Happy (almost) New Year! Here comes a new coaching staff.
The Falcons wasted little time making moves after their lackluster 7-9 season, and the moves themselves were doozies. Atlanta took the expected steps of cleaning out offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and surprised most of us a little by also firing longtime special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong. It’s a clean sweep, and an opportunity for Atlanta to reinvent itself a bit after a moribund 2018.
We’ll be talking about this a lot in the coming weeks, but for the moment, I just wanted to take a step back and look at why each of these moves were made, and why Dan Quinn has installed himself as the defensive coordinator.
For Sark, it was simply this: The offense never looked like the 2016 juggernaut it did under Kyle Shanahan, and for very long stretches of two consecutive seasons, it looked downright anemic. A coordinator can survive that if he has middling personnel, but not if he’s following a historically great offense and has one of the best collections of skill position players in the entire NFL.
There were mitigating factors, especially early on in the year, when the offensive line was downright putrid and Matt Ryan was getting killed behind it. There were dropped passes and bad holding calls and tap dancing running backs and injuries conspiring to turn a potentially great offense into a lesser one, and in light of that, you could have forgiven the Falcons for giving Sark another chance. But they promised to evaluate the whole season, which means they saw the way Sark couldn’t gin up protection for Ryan or get anything going during that awful five game losing streak, and perhaps most fatally, they saw Matt Ryan and Julio Jones put together two of the best campaigns in franchise history and come up with nothing to show for it. The Falcons are in it to win it now, and they were not going to take the chance that this is as good as it was ever going to be under Sarkisian.
Should the Falcons have ever hired Sarkisian in the first place? The answer at the time was somewhere between “no” and “let’s wait and see,” and it’s tipped toward no now. Sark was always going to have some struggles in his transition to the NFL, and the offense was still pretty damn good with him at the helm. If this is all it took for him to get fired—and I’m not saying it was without cause—then it was a big mistake. That mistake, of course, is entirely on Dan Quinn.
The next coordinator, whether it’s Gary Kubiak or Darrell Bevell or a name we haven’t heard yet, will be tasked with getting much more out of this unit. The Falcons have the talent to be a top three offense, not just top ten, and they’ll want to show it right away.
Manuel was axed for the same reason as Sark: Disappointment in the face of expectations. The Falcons’ defense was a top-tier unit in terms of scoring in 2017, but wasn’t anywhere close to one in other facets. Coming into 2018, the Falcons had some holes but were widely expected to be a top 15 defense, at the very least, and never got anywhere close to that.
Again, mitigating factors come into play here. Manuel couldn’t have foreseen or entirely papered over the loss of Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen, plus Grady Jarrett for a bit. He can’t make Desmond Trufant catch passes or get Robert Alford to take better angles or ask Vic Beasley to suddenly develop new pass rushing moves. But he is tasked with the unit’s growth and making the best of a bad situation, and with a handful of exceptions, Manuel was not able to do so.
The pass rush stagnated until late in the year, the team trotted out struggling personnel for multiple weeks when there were ready-made (if not exactly elite) alternatives, and the lasting image of this season is probably the feckless Falcons defense almost losing their last game more or less by themselves. That’s not survivable for a coordinator with a defensive-minded head coach who has to show some sort of growth for his specialty eventually or risk being fired himself.
That’s why Quinn took over, as well. There were some subtle signs that Quinn and Manuel were not seeing eye-to-eye on everything happening with the defense, especially in Manuel’s defiant late season comments, but the bigger picture is that the Falcons keep adding real talent to the defense and keep falling short. The only time they’ve looked legitimately good for a sustained stretch was when Quinn actually took over playcalling back in 2016, and so he’ll stake his job and his reputation on doing so again heading into 2019. He’s gotten the results before with Seattle and briefly with Atlanta, and frankly there was no hire he could have made that would have made me feel better about the defense than this one. We’ll get to see what Quinn really wants to do with this defense with absolutely no one between him and actually calling it, and if he falters, Arthur Blank will have a tailor-made reason to move on.
A little bit of a surprise here. Armstrong has been the special teams coordinator since 2008 and was widely respected for the work, having worked alongside Matt Bryant and Matt Bosher and enjoying consistently solid special teams units throughout most of the early years of his tenure. Things had changed of late, however, and Armstrong’s job status was the source of much discussion for the last three offseason running.
What doomed him this time? Besides the urge to start fresh, I suspect it was the return game. The Falcons poured a fair number of resources into special teams this offseason, drafting Russell Gage and adding pieces like Justin Bethel, and the coverage unit did actually improve as a result. But it still wasn’t one of the league’s elite units, and the Falcons had to watch Justin Hardy in particular and Marvin Hall to a lesser extent consistently putting together some of the worst returns in the NFL while Andre Roberts went to the Jets and earned a Pro Bowl nod for his return work. Returns are not as important as they once were, but it’s still pretty galling to watch, and the Falcons haven’t had good returners and results for years.
Just getting a new message and a fresh perspective into the building might make a difference for Atlanta here, and one suspects that’s what the Falcons were looking for. They have two potential kicking solutions in the building for next year, a physical punter in Matt Bosher, and a core of useful pieces to bring into next season, and they’ll let someone else attempt to mold them. I’m genuinely fond of Armstrong and wish him well, but he shouldn’t lack for suitors in the open market.
The Falcons have to go out and hire an offensive coordinator and promote or hire a special teams coordinator, and I still think they’re liable to take a look at the front office for changes. With the right hires, they should be able to improve on their 2018 results, especially with good players returning healthy and an offseason geared toward improving the trenches, and Quinn will get to own this defense for a full season and put his stamp on it. Nothing ever works quite the way we want it to, but whether the Falcons made these moves out of desperation or a genuine belief that they could do much better, they have the opportunity to move the franchise forward.
Go get Gary Kubiak, please.