It’s Week 8, and the Fire Steve Sarkisian movement is already gaining steam among Falcons fans.
Atlanta hired Sarkisian away from Alabama this offseason to take the reins of the NFL’s top offense after Kyle Shanahan departed to take the head-coaching position in San Francisco. Instead, he’s become the butt of jokes across the Twittersphere—and the Falcons’ 23–7 loss to the Patriots in Foxborough, dropping the 2016 NFC champions to 3–3 and third in the NFC South, only intensified that.
Heading into the 2017 season, Atlanta knew there was going to be a drop-off—it would be a near miracle if the Falcons’ offense maintained the level of production from last season—but this one is hard to stomach for fans dreaming of Super Bowl redemption. Atlanta's slip from No. 1 in points scored and No. 2 in offensive yards to No. 16 and No. 7, respectively, through six games is one of if not the biggest NFL storyline as we near the halfway point.
The Falcons’ passing game, particularly when throwing deep down the field and in the red zone, has the faithful worried. Through six games in 2016, QB Matt Ryan was 14-of-23 on passes traveling more than 20 yards downfield through six games. This season, he’s 4-of-21. Ryan was unstoppable in the red zone a year ago, completing 62% of his passes with 23 touchdowns and one interception from inside the 20-yard line. This year, he’s completed just half of his passes with four touchdowns and a pick through six games, and all-world receiver Julio Jones entered the game against the Patriots with a single red zone target to his name.
Some of that, surely, is on Ryan—a handful of throws in Foxborough immediately come to mind. But a big portion of the blame has to be placed on Sarkisian.
This is Sarkisian’s first NFL job since he was quarterbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders over a decade ago. A year after being fired from Southern Cal (following a brief stop at Alabama), he's put in a room with one of the best quarterbacks in the league, one of the best receivers in the league, and two running backs who could both start for just about any team. It’s safe to say that there was never going to be much patience outside of the Falcons facility.
We can all watch a game on television and see through the fog that something is wrong with this offense, but we outsiders don’t know the difference between growing pains and dysfunction. So I asked two Falcons offensive players I trust.
They both used the same word to describe Sarkisian’s approach to the offense: “disorganized.” And we’re not talking about desk clutter. Shanahan had a plan, they said. Every play and every concept employed was an exercise in deception. Set up one expectation in the first half, and then later break that expectation for a big gain in a critical moment. Sarkisian, formerly Alabama’s offensive coordinator and USC’s head coach, doesn’t have that aspect of the pro game in his tool bag, they say. But both players, and two team sources, scoffed at the idea of firing the 43-year-old former CFL quarterback at any point this season, backing up the public vote of confidence offered by coach Dan Quinn this week.
“We’ve been through this before,” said one team source.
He’s referring to Shanahan’s and Quinn’s first season in Atlanta, in 2015, following the departure of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and the firing of head coach Mike Smith. The offense experienced a similar drop-off, falling from No. 12 in points in ’14 to No. 21 a year later. Ryan had one of his worst years statistically since his rookie season, throwing for only 21 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
But at Flowery Branch, Quinn had a plan. He moved Raheem Morris from his role as a defensive assistant to the wide receivers room to salve a group that had soured emotionally towards the end of 2015. The team brought in Matt Schaub, who has known Shanahan since 2007 during their time in Houston, to help Ryan and Shanahan transition—essentially, Schaub was the intellectual bridge between coach and star quarterback. And the Falcons became the surprise dominant offense of 2016.
I should point out that it’s difficult to compare the 2015 and ’17 seasons side-by-side; the Falcons were transitioning to an entirely new scheme in the former season, whereas Sarkisian was brought in to as a continuation, having had experience with this type of offense.
Plus the stakes are higher now. A team that led a Super Bowl by 25 points and somehow lost, returned a year later with the core of its roster intact. Then they made the curious choice to hire an offensive coordinator from the outside rather than promote from within. Matt LaFleur, quarterbacks coach, would have seemed like a reasonable candidate for promotion. Ditto for Mike McDaniel, offensive assistant, or even better, Morris, the wide receivers coach.
However, neither McDaniel nor LaFleur were even considered for the position. Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff let McDaniel walk, and he joined Shanahan in San Francisco as his run game coordinator. LaFleur, who at the very least wanted to retain his role as quarterbacks coach, is now offensive coordinator in Los Angeles under playcalling head coach Sean McVay. Lafluer was replaced by Bush Hamdan, the former Boise State quarterback in his first NFL role. The Falcons’ braintrust felt the most important offensive coaches to retain were Morris, and Chris Morgan, the third-year offensive line coach who actually has this run game humming; Atlanta’s backs are averaging 4.9 yards per attempt in 2017.
The Falcons brass remains supportive of Sarkisian, and to speed up the adjustment period, the team is adding extra red zone and third down periods in practice this week. And Quinn reminded his team on Monday that he and his coaching staff are not beyond reproach; if players have ideas about how to right the ship, Quinn wants to hear them.
Just don’t tell coach you want a new offensive coordinator, because this one isn’t going anywhere soon.