It’s now Week 10. The Falcons have played eight games and have already had their bye week. Atlanta is 4-4, and the product on the field reflects that: there are flashes of what this team is capable of, accompanied by a plethora of mistakes and sloppy play. All of that equals out to average football—and in the NFL, average football doesn’t get you very far. The margin for error for the Falcons going forward is just about zero.
There is plenty of blame to go around. The defense, while improved measurably from 2016, is still committing too many dumb penalties. Special teams are atrocious, which has led to the Falcons having the worst starting field position of any team in the NFL. The offense is marred by inconsistency and execution errors. But for me, after watching this team flounder and fail for the last six weeks, I think the majority of the blame rests with one man.
That man is offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
Since Week 1, we’ve seen the Falcons trot out the same boring, vanilla offense with little to no adjustment. It took six games to get Julio Jones his first TD of 2017 because he simply wasn’t being utilized in the red-zone. TEs were an afterthought for most of the season outside of Week 1 and Week 8. The 5’8 Taylor Gabriel was the focal point of the passing offense.
Gone are the creative packages that allowed Kyle Shanahan to create one of the NFL’s greatest offenses. The natural rub routes that allowed players (like Gabriel) to get open in space have disappeared. Even the outside zone runs—a staple of the 2016 offense—have dropped off considerably. Sarkisian inherited perhaps the most talented offensive roster in the NFL, and he’s turned it into an average-at-best mess.
In some ways, I feel for Sark. The expectations placed on him were exceedingly high. It’s hard to follow up a historic offensive performance, even with the same personnel. We should have all seen regression coming, and an adjustment period for the rookie OC should’ve been expected. But after nine weeks and eight games, that period is over. It’s high time we saw something, even a flicker of hope. Instead, we see what I perceive as a fatal flaw.
Sark doesn’t appear to have an understanding of his personnel. Their strengths and weaknesses, how to best utilize them, which plays work for them and which don’t. It’s basic and the first step in becoming an effective coordinator. There is perhaps no better example than dynamic RB Tevin Coleman.
Coleman is an exceptional player, and in 2016 he and Devonta Freeman formed the NFL’s best RB tandem. He’s got true home-run speed, fantastic hands, and looks to have improved his balance and strength in 2017. Outside of David Johnson, it could be argued that Coleman was the NFL’s best receiving back.
There are some things that Coleman doesn’t do particularly well. He’s not a great short-yardage back and does best when he can get the ball in space. His strengths are outside zone runs, but he can’t make much happen inside the tackles unless a defender misses a tackle. Coleman is susceptible to getting tackled behind the line if he’s caught off balance, and isn’t a great yards after contact runner.
You could literally watch just about any Falcons game from 2016 and pick up on these traits. It really isn’t complicated. Sarkisian undoubtedly watched every game from the Falcons’ 2016 season. That’s the scary part—even when Sark could see exactly how this offense is supposed to work, he can’t seem to execute even the most basic parts of it.
Ever since the Falcons’ loss to the Bills in Week 4, Coleman’s receiving role has all but disappeared. From Weeks 1-4, Coleman had 13 receptions for 153 yards. From Weeks 6-9, Coleman has only 3 receptions for 45 yards. Apparently, during the bye week Sarkisian decided a good adjustment to the offense would be to take Coleman out of the receiving game. We heard one of the announcers during Sunday’s game against the Panthers remark that the Falcons “love Coleman’s pass blocking”.
It hasn’t just been Coleman’s nonsensical removal from the passing attack, either. Sark seems to have suddenly decided that Coleman is his between-the-tackles runner and short-yardage back. Against the Panthers, we saw Coleman get five rushing attempts. None were outside the tackles. There was one attempt behind LG (1 yard), 2 attempts up the middle (1 yard), 1 attempt behind RG (1 yard), and 1 attempt behind RT (2 yards).
This usage of Coleman is inexcusable. He is not a substitute for Freeman and shouldn’t be used as such. Anyone with eyes can see that Coleman is not an up-the-gut runner, yet we saw Sark call two straight up the middle runs to Coleman after a 1st-and-5. It’s completely nonsensical and is an indictment of the true problem with Sarkisian: he doesn’t appear to understand his personnel.
Sure, there are those that will undoubtedly say that “Sark didn’t make Julio drop that pass” and “Sark didn’t cause Hooper to fall down on that route”. You’re right, he didn’t. But it seems clear to me that the offense, and the team as a whole, has no confidence in his playcalling. There is no swagger to this team—no belief in themselves. That is on Sark.
There is no other excuse for the same exact personnel to drop off 13 points per game in scoring in the course of one season. How can we expect Sark to grasp concepts like situational playcalling (the deep shot on third and inches comes to mind) and creative packages if he’s still trying to figure out his personnel nine weeks into the season?
The simple answer is: we can’t, and the players know it. That’s why we’re seeing such sloppy play and uncharacteristic mistakes from normally trustworthy guys like Julio Jones and Matt Ryan. The mental aspect of the game is a big one, and while it’s often hard to quantify, I think it’s pretty simple in this case.
Steve Sarkisian has torpedoed this offense in 2017. He doesn’t understand his personnel and therefore can’t possibly be expected to come up with a cohesive gameplan. As it seems unlikely that the Falcons will fire him midseason, all we can do is hope that he somehow figures it out.
Dan Quinn deserves the benefit of the doubt after that magical 2016 season, but expectations are high—and rightly so—for this team. The hire of Sarkisian may go down as a blemish on Quinn’s otherwise stellar line of work in Atlanta. I only hope that Quinn’s loyalty to his friend—who by all accounts seems like a genuinely good guy, and I sincerely hope that he does find success—doesn’t compromise the integrity of the team.