Matt Ryan and the Atlanta offense exploded in Kyle Shanahan’s second year as the offensive coordinator. The two seemed to be on a totally different wavelength, thinking two steps before opposing defenses at all times. Matt Ryan was making the right reads and throws, but these receivers were wide open. The zone blocking scheme, implemented by Shanahan, allowed for a much more dynamic running attack that finished 5th in the league last season. No defense proved to be much of a challenge, finishing with the highest point total in the league and the 8th most points scored in league history. But the Falcons offense will be faced with a new, perhaps even tougher challenge this offseason, replacing the man who was pulling all the strings.
The day after the Falcons crushing Super Bowl defeat, Steve Sarkisian was named the new offensive coordinator. Sark has quite the resumé for both good and not so good reasons. He did a tremendous job at USC under Pete Carroll as the quarterbacks coach and eventually became the offensive coordinator, which led to his head coaching career. As a head coach, Sarkisian’s experience was not terrible, except for the way he was let go by USC because of a supposed drinking problem. Sarkisian has addressed the issues, moved on since and was just named the new offensive coordinator at Alabama before taking the job in Atlanta.
Sarkisian visited the Falcons back in training camp when he was not coaching and beginning his new gig as a TV analyst. He had this to say about his first time visiting the Falcons under Dan Quinn, “As soon as I got out on that field with (head coach) Dan Quinn, that staff, I knew this is where I need to be, this is where I want to be. This is what I love doing. Football’s in my blood. I knew right away. Man, I love being around it. I don’t know if I want to be wearing a suit-and-tie sitting in a booth calling a game. I love being on the field.” Those words were said well before Sarkisian knew he was even going to be coaching again, let alone be considered as a candidate for the Falcons offensive coordinator job. However, it has to be encouraging for Atlanta fans knowings there was such an immediate connection between the Quinn and Sarkisian.
That connection seems to be extending far beyond just Quinn, as several Falcons players including Matt Ryan have talked about how smooth the transition has been under Sarkisian.“I’ve really enjoyed working with Steve, with Bush Hamdan, our new quarterbacks coach. Both of those guys have done a great job the first couple of weeks,” Ryan said just a few days ago. Devonta Freeman also talked about how Sarkisian is a real “player’s coach”, who is open to adjust the way things are run to the needs of the players. He listens and takes into account each player’s perspective. With everybody currently loving everybody, nothing could possibly go wrong, right? If only it were that easy.
It was not long ago that Matt Ryan and this Falcons offense was going through a similar transition with Kyle Shanahan. The two will be the first to admit that season was far from the smoothest. The Falcons finished 21st in points per contest and turned the ball over 30 times, leading to one of the worst turnover differentials in the league. The team ultimately collapsed after their 5-0 start because of their offensive miscues and inability to score touchdowns in the red zone.
Both of those areas were cleaned up in the second year of Shanahan’s reign. The Falcons were one of the best at turning their redzone trips into touchdowns and tied the New England Patriots for the least amount of turnovers in the NFL. The offense went from 21st to the best in the league and broke the franchise record for most points in a single-season by 40.
The progression that Matt Ryan was able to make in Shanahan’s second season is what put the Falcons over the top. Teams were constantly guessing, and were very rarely right. The two worked together as if they were sharing the same mind. They lived and died by aggressiveness, which ultimately led to their demise in Super Bowl 51. Much can be said about why the Falcons offense experienced such a grande leap forward, but nobody can deny the role Kyle Shanahan played in making it one of the greatest offenses of all-time.
However, it is hard to attribute the jump from mediocre to GOAT level in one season to just growth under Shanahan. Prior to the 2016 season, Atlanta did add some key pieces to it’s offense. Pro-Bowl center Alex Mack signed a long-term deal with the team and graded out as the second best center in all of football according to PFF. Taylor Gabriel and Mohammed Sanu also added a couple more dangerous weapons for Matt Ryan to target, and Tevin Coleman bounced back healthy after an injury plagued rookie campaign. The offense was also able to stay remarkably healthy throughout the season. The offensive line played nearly every snap together, and not a single skill player missed significant time with an injury.
Steve Sarkisian will have giant shoes to fill, but this transition is going be much different than what the offense went through with Shanahan. When Shanahan was named offensive cooridinator, things were not running as smoothly as they are now. The Falcons offense had been subpar, and Shanahan was implementing a totally different gameplan than before. Matt Ryan and the rest of the Falcons had to sit back and learn. This time, it will be a little bit of a role reversal.
The Falcons offense will feature a lot of the same things it did last year. “The system is pretty much the same as it was before, which is good,” Ryan said. “You know we’ve got a lot of guys on our team who are back, who have a lot of experience in this system, who understand the rules, the scheme, the terminology really, really well.” The early part of the offseason has not been about the Falcons offense learning new stuff, but rather Steve Sarkisian learning more about what the offense was doing last year.
It is fantastic to see Steve Sarkisian really click with Dan Quinn, the players, and the rest of the brotherhood. But Sarkisian’s success is not going to to be determined on whether everyone in the locker room likes him. It is going to hinge on the moments where everything is not going right. When the team is not in the groove; if injuries take place, Sarkisian is going to be the one that has to make the right decisions going forward. Right now, the Falcons offense is built for success. Sarkisian is in the perfect position for success and it would be shocking to see him try to change much after last season. However, the Falcons are not going to have the the same sort luck they did with injuries last season. They are facing an incredibly tough schedule and are going to have some gut-check moments. Those are the spots Sarkisian must excel in for this team to be not only just as good as it was under Shanahan, but better.