), though that might be due to the loss of veteran tight end Jacob Tamme. And Sarkisian has also used his fullback less frequently, though Atlanta did lose Patrick DiMarco, one of the NFL’s best, in free agency this past offseason (replacing him with journeyman Derrick Coleman).

Regardless, the production has been there early on. the 2016 Falcons, the seventh-highest-scoring team of all time, started 1-1 and scored 59 points over the first two weeks of the season. The 2017 Falcons are off to a 2-0 start and have scored 57 points.

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There was no big public address announcement from Sarkisian to the Falcons’s offensive players after he took the job just two days after their Super Bowl defeat. They already knew the deal, he thought, so what was there to disclose? If they want to talk to him about him, or if they want to talk about their own troubles, he’ll have those conversations. He likes to compare this time in his professional career to a team coming out of the locker room at halftime. With 18 years of coaching under his belt, the 43-year-old knows what adjustments must be made if he plans to do this at a high level for another two decades.

Running back Devonta Freeman referred to Sark as a “players’ coach” over the summer. Julio Jones reiterated that while adding, “He’s not stuck in his ways or anything like that.”

The compliments double as thinly veiled criticisms of his predecessor. Even before Shanahan stubbornly opted against bleeding the clock against the Patriots in Houston, he had been considered (especially during his first year in Atlanta) a hard-liner when it came to play-calling. Sarkisian considers communication the most important aspect for him as he returns to the NFL.

“Good communicators have the ability to listen,” Sarkisian says. “I also make the point that these guys are professionals, and they’ve been doing it a long time, they know what they like and they know what they think they’re good at, and we try to play to those things.”

A baseball walk-on at USC in the early 1990s, Sarkisian left the school to pursue a football career, playing quarterback at El Camino Community College, then BYU, and eventually three seasons for the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders. He started his coaching career in 2000 as El Camino’s QBs coach and a year later joined Pete Carroll’s first staff at USC in the same role. After his year with the Raiders, he returned to Carroll’s staff as an assistant head coach, eventually replacing Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator. That earned him the head-coaching job at the University of Washington, and after five seasons with the Huskies Sarkisian got the top job at USC in 2014, one season after the Trojans’ midseason dismissal of Kiffin as head coach. Five games into the 2015 season, the school announced that Sarkisian would take an indefinite leave of absence amidst reports of alcohol-related incidents; he was fired a day later.

In the summer of 2016, Sarkisian was auditioning with Fox to be a television analyst when he took August to travel to camps: Atlanta, Tampa Bay, the University of Florida and Alabama. The visit to Falcons camp reinvigorated his interest in returning to the sideline, and he eventually took an analyst gig with the Crimson Tide. As the Falcons soared to the NFC championship, Sarkisian was coming off a national title game loss as Alabama’s offensive coordinator (again stepping in for Kiffin, who had left the Tide after accepting Florida Atlantic’s head-coaching job).

It became clear once the Falcons defeated the Packers in the NFC title game that Shanahan would depart for the head-coaching job in San Francisco, so the Falcons began vetting Sarkisian. Dan Quinn talked at length with two of Sarkisian’s former bosses, Carroll and Alabama coach Nick Saban—not about football. Quinn knew Sarkisian wouldn’t have a problem with Atlanta’s versatility, personnel groupings, play-action game and keepers. He wanted to know about Sark the man.

“His transparency made me feel at ease, where I didn’t want to dance around it,” Quinn said in June. “He said, ‘Dan, honestly let’s talk about it.’ And it actually helped him knowing he can help other people.”

There are parts of his story that Sarkisian won’t or can’t discuss, at least not publicly. His lawsuit against USC remains in confidential arbitration. He won’t discuss his treatment, either, though those discussions did occur with the Falcons during the hiring process. When it comes to talking for this story and others like it, he says he goes with his gut. Whatever feels too personal is just that.

Does he speak openly about his recovery because it’s therapeutic and helps him each day? Or does he agree to this interview and others because it’s ostensibly required for someone in his position in the country’s most popular sport?

“I choose to talk because I think it’s important,” Sarkisian says. “It’s an ugly disease that I don’t wish upon anybody. But I know there are others out there who struggle with it, that are trying to figure out what to do with it and how to deal with it. If I can be a guy who helps someone in a way, gosh, that would be so fulfilling.”

Sarkisian says he’s in a good place now. He looks good, too. Clear, tan skin, not a hint of gray on his 43-year-old head. Before this interview he was running laps with the quarterbacks after one of the warmest practices of training camp.

“For me, to get to this point has been really comforting,” he says. “I feel good in knowing the things that I’m doing, whether personally or professionally, are what are best for Steve Sarkisian. And in turn the best version of Steve Sarkisian is what is best for the Atlanta Falcons and these players and Dan Quinn and Arthur [Blank] and Thomas [Dimitroff]. I feel good about that approach.”

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