Dan Quinn miscalculated a ‘seamless’ transition to Steve Sarkisian

Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and head coach Dan Quinn confer on the sidelines against the Packers in a NFL football game on Sunday, September 17, 2017, in Atlanta.    Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

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Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and head coach Dan Quinn confer on the sidelines against the Packers in a NFL football game on Sunday, September 17, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

The Falcons underachieved this season. It’s important to begin with that reality because the franchise’s two heads of football operations, while conveying the appropriate amount of disappointment and frustration Thursday, apparently are struggling for a palatable verb to describe the premature end to the Falcons’ season.

Quoting general manager Thomas Dimitroff: “Dan and I coined a term the other day. I don’t think in any way we underachieved. This team played their ass off. The term we coined was we under-executed. Not underachieved.”

Here are two more words: alternative facts.

I’m not sure it’s physically possible to “under-execute” without underachieving. The mere term “under-execute” suggests falling short of one’s own expectations and, therefore, underachievement.

When a football team loses to a playoff opponent that is missing its starting quarterback, it has underachieved. When a team scores 187 fewer points than it did the season before with mostly the same roster and same scheme, it has underachieved. When a team goes from a plus-11 to a minus-2 in turnover differential and ninth to 23rd in red-zone percentage, it has underachieved.

And under-executed.

And underwhelmed.

Now it’s about fixing the problems. Falcons coach Dan Quinn is willing to take the bullet. He’s more than aware that offensive coordinator Steve Sarskisian is under fire for the offense rolling downhill in 2017, culminating in a 15-10 divisional playoff loss at Philadelphia. He doesn’t regret bringing in Sarkisian as Kyle Shanahan’s replacement as offensive coordinator, and he correctly points out this isn’t all that dissimilar to the noise heard when Shanahan and the offense struggled in 2015.

“We’ve done this dance before,” he said. “A number of people wanted his head.

Quinn said, he has “no issue with making changes. No problem with that. But I have no interest in making a change just for making a change.”

It’s on everybody. Sarkisian for some play-calls. Receivers for leading the NFL in drops. Linemen for missing blocks.

But, in the end, it’s mostly on Quinn. Because if the Falcons’ offense isn’t more productive in 2018, if the team can’t rebound and perform at a level most have come to expect, Quinn will catch the most flak.

It was Quinn who, like most in the Falcons’ organization, believed the transition from Shanahan to Quinn would be…

“… seamless,” he acknowledged Thursday, finishing my question.

He has proved to be a very good head coach. He has the respect and admiration of players. But he was wrong about the smooth transition from Shanahan to Sarkisian. It has taken longer and encountered more bumps than anticipated.

“For sure, it was hard,” he said. “It wasn’t just Kyle (who left). It was the quarterback coach, the running backs coach. Heading in, I thought (Sarkisian) was a really good coach. I was really firm in making sure the system was the system. I thought it was really important for the players. But it was challenging. That’s not to say he didn’t grasp it. But it was harder than I thought.”

Has he lost confidence in Sarkisian? No. But he second-guesses himself somewhat for being so married to last year’s blueprint, while also underestimating the time it would take for Sarkisian to become familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of individual players in specific situations.

“Looking back, how could I have helped support that transition better?” he said. “That’s a big part of my offseason (self-evaluation). I’m learning.”

Sarkisian, he suggested, will be better in his second season.

“Another year on how to feature guys. Some of that trust doesn’t happen overnight. You gave to really understand what nuances a guy has. This player for this play.”

All that said, the Falcons should have beaten Philadelphia. It should not have come down to the last series, which fizzled after a first down from the 9-yard line. The oft-dissected fourth-down call -- a sprint-out, fourth-down pass to Julio Jones in the end zone -- wasn’t the worst call in creation, despite the dumpster fire on Twitter.

It’s a play the Falcons frequently scored on. It’s the play Joe Montana threw to Dwight Clark for in the 1981 NFC title game (”The Catch”). It’s a play that would’ve worked if Jones didn’t fall down/get pushed, and still almost worked. Jones, his rhythm off after the fall, got back up and leaped, but the ball went through his hands.

The one truly awful call was the second-down shovel pass attempted for Terron Ward from the 2-yard line.

Quinn initially said he didn’t have a problem with the four play-calls, but he later expressed some regret about the second-down decision. The Falcons believed Philadelphia would read Ward as a pass blocker and ignore him as a receiver, allowing him to sneak behind the pass rush undetected. But the Eagles didn’t bite.

Sometimes you can out-think yourself. Putting the game in the hands of the No. 3 running back is not the way to go.

“When you look back, you make a thousand calls and some work, some don’t,” Quinn said. “That’s one that didn’t work.”

There were other problems this season. The Falcons’ red-zone efficiency fell from 64.6 percent to 49.2. Julio Jones was targeted 22 times in the red zone, but caught only six.

Here’s another one few talk about: Taylor Gabriel has roughly the same number of targets and catches as a year ago, but he dropped from six touchdowns to one. He was Mr. Explosive a year ago, with touchdowns of 47, 76, 35, 25, 64 and 9 yards.

Maybe that’s on Gabriel. Maybe that’s on play-calls. There’s enough blame to go around on most subjects. But if the Falcons want to get back to an elite level, they’ll need to get better on the offensive line and fullback, and they’ll need improvement from at least two coaches.

Sark calls plays. But Quinn needs to step in if he believes something is amiss. We cite the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl as an example.

It’s his job. It’s his team.

“Every year there’s more room for me to grow,” he said.

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