Do you know who Matt LaFleur is?
Oh, well, sure you do. For some, he’s the mirage in the desert, the what ifs-of-what-ifs, the anti-Sarkisian daydream, the running-the-ball-in-the-Super-Bowl of people.
LaFleur is also the new offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. He is not the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. This fall, two roads are going to converge in a yellow wood, and it’s going to mean a lot for the future of the Atlanta Falcons.
Let’s look back a bit. LaFleur has been a quick riser in the league. Only 38, he’s spent time under Mike and Kyle Shanahan and Gary Kubiak, three of the premiere play callers of their respective generations, and Sean McVay, a new star. He worked with Matt Ryan for two years as Atlanta’s quarterbacks coach, and one of those seasons saw Ryan win MVP. When it looked all but sure Kyle Shanahan would be headed to San Francisco, it was widely seen that the Falcons would promote internally, with either LaFleur or offensive assistant Matt McDaniel.
Well, obviously, they didn’t.
The Falcons hired Steve Sarkisian, LaFleur went to the Los Angeles Rams to be their offensive coordinator (without play calling duties) and McDaniel followed Shanahan to the Bay Area.
You know how it went.
Sark vs. LaFleur
Sarkisian grew painfully throughout the season, causing Atlanta’s once-explosive offensive juggernaut to turn into more of a league-average unit with red zone woes and an underperforming roster. It was a sharp dive, a well-documented decline, you were angry about it, people are starting petitions for Sark’s firing, you won’t shut up about it, he’s not that bad, it’s Shanahan 2015 all over again, it’ll all probably work out fine, etc.
LaFleur, however, went to help run the league’s best offense once again, and landed a head coaching interview with the Titans. He’s seen as a rising talent, and in Music City, he will put his mind to the test to run an offense that’s a piece or two away from ascending to one of the NFL’s better units.
A little more background: why didn’t the Falcons hire Matt LaFleur to replace Kyle Shanahan?
Well, according to SI’s Robert Klemko’s midseason report on the Falcons’ offense, “however, neither [Matt] McDaniel nor [Matt] LaFleur were even considered for the position.” The AJC’s D. Orlando Ledbetter reported that the “Falcons weren’t too impressed with his work and let him walk.”
So, why did LaFleur not take the reins? They didn’t want him, perhaps partly because he had never called plays before. He still hasn’t.
They wanted Sarkisian, who also had never called NFL plays. The Titans wanted LaFleur. Both he and Sark will be coordinating talent-filled offenses in 2018. If LaFleur does better than Sark, you’re going to hear about it. You’re going to have opinions about it. It’s going to be a big ole deal.
Sarkisian has a major test ahead of him – he’s going to have to improve his offense’s red zone output – they were in the bottom-tier of the league this season (23rd, to be exact) in red zone efficiency, and it’s fair to argue that the offense wouldn’t have been as much of a pariah if they’d converted more of those field goals to touchdowns.
The Sark conversation is one that’ll be had until the first game of the 2018 season. It’s a bit moot right now until that fateful kickoff – his film will be studied, people will gnash teeth about his return, he’ll probably get better. But, will he be better than Matt LaFleur?
There’s not just a Shanahan-cast shadow over this offense – if LaFleur performs in Tennessee, lump his shadow in, too.
For some, it won’t be enough for Sark to improve. They’ll wonder “wait, this guy we had is doing really well! Why didn’t we hire him?” You can’t please everyone.
But, LaFleur outperforming Sark with arguably lesser talent would be a definite blight on the Falcons’ organization as it stands.
If this goes south, it has to go back to the guy who led the team to an NFC Championship, the guy who oversaw the brilliant roster re-haul, the man of fast and physical.
This is Dan Quinn’s team, and it was his call to let not just hire Sark, but LaFleur leave. Hindsight is 20/20, but in the NFL, you’d better have an idea of where it’s all going. Few coaches have done as much for their franchises as Quinn has for his in his last three years – he’s built a team that, after the first rebuilding year, has made a Super Bowl and won a road playoff game as a six seed. He’s built a culture that withstood the worst collapse in NFL history, he’s a draw for any free agent out there and he doesn’t let complacency stagnate in his locker rooms. If a change needs to be made, he makes it.
Maybe Atlanta’s right about LaFleur – that he’s not quite the offensive upstart folks are hyping him to be, at least not right now. Maybe he is, but he just wasn’t a fit for what Atlanta is doing. Maybe the Falcons just royally screwed up and let a future star slip through their grasps.
Wherever the truth ultimately lies, it’ll be a defining story line of the years ahead. Atlanta had a great thing going on offense, and with a rising defense, a return to the Super Bowl will predicate on Sark improving and getting Matt Ryan and company back to at least somewhat of what they were in 2016. That starts with the red zone, and you know that’s where the focus will be, in re-scheming and roster tweaking.
But, part of the battle has already been had. The Falcons let LaFleur go. They didn’t want him leading them forward on offense. If he leads Tennessee to greater heights, and Sark doesn’t improve, the Falcons are going to have to deal with the criticisms that come their way, for they will not be unwarranted.
Sark won’t cost Quinn his job if he doesn’t improve, and by all means, he’s getting far-better reviews from the players than Shanny did after year one. When Julio Jones is defending you, you’re in a good spot. Well, maybe not that good, because with expectations firmly placed on this team being a contender for at least the next year or two, Sark’s going to have to improve, and improve fast, where it counts – scoring. The Falcons can move the ball – it’s about the process to cash the ball in for six or seven points.
It’s not popular to say this, but Sark should be better in 2018. They’re not going to look as uneven as they did in 2017. Progressions will be made. But how far those leaps and bounds go, there’s the focus; that’s the unknown. Not everyone can cut it at Carnegie Hall. Sark’s going to have to prove he’s got what it takes to at least come close to the heightened expectations people have for a once-historic offense.
But, it’s LaFleur, too. You know it’ll be LaFleur. Is he the one they were lucky to avoid, or the one that got away?
Will this LaFleur bloom? If he does, and Sark doesn’t, Quinn and company are going to have to seriously evaluate how they consider offensive coaches in the future. They may only have one more shot to get this right if the Sark experiment doesn’t work out.
In a “what have you done for me lately” league, the Super Bowl berth is nearly a year removed, as is letting LaFleur go. The latter is either going to be not that big of a deal—and maybe even a vindication of the team’s decision-making process—or a pretty bad blot on this era of Falcons football.