These are not normal times for a football team. The quarterback is entering his third season in the offense and coming off an MVP season. The offensive coordinator is the newbie, which suggests his initial objective is not to coordinate but to blend.
“I really tried to come in with a I’m-going-to-see-how-they-did-it mentality,” Steve Sarkisian, the Falcons’ new offensive coordinator, said Tuesday. “How do they run the football, how do they play-pass, how are the two are married together? How do they utilize their weapons and personnel groupings? And I had a lot of, ‘Whys.’”
This is how intent the Falcons have been on prepping Sarkisian for this season and helping him develop chemistry with quarterback Matt Ryan: He has worn a headset for practices and is calling many of the plays on the spot, a departure from the usual scripted practices of training camp and the preseason.
“It's intentional," he said. "It’s been good for me, and it’s been good for (new defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel), too, getting put in different situations. Everybody has the same playbook but different plays get called at different times, depending on the personality of the play-caller.”
Sarkisian and Ryan appear to be a match personality-wise. They’re a better early fit than Ryan was with former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who, while an incredibly talented play-caller, sometimes bordered on obstinate, particularly in his first season.
Sarkisian has a history of seeking input from players. Ryan has a recent history of success in this offense. For those two reasons, expect Ryan to have a bit more latitude than in the past.
When asked if Ryan will have more freedom this season, coach Dan Quinn said, “His freedom will be in the input." That's in game-planning, early-game script and just in general for what he feels comfortable calling, based on his experiences of the past two seasons.
At the outset in 2015, the Falcons' offense was known as Shanahan’s offense. In 2017, it's closer to Ryan’s offense. It doesn’t mean he’ll be calling plays other than in the no-huddle offense, nor does it mean his empowerment is without reasonable limit.
Sarkisian: “If Matt came in and said he met with Paul Johnson and wanted to run the triple option, I’d probably say, ‘Not a great idea.’ Somewhere in there a line gets drawn. But our job as coaches is to put players in the best position to be successful.”
Sarkisian is a proven offensive coach. He excelled at USC and Washington and with the Oakland Raiders and for a short tenure with Alabama. It's why Nick Saban wanted to keep him and Quinn wanted to steal him. Quinn believed Sark and Ryan would mesh well.
“The quarterback has to feel comfortable with what we’re doing,” Sarkisian said. “It’d be wrong for me to just say, ‘This is what we’re running, like it or not.’ I like the interaction, and I like us to have enough of a relationship for him to say, ‘You know what, Sark? I don’t like this.’ I’d much rather him tell me that on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday than have it go wrong on Sunday and him saying, ‘I didn’t like that play anyway.’
"These guys have played a lot of football. I would be remiss not to use the expertise that they have.”
In the Falcons’ scheme, Ryan generally has two options for every play. Second options at the line of scrimmage are called “cans.” They hinge on Ryan’s presnap read of the defense. Audibles are limited by the personnel groupings.
“We spend a lot of time in our system on the 'cans,' so we can get the premier look for a play,” Quinn said.
When comparing his relationship with Sarkisian to Shanahan, Ryan said he “probably had more input than people would’ve thought” the past two years under Shanahan.
But, “You come a long way. The more you work with somebody, the more trusting you become. Obviously our success was a lot better in the second year so everybody thinks (communication) was a lot better.”
But it was, right?
“Sure, it was smoother.”
Ryan and Sarkisian have game-planned only once, for the third exhibition against Arizona. But he likes the early feel he’s getting from his new coordinator.
“Everybody has a little bit different personality as a coordinator,” he said. “We’ve always had a lot of freedom in terms of being able to ‘can’ out of certain plays.”
He said the preseason has been different with Sarkisian “being on the headset the entire time. But it’s my third year and it’s his first. So the more you can become familiar with it the more it becomes second nature.”
Sarkisian said he will call plays from the field, not the press box. He prefers the interactions and It's easier for him to discuss things with Ryan between series.
What happens if he sends in a play that Ryan doesn’t like?
“There shouldn’t be a play in a game plan that he absolutely hates,” Sarkisian said. “That’s what the dialogue should be about all week. He should almost be able to anticipate scenarios and what the call’s going to be, rather than, ‘What the heck is this?'"
The Falcons are seeking a seamless transition.
More on Sarkisian: Steve Sarkisian is back after his awakening moment
It's contest time: Weekend Predictions (sound check): 'Sack Schultz 2017' now open!
Subscribe to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast with the AJC's Jeff Schultz and WSB’s Zach Klein on iTunes. Episodes also can be downloaded from on-demand link on WSBRadio.com.
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