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The 2017 Falcons offense is tracking close to 2016 in tendencies, but not production

Production matters.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

You probably saw this stat yesterday, and you probably saw it circulated far and wide by your favorite outlets, including The Falcoholic. You also probably saw people affiliated with the team and both local and national media pushing the idea that based on the tendencies below, the Atlanta Falcons were doing everything they should be doing on offense, and execution and a few plays that could have gone either way explained why the team seems so much less productive than it did a year ago.

I want to stake out my position very clearly before we talk about this: I think Steve Sarkisian deserves a chance to grow in this gig, especially because he’s already here. I believe the Falcons are too talented to continue to play this poorly on offense. I do believe the offense has been victim to some bad bounces and fluke plays that killed otherwise productive drives.

I also believe, wholeheartedly, that the downgrade from Kyle Shanahan’s play calling to Steve Sarkisian’s explains better than half the problem in Atlanta right now. Full stop.

The caveat here: The Falcons have run fewer plays. Obviously the percentages do hold, and what we see is that the team has been slightly less likely to throw the ball deep, run the ball, or throw the ball to running backs. It’s not hugely significant, however, which is what this NFL Research post is suggesting.

It is true that the Falcons’ offensive fortunes have largely swung on a handful of plays, but the same is also true on defense, and one unit has looked much better than the other on balance, especially over the last three games. It’s little surprise that those close to the team have seized on this tweet, because they think it illuminates how closely the offense is tracking to last year. What this misses is how many plays have gone wrong, how many drives have stalled out, and how disappointingly short some of those drives have been.

It doesn’t matter how closely Sarkisian’s offense is tracking to Kyle Shanahan’s tendencies if the production isn’t close, and here’s some cold hard stats to consider:

Offensive Comparison

Metric 2016 2017
Metric 2016 2017
Total Yards 2649 2235
Passing Yards 1977 1512
Rushing Yards 672 723
Points 199 128
Falcons 2016 vs. 2017 Offensive Stats

Or consider this in-depth thread from Warren Sharp, which outlines some of the ways in which players have been utilized differently, particularly Julio.

The Falcons have been a little more productive running the ball in terms of yardage, but damningly they’ve passed for 465 fewer yards over six games, and they’ve managed 71 fewer points. You don’t, I regret to say, score 10 fewer touchdowns with extra points over six games because a handful of plays didn’t break your way. That points to a larger issue that has been evident for weeks and really showed Sunday against a woeful Patriots defense. That issue is play calling that hasn’t put players in a position to succeed the way they did a year ago, plus the overthrows and poor plays. Some of that will iron itself out as the season wears on, but much of it depends on the Falcons finding ways to extend drives and get more production out of those drives. They were on track to be just fine through the first three weeks of the season, but they’ve gone spectacularly off the rails since.

Expecting the 2017 Falcons offense to be the 2016 offense was never a good expectation, because last year’s squad made a rare kind of history. Expecting to wave away some abysmal efforts from one of the most talented offenses in the NFL based on a handful of bad plays is a similarly poor expectation, based as it is on what kinds of plays are being called and not the actual play calls and actual results themselves. The results, particularly in terms of the points the Falcons have put on the board, are kind of horrifying.

The Falcons need to be better, period. I’m hopeful and even optimistic they will be—I believe in the talent from top to bottom, and I don’t believe Sark and company are bad coaches—but it does us no good to pretend that they’re not playing poorly in the here and now.