Depending on how you thought the Falcons season would go, this team is either right were you thought they would be or grossly underachieving. A 3-0 start, including a demolishing of the Packers, halted all talk of a Super Bowl hangover. However, over the past four weeks, far more worrisome problems have been discovered. An immensely talented offense struggling to score against the league’s worst defense, blowing a seventeen point second half lead to the lowly Dolphins, and a trend of undisciplined football have the Falcons sitting at 3-3 and on the outside looking in if the playoffs began today. On paper, getting back into playoff contention is more than manageable, but given the Falcons recent product on the field, that seems more like a fairy tale than reality.
It’s been bad, really bad. Coming into the season, it was hard to pinpoint were exactly the Falcons might struggle in 2017 due to their total domination at the end of last season. And of all the things to worry about: Atlanta’s high-flying offense seemed to be the last of them, even with a new offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, stepping in for Kyle Shanahan. Sarkisian, who has had a ton of success at the college levels, was a somewhat surprising hire, but head coach Dan Quinn seemed adamant he hired the right guy. There were several people around the organization that suggested this offense could be even better than it was in 2016. Unfortunately, the exact opposite has happened, and the Falcons are beginning to experience their worst nightmares.
For whatever the reason, this offense has not been in cohesion all season. Matt Ryan has never seemed comfortable in Sarkisian’s system and the offense has sputtered as a result. Under Shanahan, this offense knew where to attack every defense and how they were going to do it. It was a systematic masterpiece that bulldozed the rest of the league. To this point, Sarkisian has not only failed to reach that level but he has failed to establish any sort of an identity as an offense over the first six games. After leading the league in nearly every offensive category a season ago, Atlanta ranks 16th in scoring this season and those numbers have gone down significantly over their last three contests.
And it may not get better, at least not this season. Kyle Shanahan’s offense experienced similar struggles in his first season as offensive coordinator. The 2015 Falcons busted out to a 5-0 start, but offensive problems stalled the season, as they lost eight of their last eleven games. During that period, the Atlanta offense only scored over 20 points twice and resembled a lot of the same problems that this 2017 offense is experiencing.
The difference though, is that 2015 offense was riddled with injuries across the offensive line. It also did not feature some of the most important pieces in Alex Mack, Mohammed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel that are currently with the team. Some of the 2015 collapse can be blamed on the power struggled between Shanahan and Ryan, but much of it had to do with an overall lack of weapons and injuries. Once those were fixed, Ryan and Shanahan did not have any issues.
Both Julio Jones and Matt Ryan were quick to back up Sarkisian’s offense after their embarrassing performance in last Sunday’s 23-7 loss to the Patriots, claiming that it is not the issue. That echoes head coach Dan Quinn and the general feeling around the locker room. Perhaps they are right, and this cluster of talent is pent up just ready to explode in the second half of the season. This is in fact the NFL, or the any given Sunday league, ridden with parody and unexpectedness. But the signs of the last three weeks, and really the entire season as the Falcons could easily be 1-5 at this point, have become too much to ignore. There is major cause for concern, and it now seems more likely than not that the 2017 NFL Playoffs take place without the Falcons. Once again depending on who you are, that may not come as much of a shock, but few expected this sort of regression from Atlanta’s offense, and the feelings inside that locker room might turn if Atlanta cannot come up with a win on Sunday against the Jets.