I’ve waited a while to write this because I wanted to see, first of all, if Steve Sarkisian truly was going to return. Then I wanted to be sure I spent the time watching the Eagles game again to ensure I agreed with the outline that Brett Kollmann, a longtime writer and film analyst for SB Nation’s Battle Red Blog, put together. Now that I’ve done so, I want to show you the video in case you’ve missed it, and talk about the bigger picture concerns I have with Steve Sarkisian.
Let me start by acknowledging that I felt pretty strongly the Sark hire, while weird and out of left field, would not be fatal for this offense. I absolutely expected regression from 2016, but I felt pretty strongly with the talent on the roster and a mandate to try to keep the offense humming in a Shanahan-esque way, Sarkisian would be able to pilot this team to a top ten finish. Indeed, Atlanta did finish 8th in yards, but they finished 15th in points and cratered more than once against quality defenses, including fatally against the Eagles in the playoffs.
Let’s take a look at this video together before we go any further.
Kollmann’s primary criticism of Sark in this video is that he doesn’t appear to have done any special preparation for the Eagles, and he openly questions whether he watched the success other teams had against Philadelphia’s defense. He specifically points out Atlanta’s inability to exploit Philadelphia’s aggressive man coverage, something that even the Giants were able to do late in the season. The Giants had seen the Eagles once by that point, sure, but it’s not like Sark can’t fire up All-22 or even YouTube to see how these teams have done. That he doesn’t appear to have done so—or that he appears to have drawn the wrong lessons from doing so—is a major concern. The Falcons never really chained plays together in any meaningful way against Philadelphia, and when you re-watch this game, it’s not surprising they only scored 10 points.
The bigger picture problem is that this is not isolated to the Eagles game. It was a persistent weakness all year, and seeing it laid out this way crystallizes that for me. The Falcons rarely called games in 2017 that seemed design to take advantage of an opposing defense’s weaknesses. I’m sure Sark was doing more thinking than just “this seems like a cool play, let’s do it,” but at times it genuinely seemed like it was his entire philosophy.
For every time it worked, like that brilliant Mohamed Sanu touchdown pass to Julio Jones, it failed twice. There is no better example than the jet sweep on 4th and 2 against the Patriots near the goal line, with Sark betting on the element of surprise and Taylor Gabriel’s speed against a defense that doesn’t excel in any one area but does everything competently and is difficult to catch off guard. When the Falcons succeeded on offense, it wasn’t that Sark was calling better plays (or that he necessarily always called bad ones in their slow games), it was just that the offense looked and functioned much the same throughout the 2017 season. If they executed at a high level and teams couldn’t deal with those tendencies, well, Atlanta succeeded. If the opposing defenses played at a high level and came prepared for what Sarkisian had put on tape in prior weeks, the Falcons tended to stumble.
Kollmann mentions, more than once, that he hates to see such a talented roster underachieving. No one’s suggesting that Sark is the really only the offense stumbled so badly this year, but he is a major part of why, and this football team needs to grapple with that reality if they want to avoid the same fate next year.
I’ve said before and will say again that I expect this offense to rebound somewhat in 2018, as does the coaching staff. Sark will have more time with this roster, Quinn and this veteran coaching staff will hopefully have more input into what’s happening, and Sarkisian will have plenty of time to watch this season and see what went wrong. In addition, chances are good that Matt Ryan’s not going to throw eight unlucky interceptions in 2018, which will help to tilt everything in a more positive direction.
If Sark can’t see that he’s not building effective gameplans and exploiting weaknesses and begin to take steps to fix it, though, it’s not going to matter that much what the Falcons do to their roster this offseason.