The Atlanta Falcons didn’t wait long to fill the vacancy created when Kyle Shanahan accepted the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers. On Tuesday, the Falcons announced that Steve Sarkisian will leave Alabama to join Atlanta’s staff as its new offensive coordinator.
This was a surprise hire for a few reasons. First, Sarkisian spent precisely one game as the offensive coordinator of the Crimson Tide, and there weren’t strong indications he was planning to leave Alabama after the National Championship loss to Clemson in January.
Head coach Dan Quinn likes the way Sarkisian’s approach fits the Falcons’ style of offense.
“As a play caller I felt like, No. 1, what an aggressive play caller he’s been through the years,” Quinn said. “He has a real familiarity, from the wide zone scheme, the play action, the keepers — that’s such a big part of what we do.”
That certainly was a success for the Falcons in 2016. Matt Ryan was named league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, and the dynamic offensive attack, which ranked atop the league in scoring, got the team to Super Bowl 51.
How does Sarkisian fit with the Falcons?
Sarkisian has a history with Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, and so does Quinn.
Carroll is a trusted mentor to Quinn, who served as the Seahawks’ defensive line coach under Carroll in 2010. Quinn returned to Seattle after a stint with the Florida Gators to be the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator during the Super Bowl runs in 2013 and 2014.
Sarkisian worked under Carroll when Carroll was the head coach at USC. Sarkisian has also worked with legendary college coach Nick Saban at Alabama, serving as an offensive analyst for the 2016 season. He was promoted to offensive coordinator for the National Championship after Lane Kiffin’s departure.
That experience with two coaches Quinn admires helped influence this decision.
“Two of the guys I respect most in our profession are Pete and Nick, and being a part of both of their programs, I know what he stands for as a coach,” Quinn said.
During Sarkisian’s lone year coaching in the NFL, as the quarterbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2004, he worked under head coach Norv Turner. The Raiders tended to throw downfield more, but that was Turner’s offensive philosophy. Sarkisian’s other stops as a play caller suggest his personal style is more consistent with the offense Atlanta has been running so effectively.
That’s good news for the Falcons. They are not planning to make wholesale changes to the scheme.
“One hundred percent, and that’s the style we’re going to feature moving forward,” Quinn said. “We love the way that we attack, and it took a lot of work to put that system in place.”
Matt Ryan thrives in no-huddle, hurry up situations, and the hurry up offense is a fundamental part of Sarkisian’s philosophy. Couple that with the play action Sarkisian employs — another hallmark of the Falcons’ existing offense — and you can see why Sarkisian emerged as a fit for this role.
Sarkisian is also adept with a two-back system. Atlanta’s dynamic tailback tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman should make Sarkisian’s job a bit easier on that front.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff said Sarkisian is just the type of candidate the team was looking for.
“Steve’s a very smart, very creative and very aggressive football coach and play caller, and that plays into line with what we’re looking for here as an organization,” Dimitroff said.
The circumstances of Sarkisian’s dismissal from USC are broadly known, but here’s a quick rundown. Sarkisian initially took a leave of absence to seek treatment for alcohol addiction. USC then fired Sarkisian “with cause” after he reportedly showed up to a team meeting while under the influence of alcohol. Sarkisian ended up suing the program for not handling his addiction like a disability.
Quinn said the Falcons have no concerns regarding Sarkisian’s health or the measures he is taking to manage his addiction.
“Number one, we went through the process, and obviously to check and make sure everything would align with our organization in terms of culture and values,” Quinn said. “And honestly, he’s done a fantastic job, and there were zero hesitations, zero limitations heading into our approach today.”
Dimitroff echoed the sentiment and the confidence.
“Dan obviously has a very good relationship with him, and we’re very comfortable with all the things you all asked in there with regard to any of the challenges that he’s had in the past,” Dimitroff said.
Sources told SB Nation that Sarkisian is leaving Alabama amidst disagreements with Saban over “system philosophy, but the Falcons aren’t concerned about that in the least with the new offensive coordinator.
There was a fear in Atlanta that the offensive success the team experienced this season would leave along with Kyle Shanahan, but that’s not necessarily the case.
The Falcons are wise to bring in a coordinator who can run a similar scheme. Ryan struggled in his first season in Shanahan’s scheme, but he certainly settled in for 2016. Starting from scratch and resetting all of that progress would be unnecessarily reckless and would jeopardize the immediate future of a team that’s hungry to avenge the worst Super Bowl loss in history.
The hire raised some eyebrows, but looking more closely at Sarkisian’s experience and offensive philosophy, it makes sense.