The season essentially ended on the 2-yard line in Philadelphia after some questionable play calling in the divisional round of the playoffs. While fans, Twitter general managers and sports talk radio hosts screamed for Sarkisian to be fired, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn stood by his man.
To name a few issues:
* The offense averaged 33.8 points per game under coordinator Kyle Shanahan in 2016 and dropped to 22.1 last season, nearly out of the top half of the league.
* The Falcons fell off drastically inside the opposition’s 20-yard line, the red zone. They had a 64.5 percent success rate in 2016, which ranked eighth in the NFL. Under Sarkisian, they were at 49.1 percent and ranked 23rd.
* The Falcons had 19 explosive-play touchdowns from outside of the red zone in 2016, but only seven last season.
“At the end of the day it was executing in the red area,” Sarkisian said on Wednesday, the last day of Organized Team Activities. “When you get those opportunities, seven points is a big difference than three points. It’s not really a big difference in the overall stat and where you rank, but it’s a big difference in-game and how games go. That’s a big focus for us.”
In addition to improving in the red zone, the Falcons want to score more on their big-gain plays.
“We were third in the league in explosive plays,” Sarkisian said. “But we were in the middle of the pack in the league of touchdowns of 25 yards or more. We have to find a way to turn those explosive plays into touchdown explosive plays. Those two things will be a big factor for us.”
The Falcons selected wide receiver Calvin Ridley in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft to replace Taylor Gabriel. They are counting on Ridley, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds, to provide some of that big-play scoring punch.
Sarkisian, who hadn’t spoke to the media since the week before the playoff game against the Eagles, admitted there were other issues that led to the lack of continuity on offense last season.
“There’s a lot there,” Sarkisian said. “There’s scheme. There’s play-calling. There’s execution. There’s continuity. There are a host of areas where we have to focus on and try to improve upon.”
Sarkisian has to pull it all together in 2018.
“Continuity is one of those things, but at the end of the day the end result is the end result,” Sarkisian said. “To be good in this league, you want to score points. It’s not always about the yards or the third-down conversions or the explosive plays, it’s the final score that is the final stat that matters the most. We need to do our part to make that factor go up.”
Sarkisian believes that working with quarterback Matt Ryan for a second season will provide growth.
“There is a huge trust factor,” Sarkisian said. “It’s Matt trusting the information that he’s getting. With (new quarterbacks coach) Greg Knapp walking in the room, there’s instant credibility with Matt. He’s done it.”
Sarkisian said he has no problem leaning on Knapp, a former offensive coordinator in the league and with the Falcons.
“Philosophically, Greg and I are very, very similar, if not identical to how we view the game,” Sarkisian said. “Greg being an extension of me through Matt is very consistent for Matt. He’s hearing the same thing whether if it’s from two different people. It reinforces a lot of things we talk about.”
Sarkisian is not fretting that All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones is not with the team. He’s looking forward to having Jones for training camp. Jones did not attend any of the OTAs.
“This time last year he was in a boot,” Sarkisian said. “He didn’t really get going until halfway through training camp last year.”
Jones was an unknown going into the season for Sarkisian because he ran just a handful of plays in the exhibition season.
“I didn’t really know Julio quite yet,” Sarkisian said. “He only played three or four plays in the offense. For us as an offense, him being healthy going into training camp is going to be awesome for everybody. Also, having my experience with him for a year of just understanding him more and the type of player that he is, adds to that comfort level that I was talking about.”
Knapp is being reunited with Falcons backup quarterback Matt Schaub and is looking forward to assisting Sarkisian.
“I call Matt Schaub my football son,” Knapp said. “I was with him back in ‘04 here and we got together in Houston through those years we developed a strong relationship.”
Knapp, who was the offensive coordinator under Jim Mora is his previous stint with the Falcons, knows the pressure that Sarkisian is under.
“We live in a fish bowl,” Knapp said. “You guys are assessing everything that we do. There’s a need for a bit of a trust factor built in between coaches and coaches and players.
“You are going to have tough times during the season when there are setbacks. You want to have the ability to lean on another person knowing that ‘OK, I’m taking some hits right now, but I know the guy next to me is going to help me through these tough times.’”
Sarkisian believes Knapp was an excellent addition to the staff.
“He just has a wealth of experience,” Sarkisian said. “He’s been doing it a long time. He’s coached a lot of great players. He’s coached a lot of great quarterbacks when you are talking about Steve Young and Peyton Manning, there’s instant respect when you walk into that quarterback room with Matt Ryan.”
Sarkisian said the addition of Knapp will allow him to focus on the big picture of the offense.
“It takes a little bit off (my plate),” Sarkisian said. “I know when Greg goes into that quarterback room, what is getting taught is exactly what needs to get taught from week-in to week-out, from game to game. I can continue to stay focused on the big picture of all 11 players per snap. There’s a huge value in it.”
Knapp will be consulted on the game plan and in-game for help calling plays.
“Without a doubt,” Sarkisian said. “He’s just got a wealth of experience. With experience comes knowledge. I’d be remiss not to lean on Greg in our game-planning and even in-game with some of the adjustments that need to be made.”
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