Figuring out who to blame for the offense’s woes this year has been a complex, difficult task. You can legitimately point the finger at errors and regression from multiple players, the team’s scheme, or even defense and special teams for their roles in limiting the number of drives the Falcons get and where they start from.
If you’re just looking for a scapegoat, however, they don’t come easier than Steve Sarkisian.
Sark took over for Kyle Shanahan, who helped engineer the greatest offensive season in Falcons history. He has never been an NFL coordinator until this year, and he was being handed the keys to one of the most talented units Atlanta has ever seen. Any regression was going to be laid at his feet, quite naturally, and the regression has been worse than many anticipated.
Of course, not all of that is on Sark, who has called better games since bottoming out against the New England Patriots back in Week 7. We’re drops and penalties and alligator-armed throws that go to defenders away from seeing another very successful Falcons offense, and the execution ultimately comes down to the players. But Sark has done himself and this team no favors with some very inexplicable play calling—again I direct you to the Pats fourth down jet sweep with Taylor Gabriel—and he is the biggest non-Wes Schweitzer change from last year’s offense. And so he gets slammed, with some justification.
An interesting article from ESPN’s Vaughn McClure gives us a different angle on Sark and the Falcons offense, from the perspective of two opposing assistant coaches who are not named in the piece.
Both offer some praise of Sarkisian, saying they feel he’s done a better job with the offense than Kyle Shanahan did in his first year back in 2015. Neither seems dismissive of the Falcons offense despite their struggles, either.
"They are very well-balanced. They've got a great system. There are just some things that just aren't jiving for them right now. But they are their own worst enemies. It's not like someone else is going in there like, 'Oh, we got them nailed.' There's a lot of people that don't want to play the Atlanta Falcons. Believe me.
On the one hand, it’s kind of refreshing to hear someone from another football team saying this, because it makes it clear that we as fans are probably more down on this offense than those who have to fact it. On the other hand, there’s very little acknowledgement of the harsh reality that this Falcons offense has taken a very significant step back from a year ago, and that it has cost them multiple games this season, including against the Bills, Dolphins, Patriots, Vikings, and Saints. Sark can’t be let entirely off the hook for that, not when things that were so successful last year (putting players in motion, splitting Tevin Coleman out wide, Taylor Gabriel in general) have largely been absent or ineffective under his watch.
The takeaway here, though, is that we ought to look at this offense in a nuanced way. Laying all the blame at Sark’s feet ignores the many errors the Falcons have made this year, and it ignores how often this offense has been put in the unenviable position of working from their own 15 against quality defenses. This team is still so, so talented, but everything that went their way a year ago has failed to do so this year.
Sark will be back in 2018 unless he bolts for the college ranks, and I’m bullish on this offense improving quite a bit if they can keep their personnel together. This is normally where I’d end with a that’s if, but in this case there is none. Expect Sark back, and expect better.