The Falcons offense is filled with talent. It was one of the NFL’s most fun to watch last season. It was largely the reason they made it to the Super Bowl and nearly won it. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan departed for San Francisco, with Steve Sarkisian taking over the ship — and things haven’t gone well.
Matt Ryan completed 23 of his 33 passes on Sunday with a touchdown — one that was a Malcolm Butler interception that Julio Jones snatched from his hands. To be fair, Ryan let some throws sail on him last night.
But as an entire body of work, the Falcons haven’t looked the same. A lot of that blame falls on Sarkisian, and for good reason.
It hasn’t been great all season
If you look back on the Falcons’ season thus far, they’re a close win in Chicago and a 10-second runoff in Detroit away from being 1-5 right now. The offense has put up just 41 points the past three weeks in their three consecutive losses, all to AFC East opponents.
Last season, the Falcons led the NFL in scoring with 33.8 points per game. This season, that’s down 12 points. The offense used to seamlessly piece together drives, driving a dagger through the heart of the opposition early. That hasn’t been the case this season, and it’s been painful to watch with an offense that boasts some of the most talented players in the NFL at their positions like Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, and Ryan.
Jones had a season high in targets Sunday night with 13, after much noise was being made about a lack of chances to make plays. Twice this season, Jones has had five targets or fewer. As arguably the best receiver in the NFL, that’s not acceptable.
Ryan told ESPN that the team has missed opportunities. “I had a chance on third down to Mohamed Sanu in the red zone,” Ryan said. “I thought he ran a good route and just overthrew him by a hair. ... That's a play I can make. And when you're playing a good football team like that, those are the tight coverage throws that you've got to hit.”
But Ryan hasn’t looked the same in Sarkisian’s offense. He’s completed nearly 67 percent of his passes this season, which is slightly above his career average. But he’s had just one 300-yard passing game and has thrown for seven touchdowns and six picks. That’s not the 2016 MVP that lit up NFL defenses last season.
And for all the mentions about a lack of touches for Jones, Devonta Freeman — much like in the Super Bowl — has been underutilized. The Falcons blew a lead against the Dolphins in Week 6, where Freeman had just nine carries. Sunday against the Patriots, he had just 12. Freeman signed an extension with the team in August, making him the highest-paid running back in the NFL. That’s great, but he should probably get touches that reflect what he’s being paid.
Whether it’s Sarkisian or “missed opportunities,” things aren’t going to get easier for the Falcons, who have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NFL. And based on his history, Sarkisian’s offense might not get much better.
Sarkisian’s offense struggling isn’t anything new
In the college ranks, Sarkisian was blessed with some great talent, and he did a good job getting a lot out of that talent. His first college job was as USC’s quarterbacks coach in 2005 and 2006. His first Trojan offense had Matt Leinart at QB and Reggie Bush and LenDale White in the backfield, so of course it was going to be good, and it was. But Sarkisian proved adept at developing QBs as time went on, helping to bring along Leinart successors John David Booty and Mark Sanchez as good pro-style QBs.
His reputation as an offensive thinker, developer, and recruiter landed him the head coaching job at Washington in 2009, where he laid the foundations for UW’s 2016 Playoff team before returning to USC as head coach in 2014. That tenure ended badly, with Sarkisian getting fired and going into a recovery program for alcoholism.
As a tactician, Sarkisian’s never been all that tricky. His formula’s been close to the same everywhere he’s been: Find a good quarterback, find a featured running back (or two or three), and ride them really hard in a system that uses tempo to keep defenses out of balance. In college, he had lots of great QB-RB tandems: Leinart and Bush at USC, Jake Locker and Chris Polk at Washington, and later Cody Kessler and Javorius Allen at USC.
Sarkisian’s offenses have often put up good numbers behind huge talent. But they sometimes stalled despite having great individual players. He fielded two top-25 offenses and three mediocre ones in his five seasons at Washington, and the units he led at USC after returning were good, but not as good as USC’s top-10 talent. Sarkisian had a studs on those teams, just like the Falcons have Ryan and Jones and Freeman. But the results haven’t always been there this decade.
If there was ever a warning sign that Sarkisian’s schemes were drying out, it was last year’s National Championship. Sarkisian spent the year as an offensive analyst at Alabama, and he replaced Lane Kiffin as the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator in the middle of the team’s College Football Playoff run. (Kiffin had left to take the head job at FAU.)
In a loss to Clemson, Sarkisian didn’t have a good night. Alabama led 14-7 at halftime and had run the ball authoritatively, carrying 21 times for 143 yards, an average of 6.8 yards per carry. The Tide ran on 57 percent of their plays in the opening 30 minutes. Sarkisian weirdly shifted away from the run in the second half, running on just 13 of 29 plays and instead leaning on the arm of true freshman QB Jalen Hurts. The rookie didn’t throw well, and Bama’s inability to retain the ball gave Clemson a shot to win.
Tide coach Nick Saban defended Sarkisian’s offense after the game, but it felt like a letdown performance by a talented coach. Even still, it felt like the kind of scheme that would’ve worked if Sarkisian had a better passer under center. It was all kinds of ironic that he landed with the Falcons, a team that recently lost a championship because of a refusal to run the ball down the stretch in the biggest game of the year.
The Falcons have a breadth of talent where some of their shortcomings can be overcome just because of it. It’s also been when Sarkisian is at his best, which, shouldn’t come as a surprise — good players win games.
But there should be concerns. The Falcons were no fluke last season, but early returns this season wouldn’t back up that argument. Sarkisian is working with the reigning MVP, as well as two of the best at their positions in the NFL at wide receiver and running back. The results the Falcons have gotten so far haven’t reflected that.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, Sarkisian’s history doesn’t suggest this will get much better. They’ll be hoping to break that mold for the remainder of the season.