Show me a person who, as recently as two months ago, claims they predicted that the Atlanta Falcons would have one of the best offenses in the NFL thanks to offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, and i’ll show you a liar.
It was easy to pan Atlanta’s hiring of Steve Sarkisian as their offensive coordinator prior to the start of the 2017 NFL season.
Three years ago, Sarkisian was fired as head coach of the University of Southern California, after showing up completely inebriated and going on a profanity-laced tirade at a USC boosters club event. His penchant for excessive drinking, if not mixing pain medications with said excessive drinking, was far from a secret to any of his colleagues and/or former players.
Two years ago, Sarkisian was effectively the equivalent of a coaching refugee, serving as an “analyst” (though it was more like Lane Kiffin’s sidekick) on the University of Alabama’s offensive coaching staff. The one game that Sarkisian actually called plays for the Crimson Tide that season — as the interim offensive coordinator — was the lone game that the Tide lost that year.
Last year, after Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn hired Sarkisian to replace Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons fell nine spots in their total offensive DVOA rankings, and saw their scoring average drop by over 11.6 points per game. I had personally had rather unsavory things to say about Sarkisian, equating the dropoff between Shanahan running the offense and Sarkisian running the offense to something being cooked by a prodigious Iron Chef vs. something cooked by Chef Boyardee.
And it looked like we were headed for more of the same in 2018. Matt Ryan threw for a comical 5.84 yards per attempt in Atlanta’s season opener against Philadelphia, the latter of whom we’re realizing doesnt have a very good secondary. Atlanta scored a grand total of three touchdowns in their first two road games. It looked like Sarkisian couldn’t get wide receiver Julio Jones a touchdown reception if his life depended on it (Jones didn’t have a touchdown catch in 14 of Atlanta’s 16 regular season games in 2017).
Fast forward two months later to today, when “Sark” officially went from an offensive coordinator punchline to orchestrating one of the best offensive attacks of 2018.
After trouncing the Washington Redskins this past Sunday, by a final score of 38–14, the Atlanta Falcons have been averaging just under 31 points per game since their Week 1 loss to Philadelphia, and currently have the 6th-best overall offensive DVOA in the NFL right now (including the 4th-best passing offense).
As a die-hard fan of the Redskins, it wasn’t overly surprising to see them get absolutely steamrolled by the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday. In the Jay Gruden era, Washington has a horrible habit of publicly patting themselves on the back and drinking their own Kool-Aid after a big win, only to come out and lay a complete stinkbomb — usually at home — the ensuing week.
Sunday’s performance against Atlanta was indeed the most rancid of stinkbombs, but much of the credit has to be given to the way Atlanta played. The final score was 38–14, but I promise you that the game was even more lopsided than the score would indicate.
Atlanta punted one time on nine offensive drives. ONCE. Seven of their nine offensive drives ended in points, against a (supposedly) good defense. And it wasn’t just the fact that Atlanta moved the ball up and down the field on the Redskins at will (which they did). It’s the fact that they did so in a very creative, thoughtful and well-executed way; considering Washington’s last two games were against the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, it’d been weeks since they had seen a creative, thoughtful and well-executed offense.
Atlanta showed little interest in running it up the gut, and trying to match their weakness (the injury-ravaged interior of their offensive line) with Washington’s strength (their defensive line). Instead, they either pressed the edges on their runs, or used a lot of run-pass options to nullify Washington’s underrated pass rush. In the passing game, they ran a lot of crossing routes over the middle, forcing Washington’s young and depleted secondary into a lot of mental mistakes.they built in a lot of pick plays, which Washington’s defense has been completely helpless against this year. Atlanta went right at Josh Norman, exposing the dirty secret that everyone around DC already knew but wasn’t keen on admitting: Norman isn’t actually that good (and likely being played out of position/against his strengths in this defensive scheme).
Simply summarized: it was a really good offensive gameplan … which is something we would’ve rarely ever attributed to Sarkisian.
To be clear: the Falcons’ performance on offense on Sunday was far from a one-game outlier. Rather, Atlanta’s offense has continued to play better and better this year, despite all the injuries they’ve faced all across the team.
Since Week 3, the Falcons have the most successful red zone passing offense, and since Week 4, they have the most successful red zone rushing offense. Even though their running game hasn’t been very good this year (they’re 22nd in rushing offense DVOA), Atlanta is running the second-most play action passing attempts in the NFL, and averaging 9.7 yards per attempt (4th-best in the NFL) off said attempts.
We tend to think of Matt Ryan as being as exciting as vanilla ice cream, yet Ryan is on to throw the same number of touchdown passes (38), more passing yards yards (5,370), and less interceptions than he did in his MVP season in 2016. We made fun of Sarkisian’s inability to get Jones the ball in the redzone, but Jones is on pace for 1,866 receiving yards this year, which would be the third-highest total in NFL history. After Jones, three other pass-catchers on the Falcons are on pace to have at least 700 yards receiving; that includes rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who’s on pace to have the second-most receiving touchdowns in NFL history.
Because hindsight is 20/20 (or “50/50” if you’re Jon Gruden), we should’ve seen this coming. The Falcons had a bumpy transition to Shanahan’s offense in 2015, with lots of people questioning if it was the right fit for the Falcons’ personnel, and then saw Atlanta put up the 7th-most points by any team in NFL history in year two in Shanahan’s offense. So it shouldn’t be some major shock, at least in theory, that the Falcons would look markedly better with another year in Sarkisian’s offense.
But we were all too busy piling on dirt on Sarkisian’s coaching grave to acknowledge that.
How long this offensive output lasts bears watching. The numbers are eye-popping, but it would be incredibly hard for the Falcons to keep up that pace. Atlanta also suffers from the same issues afflicting dome teams — marked performance drop-off when playing outdoors vs. indoors — and they’ve got three tough road games which will be cold weather scenarios: at Cleveland this Sunday (they’re still 11th in overall defensive DVOA and 2nd in passing defense DVOA),, at Green Bay on December 9th, and then at Carolina on December 23rd (when both teams will likely be fighting for a potential playoff berth).
But given what he’s accomplishing in the Dirty South right now, all of us — present company included — who trashed Sarkisian for his mishaps at his previous stops and his slow start at his present stop all, owe him a collective mea culpa.
I’ll go ahead and start.
My bad, Sark.
Week 10 Picks
Carolina at Pittsburgh (-4)
Washington at Tampa Bay (-3)
Buffalo at NY Jets (-7)
Atlanta (-6) at Cleveland
New Orleans (-5.5) at Cincinnati
New England (-6.5) at Tennessee
Miami at Green Bay (-9.5)
Jacksonville at Indianapolis (-3)
Detroit at Chicago (-6.5)
Arizona at Kansas City (-16.5)
LA Chargers at Oakland (-10)
Seattle at LA Rams (-9.5)
Dallas at Philadelphia (-7)
NY Giants at San Francisco (-3)
Last Week: 8–5
Year To Date: 55–59–4