Falcons: Is there any saving Steve Sarkisian’s job?

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Rumors are aplenty surrounding the Atlanta Falcons coaching staff after what has been a disaster of a season from start to finish. The defense never found an identity, and it did not take long for the offense to revert to their same 2017 ways that cost them another opportunity at a Super Bowl. So it is far from a shock that reports are indicating major coaching changes coming on both sides of the ball as the calendar turns to 2019, including both coordinators.

On Wednesday, Dan Quinn acknowledged such rumors remaining adamant that he would consider all things once the season is over.

“A couple of weeks ago, I told you I would evaluate things at the end of the season and look at the whole body of work – players, coaches, everything – and that has not changed,” Quinn said.

While Quinn is hesitant to throw anyone under the bus – as he should be – there’s no hiding the fact that significant changes are going to take place around the organization as a whole after a season that saw the Falcons never go above .500 when they were believed to be Super Bowl contenders. Perhaps, Marquand Manuel, who has been integral in building the Falcons young defensive core, could save his job. He was handed a raw deal from the start with three defensive starters hitting IR in the first three weeks of the season. But is there any chance Steve Sarkisian could do anything over these next two weeks to stick around for one more year.

I would say the odds are slim to none. Teams with this much talent don’t get away with going 4-9 and losing five straight critical games – not without a lot of casualties in the offseason, at least. And of the entire organization, few have been less convincing while doing their job than Sark.

Offensive Drop Off

Let’s compare the stats of the Falcons in 2016 and the two seasons since under Steve Sarkisian:

Falcons 2016

Points per game: 33.8

Yards per game: 415.8

Yards per play: 6.7

Rush Yards per game: 120.5

Falcons 2017-2018

Points per game: 23.2

Yards per game: 370.4

Yards per play: 5.85

Rush Yards per game: 98.3

 

There are some obvious glaring differences. Most importantly in points per game, where Sarkisian is averaging ten points less over his tenure than the Falcons scored in 2016. The Falcons have also struggled to find their running game on a week-to-week basis ever since Sark arrived.

But it’s not like all has been bad. Atlanta is still averaging close to 400 yards of offense per game. Matt Ryan is completing his passes at nearly a 70% clip. Julio Jones is leading the league in receiving by quite a large margin. And the Falcons offense is in the top-5 in third-down conversion rate.

The problem is those individual accomplishments haven’t resulted in points, and more importantly, they haven’t resulted in wins. The coaching staff is going to be evaluated based on what they failed to do, and for Sarkisian, that begins in the red zone.

Red Zone Failures

We can go over the red zone stats all we want and trust me, they are far from pretty. The Falcons ranked in the bottom third in terms of red zone efficiency, and while they were better early this year, they have been an utter mess the second half of the season. But I would instead take a look at this from a pure eye test perspective.

How about Sarkisian’s infamous jet sweep to Taylor Gabriel on the goal line against the Patriots last season.

It was a hopeless play that fooled no one, especially the Patriots. Or how about the last two times the Falcons played the Eagles. Both games came down to the final possession with the Falcons needing a touchdown to win, and Sark looked clueless.

I’ll show you the last one, and a forewarning, it still makes me cringe.

Yes, this man Sarkisian really ran four verticals three times in a row to end a regular season NFL game on national television like he was playing his son in Madden.

Sark did experience better success in the red zone to begin this season. The Falcons scored eleven straight touchdowns in the red zone from weeks two through four. However, on the year they have faded back towards the middle of the pack and are only converting at a 50% rate away from home.

Lack of a Running Game

A large part of Atlanta’s red zone failures breeds from their inability to run the ball when they need to. In the same game we saw Sarkisian run four verts three straight times, the Falcons failed on a fourth-down attempt at the goal line in the first quarter. That time, Sark trusted his offensive line, calling a stretch play to Devonta Freeman. It went for a loss, and that’s been the story of the running game since Sarkisian arrived.

Kyle Shanahan brought the famous zone blocking scheme to Atlanta. While it didn’t immediately take off in his first year, by the second, the Falcons had one of the most efficient rushing offenses in the league.

In Sark’s first year, the Falcons plan was for him to try to adjust to the same concepts they had in place under Shanahan. That’s a key reason as to why Dan Quinn hired him; his belief that he would be able to mimic the existing offense. As we know now, that was not the case, which led to to the Falcons attempting to adopt more of his style coming into this season.

Not that it’s led to much of a difference. The Falcons go-to run play remains the half-back toss – a play that has worked a total of three times (maybe). Atlanta currently ranks 31st in the NFL in rushing, and regardless how reliable the passing game is, it is almost impossible to win games that way. The offensive line has not helped Sarkisian out much, but that is typically not an excuse that will save a coordinator’s job.

So What Are The Odds?

If I’m honest, there is less than a 20% chance Sarkisian is back with the team next year, and it is probably a decision Dan Quinn has already decided at this point. Despite what he says to the media, he’s been evaluating everything on a week-by-week basis. That’s what “tell the truth Monday” is all about. Quinn has noticed the lack of progression from last year to this one, and more critically, the regression Atlanta’s offense has gone through in the season’s second half. Perhaps had he addressed these rumors on a Monday his tone would have sounded slightly different. If Sarkisian is to be fired, there is nothing he can do over these last two games to save his job.

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