Not the greatest call ever.
Photo: Curtis Compton/AJC
Photo: Curtis Compton/AJC

Pay Matt Ryan? Sure. But the Falcons might buy a better OC, too

The Falcons will soon – and again – make Matt Ryan the NFL’s highest-paid player. (They did it once before, you’ll recall.) No argument here. He’s worth it. He’s the franchise. Anything the Falcons can do to make him happy should be done. 

Much of making any quarterback happy isn’t just paying him, though that’s surely a factor. It’s putting him in a position where he can do the stuff that makes him great. It’s giving him receivers, which haven’t been in short supply around here, and an offensive line, which finally arrived with the addition of Alex Mack. It’s also giving him the right offensive coordinator, which is the biggest consideration of all.

Mike Mularkey was the right OC for Ryan the rookie, less so for Ryan the four-year vet. (Mularkey’s last game with the Falcons was the egregious 24-2 playoff loss in the Meadowlands.) Dirk Koetter was good from the start and would be just dandy today; his sin was being part of the staff that was jettisoned when Mike Smith got the gate. Kyle Shanahan looked like the absolute wrong man until he became the greatest OC ever, whereupon he left to be head ball coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Which brings us to Steve Sarkisian.

Sark defenders – I used the plural, though the list could begin and end with Dan Quinn – will point to Shanahan’s first season here as cause to believe Year 2 for his successor will yield similar bliss. This neglects a salient point: Like Mularkey and Koetter before him, Shanahan arrived in Flowery Branch having been an NFL coordinator. We forget this now, but Shanahan helped make Robert Griffin III seem like the real deal, albeit briefly.

Here’s the entirety of what Sarkisian has done as a pro coordinator – inherited one of the NFL’s 10 best offenses ever and rendered it ordinary; inherited the reigning MVP and turned him into a guy who didn’t make the Pro Bowl. We stipulate that the 2017 Falcons technically were eighth-best in total offense, but was that a satisfactory yield for a unit that had said MVP, plus the league’s best receiver and best center, plus its highest-paid running back? (Answer: no.)

Falcons under Shanahan in 2016 – 415.8 yards and 33.8 points per game. Falcons under Sarkisian in 2017 – 364.8 yards and 22.1 points per game. Even when last season’s team made its mini-surge to make the playoffs, its greatest asset wasn’t the right arm of Matt Ryan but the right foot of Matt Bryant. Over the final seven games (playoffs included), the Falcons scored 10 offensive touchdowns – one on a fumble recovery in the end zone – against 18 field goals.

This suggested that the Falcons were good enough to move the ball, which they darn well should have been, but close to clueless when it came to scoring touchdowns. Over those seven games, the Falcons managed 9, 20, 24, 13, 22, 26 and 10 points. That’s an average of 17.7. Over their final seven games (also counting playoffs) under Shanahan, they averaged 37.4 points. That’s not a dip; that’s a Matterhorn nose-dive.

Over his final seven games with Shanahan, Ryan averaged 306.4 yards passing. Over the final seven games last season, he averaged 234.1. The same quarterback with the same guys around him wasn’t nearly the same as he’d been one year earlier. If you’re planning to make a man who’ll turn 33 next month the league’s highest earner, you probably should consider that.

Julio Jones is 29, Mohamed Sanu 28. Alex Mack is 32. Devonta Freeman is 25, coming off a season that saw him suffer two concussions. The Falcons’ window isn’t closed, but this is a sport in which windows slam shut without prior notice. (The Cowboys just released Dez Bryant – who has, granted, other issues – at age 29.) Unless you believe that young talent on defense will coalesce into the Steel Curtain next year or the next, the Falcons’ chances of winning a Super Bowl will rise/fall on the strength of this offense. If not, then why spend so much to keep Ryan? Why not lock up Keanu Neal instead?

That in mind, the question the Falcons should ask is: Have we done everything possible to maximize Matt Ryan? Their answer will surely be “yes,” but the ongoing employment of Sarkisian as OC makes us wonder how serious they are. Quinn admitted after the wretched failure in Philadelphia – no points in the second half, the worst goal-to-go sequence in the history of football – that the transition from Shanahan to Sarkisian hadn’t gone as smoothly as he’d expected. (This was akin to Roberto Goizueta conceding that the rollout of New Coke was a tad bumpy.)

But Sarkisian stayed. Quinn’s lone concession was to add Greg Knapp as quarterbacks coach, which didn’t calm any waters. When last Knapp worked here, he tried to fit Michael Vick into his West Coast offense. Essentially the status has remained quo. The Falcons trust Sarkisian to figure things out. Good luck with that.

Go back to fourth-and-goal in Philadelphia. Seeing the formation, the Eagles cried, “This is it!” (So much for the element of surprise.) Of the five eligible receivers, only three ran pass routes, one being a fullback. It was an awful play call, but Ryan almost made it work. He bought time after seeing Jones fall in the end zone, finally lofting a pass that Jones -- and only Jones -- might have caught had he timed his leap better. This quarterback came very close to turning a total botch into a game-winner.

Come next season, will we see anything different? Will we see an offense that again makes sense, that allows Matty Ice to be, you know, Matty Ice? Or will the whole operation crash under the mishmash of last winter? To pay this quarterback $30 million a year and saddle him with a third-rate OC would be like … well, paying half a billion for a retractable roof that can’t retract. What organization would do that?

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.